I'll admit to feeling a little nervous when I sat down recently to sample Team Ninja's latest adventure for Ryu Hayabusa in Ninja Gaiden 3, coming to Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on March 20. It would be my first time seeing the game outside of trailers, but I'd heard some not so complimentary things about it from some of my colleagues in the press.
It quickly became apparent that those worries were unfounded. After playing through the entire first chapter and watching some additional gameplay from the second chapter, I walked away with the sense that we have a superior third-person action game headed our way next month, one that seems to build on the ideas laid out when the series first made the switch to a 3D world way back in 2004.
The story opens on a foggy London evening with Ryu perched atop Big Ben, thinking back over the series of events that led him to this moment. A flashback reveals that he's come to the UK in search of a terrorist group that staged an attack with seemingly one purpose in mind: getting the master ninja's attention.
The flashback ends and Ryu takes a flying leap off of the enormous clock tower, soaring down toward the street--and the hapless enemy standing in a pool of light--below. The action slows to a crawl as a command prompt appears on the screen, one of many that will appear as I continue through the demo. I don't want to call any of them QTEs, since the disruption is often brief and leads immediately back into fully controllable action. That's essentially what they are though.
In this case, your button press prompts Ryu to perform a magnificently bloody execution as he uses the enemy's body to slow his ascent and land safely. More gun-toting soldiers come out of the woodwork and a proper battle begins. This is the very beginning of the game, and Ninja Gaiden 3 wastes no time in dropping Ryu into combat.
The controls should feel immediately familiar to fans of the series, though the systems have been tweaked somewhat. Ryu's heavy attack can still be charged up, but there's no more essence to collect or absorb. Instead, you'll occasionally notice that his sword arm is glowing red; execute a charge attack at that point to deliver an unbreakable multi-hit combo that will immediately tear most enemies to shreds. These are Ultimate Technique attacks, and they depend on filling Ryu's Ki meter. You'll want to be careful about using it, however, as any remaining Ki in Ryu's bar after a fight ends will go toward refilling his health.
The encounter ends with a playable cutscene in which the one remaining enemy tosses away his weapon and pleads for his life. Ryu advances slowly at your command, with the camera positioned at a low angle just behind him and to his right. The only choice you're given here is when to strike. Keep pressing forward and the doomed man will eventually find himself cornered against a crash semi. At that point, you'll have no choice but to end him.
Moments like these are apparently scattered throughout the game, and they're meant to highlight the "Japanese dark hero" element to the story that Team Ninja discussed when NG3 was first announced. You're supposed to get a sense of what Ryu must go through behind his mask, being a man who is also trained to be a ruthless, dispassionate killer.
I can't say the early scene described above really captures that to its fullest, but it's a jarring sequence in a world where we increasingly see games filled with choices to be made. Instead, this NG3 moment presented me with a sequence which creates the illusion of choice before driving home the fact that you actually have no choice: the man before you must die, even if you the player are swayed by his pleas.
Combat also feels quite a bit different than it did in the two previous games. The most immediate change that you'll notice: dismemberments are no more. This ties to the game's more reality-oriented overall approach. No matter how sharp a katana blade might be, it's not going to slice cleanly through bone.
Deal out enough damage to a particular enemy during combat and a button prompt will pop up on screen as the camera tightens its focus on Ryu and whoever he's attacking. Pressing the button triggers a brief sequence in which you watch as the ninja really works his blade through his attacker's innards. It's a much less comical take on the gore than swiftly removed heads, and the way it's presented definitely speaks to what Team Ninja's stated goals are.
The action continues along a fairly linear path through chapter one until Ryu reaches a miniboss, realized as a giant robot spider/tank thing. The goal is to attack its rear legs while steering clear of the front and frequently dodge-rolling away from the tank's area attacks. It's challenging, but the attack patterns are easily learned. It's hard to say if this new game feels easier or if I'm just more accustomed now to the unique demands of a Ninja Gaiden game. Probably a little bit of both.
Another sequence offers something new for Ninja Gaiden: stealth. Ryu must walk--with a light tilt of the left analog stick--through a foggy courtyard as enemies all around try to find you with their laser sights. The key here is to avoid running. You walk through the fog, working your way around each enemy by following the laser sight to its source, and initiate a stealth kill.
The chapter culminates in a boss battle with a masked man, the so-called "Mysterious Alchemist." He's the one who wanted Ryu in London. The fight is meant to be a throwback to the 2004 game's first boss fight against Murai. You won't have the Flying Swallow attack to help you this time, however. The idea remains the same: stick and move. Run in with a slashing attack and then dodge away.
The fight begins in a large, spacious executive-style office, but the action eventually moves outside when Ryu sends his opponent sailing through a window. This is the first serious challenge I've faced during the demo, and after dying a couple times the game prompts me to switch over to Hero mode.
It's not an easy difficulty setting, but it does give players some assistance in the form of automatic blocks and dodges for normal attacks. It definitely helps me out for this fight, but not in any way that forces me to fundamentally change the way I've been playing. It's more a matter of fewer attacks finding their mark.
The battle ends with the Mysterious Alchemist taking a blade in the chest and leaving Ryu with a parting gift: a curse. A cutscene plays in which the Dragon Sword gets absorbed into Ryu's arm, leaving the appendage in a scarred and painful-looking state. There's little doubt that he'll eventually wield the Dragon Sword again, but players will spend large chunks of the game using loaner blades from Hayate and Genshin.
The next chapter moves the action to Dubai, with the purple-haired Ayane showing up to hand the ninja Hayate's sword. He also gets his bow here. I was off the controller by this point, but bow attacks appear to auto-target. The difficulty seems to kick up considerably here, with a wider range of enemies showing up, including a few riding on the backs of nasty-looking motorbikes.
The game is close to complete at this point, with little more than a month to go before it arrives. The difficulty definitely seems to be dialed down from what its been in the past, especially once you have Hero mode active. The controls feel great though, extremely responsive and just as fun as ever to play with. Overall, Ninja Gaiden 3 seems to be faring well as it sneaks up on its March 20 release.