Ninja Gaiden 3. Say it with me. It stands to reason that excitement would follow that statement. The first two games are still considered some of the best action experiences ever conceived, yet here I stand with a paltry score and disappointment across my face. Ninja Gaiden 3. I said it again and yet I still fail to muster up a smile. Team Ninja’s latest effort feels less like the series we have come to know and love and more like an attempt to cater to a different audience. Ninja Gaiden 3. How the mighty have fallen.
Now, I am not going to sit here and preach the superiority of previous Ninja Gaiden narratives. They have all been profoundly stupid, in both plot and execution. NG3 continues that with style, or lack thereof, and even tosses in boss characters for no apparent reason. The plot thinly follows Ryu Hayabusa and his struggle with his murderous ways. His arm is cursed; apparently the Dragon Sword is inside of it, and slowly taking over his body like a pack of bloodworms.
Eventually, you return to your village, fight some crazy giant witch lady and even manage to smash some bugs, all of which makes no sense. The game struggles to keep one coherent thought most of the time. There is an overarching love interest and Ryu caring for a small child (I did enjoy the carrying sequence, nice touch), but for the most part this game is a mess of ideas that really don’t know what they are trying to convey. I am all about insane Japanese storytelling (Bayonetta is ludicrous brilliance) but this is flat out confusing.
The main game is broken down into a series of days that basically give reason to travel to new locales and change up the scenery. Unfortunately, the game forgets to vary the enemy variety until about half way through the game, so once you sliced through your 1,000th soldier, you finally get back to fighting ninjas, or ominous monsters, that is until the game throws you right back to fighting ridiculous amounts of the same soldiers. The boss fights are, as always, massive in scale. I really enjoyed these, for the most part, outside of their irrelevance to the plot. What I did not enjoy, though, were the excessive amounts of contextual button presses.
Quick time events, you love them or you agonize over them. Well, Ninja Gaiden 3 has enough of them to make you go insane. The worst offender, by far, is the climbing. Either up a wall or across a rope, you use the triggers as your hands to move. At first, it is cool; a unique approach to climbing. That is, until you are doing it for the hundredth time, and one false move sends you plummeting to your death. These contextual button presses also pour over into the boss battles and cut scenes. The game slows down to a snail’s pace before most giving you ample time to perform, but most of it feels unnecessary and extremely repetitive.
Probably the biggest offender to NG3, though, is its combat. The series is known for its brutal difficulty and surgically precise control scheme. Well the third game throws most of that out the window in favor of a more accessible, button mashing affair. Combos are not nearly as important this time around; in fact, you can get away with simply mashing the two attacks over and over for the majority of the game. There is some challenge here, but you can tell it was dialed back in favor of allowing players to simply mash as opposed to learning the combos.
The new Hero Mode is also designed for newcomers to the series. It basically gives you infinite blocking and assisted dodging when your health gets dangerously low. I actually like that idea, as it gives players not as dedicated a chance to actually finish the game. It is a shame that without it, the combat system is truly a mess. The attacks don’t feel nearly as fluid as the previous games. The ballet of blocking and knowing precisely when to strike is mostly gone, while dodging into slick combos is now a matter of luck more than skill. I never felt truly badass or accomplished when performing any of Ryu’s combat repertoire. Instead, I quickly grew tired of the repeating enemies and constant button mashing.
The bright spots come from the steel to bone attacks that have you sawing through cartilage in gruesome ways. It is a shame that dismemberment has been removed. The satisfaction that comes from it has been replaced with ample amounts of blood. In fact, it is almost ridiculous how much of it is splattered across the screen. Another sore spot is the lack of weapons and magic. You basically get your sword (which does change a few times throughout the story), your bow, shurikens and one magic spell. That is it; nothing to upgrade, no new weapons to master and nothing to collect. The game really does give you no reason to revisit it outside of the online mode.
Speaking of which, NG3 offers multiplayer in both competitive and cooperative varieties. Sadly, neither of them are even worth your time. The deathmatch mode is pretty straightforward pitting ninjas against each other in a battle, none of which last that long or are as exciting as they sound. The coop mode lets you perform such exciting endeavors as mashing buttons or tossing shurikens. Sadly even the customization is truly lacking, giving you even less reason to keep coming back. NG3 is a host of good ideas poorly executed.
Visually, the game sticks to the standard affair, but feeling much less empty and bland than previous efforts. I also want to note that during a driving sequence in the last level, the game glitched horribly, causing me to lose track of enemies as I appeared to be completely outside of the level. None of the levels ever felt unique or inspired, and instead, felt like they had been ripped out of the “how to” book of game design. Did I mention the enemy designs? Oh yeah, they were great, all three of them. I could spend some time talking about the voice acting, but seeing as they didn’t bother working too hard on it, why should I?
Ninja Gaiden 3 is a disappointing affair that simply does not live up to the expectations of its fans. Casual action gamers may find enough here to warrant a play, but even at that, the short campaign and lack of extras really drag down its value. The useless online mode doesn’t help matters, and the convoluted story isn’t even worth trying to follow. While playing through the game I never felt excited to move forward, and the game never forced me to change how I was playing. This leads to boredom quickly, and even at seven hours, the campaign felt ridiculously long. Fans of the series should definitely wait for a decent-sized price drop. Let’s hope Dead or Alive 5 turns out better than this mess.
Review copy of game provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.