Ninja Gaiden 3 starts out in a fantastic way, but loses its way quickly when it becomes apparent that combat hardly evolves. There are only a handful of enemy types and fewer weapons, exacerbating the repetition. The foundation for an amazing hack-and-slash is in Ninja Gaiden 3's soil, but it never fully blossoms into the epic it could have been.
- Combat occasionally feels empowering
- Smooth controls
- Impressive boss fights
- Only one set of weapons
- Few enemy types
- Dull multiplayer
Ninja Gaiden 3 Review:
I spent the first 20 minutes of Ninja Gaiden 3 grinning like an idiot, smitten with its charms as a badass simulator. It felt fast, powerful, and vibrant. Ask me how I felt at the end of its roughly eight hour campaign, however, and I'd respond with a shrug and a wistful sigh. So what happened? The problem is that not enough happened. Ninja Gaiden 3 is much the same game at the end as it is in the beginning. As such, it's one of the most fundamentally underdeveloped games in its genre, which is a tragedy because what's there is very good.
Go ninja, go ninja, go!
We once again join esteemed ninja, Ryu Hayabusa, who continues to reveal a split personality between a kind, loving soul and a vicious serial killer. Only this time the latter is acknowledged when Ryu brutally eviscerates an enemy soldier pleading for his life, explaining that he only took his job to support his family. He's talking to the wrong man. Ryu is a jerk. The pitiful script pretends to explore this, but really it's just a lot of nonsense that contradicts itself at every opportunity. It's good for a laugh, though, when it contains such classic dialogue as Ryu's contact saying, "Oh right. I keep forgetting you're a ninja." Um, just look at the guy.
The story merely exists to provide an excuse for Ryu to travel the globe slaying things. To that end Ninja Gaiden 3 lives up to its heritage. Ryu kills a lot in this game, and it's a sadistically gleeful affair. Combat is fluid, responsive, and stylish. The camera isn't perfect, but it's been fine-tuned a great deal since Ninja Gaiden 2 a few years back. Long-time fans will lament that chopping off limbs no longer occurs, but there are copious amounts of blood to make up for it, and seemingly at random your sword will get stuck in an enemy triggering a context sensitive move where you'll have to mash a button to slice through bone. The close-up camera and vibrating controller work in harmony to make this as empowering a feeling as possible, and these enhancements to the combat's presentation make for a very slick swordfighting experience.
While sword-based combat remains much as it ever was, there have been numerous changes to the series with this iteration -- possibly due to series creator, Tomonobu Itagaki having left Team Ninja after Ninja Gaiden 2. The new Team Ninja has gone to great lengths to modernize the series and make it more streamlined and accessible, and while some of these alterations have paid off, others have left a sour aftertaste.
For better or worse, limited use items have been excised. Shurikens and arrows are now infinite, though they've been weakened as a result. More importantly, you can't stock up on healing items, and instead your health is replenished to some extent after each battle. Having more "kri" i.e. magic, leftover from successful combos will allow you to heal more. Continuing after dying will refill your health all the way, too. Not everyone will like these changes, but I appreciated not having to stress about going into battle ill-equipped.
In a controversial move, Team Ninja has added one of the most derided tropes from recent action games: quick-time events. For the most part these actually work pretty well as the buttons you hit correlate to what Ryu is doing, so you can generally predict what the prompts will be before they arise. Purists will argue that they rob you of control in a series that's all about mastery, but they're used sparingly enough that they seldom get in the way. The only disappointment with these is that climbing walls and crossing ropes is handled this way, which seems like a missed opportunity.
Less successful is the decision to only give you one set of weapons the entire game. You start with a sword and shurikens, and with the exception of a bow & arrow that you get in the second level, this is all you'll have. One of the chief pleasures in other Ninja Gaiden games was figuring out what weapons worked best against certain enemies, so removing all other armaments seems like a huge step backwards. Team Ninja has announced they'll be releasing free DLC with additional weapons, which begs the question, "Why wasn't this on the disc?" It wreaks of a rush job.
Equally irritating is that you only have one magic attack. The first time you annihilate an entire room full of foes with a fire dragon it's mighty impressive. By the 189th time, not so much. Previous Ninja Gaiden games had various spells with unique properties, so it's puzzling that these were abolished here.
This dearth of weapons and spells removes much of the tactics from the previous games. You can button-mash your way through the default difficulty without much problem, which goes against the series' MO of providing a stiff challenge on anything other than the easiest setting (which has been renamed from the degrading “Ninja Dog” to “Hero” this time out, symptomatic of Ninja Gaiden 3's more inviting tone). Hard mode alleviates this, but instead throws endless waves of enemies at you right from the get go, which feels like a disingenuous way to pad the game out.
Not only does your move set cease to evolve, but the selection of enemy types is paltry, making for an especially repetitive experience. Most foes are simply human soldiers and it's not until midway through the game that more interesting monsters are introduced, yet there's only a few of these supernatural enemies. This limited bestiary is extremely disheartening after the wildly inventive collection of creatures in previous Ninja Gaiden games, and it severely cuts down the combat's depth.
Thankfully, bosses are the exception. Most of them look beautiful and are fun to fight. With only one enemy on-screen the action never gets too cluttered and deciphering their attack patterns is a joy. My only criticisms as far as bosses go is that the final one is tremendously disappointing and there's no health meter for them, which feels strange in this type of game.
When you're not fighting, you're often watching a cutscene or partaking in an interactive one. The narrative may be unintentionally funny, but lengthy scenes of Ryu hobbling along tearing enemies down in scripted sequences or worse, talking on his headset, really bog down the momentum of what's a notoriously fast-paced series.
Rounding out the package are online competitive and co-op modes. Co-op places players in a series of short challenge stages where they're tasked with defeating several waves of enemies while carrying out basic objectives like finishing a foe with a "steel on bone" move or using a shuriken. These bland tasks aren't particularly compelling. Competitive battles are too messy to be enjoyable, while both modes are plagued by your move set being restricted until you've leveled up the required amount. Both online modes are entirely throwaway.
Ultimately, Ninja Gaiden 3 feels like a great game that wasn't finished. It's not that the game's too short; it's that it's too sparse. More enemy types, weapons, and spells could have really fleshed this out into a hack-and-slash classic. As is, it feels like a demo stretched into a full length game -- and a short one at that. Ryu's blade may cut deep, but his most recent outing leaves nary a scratch.
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Editor's Note: Ninja Gaiden 3 was reviewed using a PlayStation 3 copy of the game; however, we also played the Xbox 360 version, and found no differences. If further investigation reveals any differences between the 360 edition and the PS3 edition of the game, this review will be updated to reflect those differences.