Looking at this generation’s Ninja Gaiden trilogy, it seems to follow a bit of a pattern not unlike the original NES renditions. Both the the first and second Ninja Gaiden games have a deep emphasis upon mixing some urban environments with the mysticism and legends of the way of the ninja, with the third choosing to also dabble a bit in biomechanics. Unfortunately for Ninja Gaiden 3, it also follows The Ancient Ship Of Doom in one other area – compared to its predecessors, it’s simply not of the same caliber and not anywhere near as fun to play. Ninja Gaiden 3 is still a solid action-adventure game, but it doesn’t come close to the kind of pedigree that has been set before it.
The most immediately noticeable differences to Ninja Gaiden 3 are the ways in which Ryu Hayabusa can deal out death. In short, they are different but fewer than before. Combat is restricted to three weapons – a sword, shurikens and a bow and arrow. Augmenting your sword’s powers is the Grip of Murder, which integrates part of the storyline into gameplay. Early in the story, Ryu’s arm is infected by an enemy with a blood-red curse that continues up his arm through the game. When the curse overwhelms Ryu, his arm glows an angry red and he can enter temporary invincibility, drawing himself to foes like a magnet and cutting them down with ease. But when it comes to killing enemies, there is not so much slicing and dicing – you won’t be able to chop off heads, limbs and other questionable appendages. Instead, blood just spurts forth from their wounds. In terms of magic ability, Ryu has only one Ninpo attack. This attack involves Ryu summoning up a fiery dragon that defeats all of the enemies in the vicinity and renews his health.
Outside of the above mentioned qualities, there are no additional weapons, abilities or Ninpo attacks. Even though what you have to deal with is pulled off well enough is effective, it seems a curious decision to leave gamers with less options to kill your foes. If anything, it’s a real step backwards as there is less encouragement to think up different tactics. With the exception of flying foes than can only be brought down by a bow and arrow, there aren’t really any situations where using one weapon is more favourable than another. It all has the effect of making a lot of the levels feel like one another, despite the different settings. Action games are meant to be simple and straightforward, but there are times when it really feels like you’re just fighting wave after wave of enemies with no real variety in how you combat them.
Another difference that people will pick up on fairly quickly is the use of quick-time button events. To be blunt, they come off as chronically over-used, as well as being flat-out unnecessary and at their worst are outright flawed. There are many points where a simple jump off a high point is accompanied by a mandatory button press that, once actioned, has no visual difference to your falling animation, but if you don’t press that button you can die. During these falls, you will occasionally have to dodge objects in mid-air using the control stick and the shoulder button. It really slows down the flow of play and is one of the many things that dilutes Ninja Gaiden’s legendary toughness. Perhaps the most frustrating of all, however, is when there are quick-time events implemented in the middle of combat. In past games, players relied on a bizarre fusion of button mashng, reflexes and finding an opening to both defend and attack against enemies. This is not always so in Ninja Gaiden 3.
It has to be said – the influence of the God of War series is easily seen and felt in Ninja Gaiden 3, although this game is nowhere near polished to the same degree. The quick-time events never feel like they really integrate well into the game, and seem to run against the philosophies of the series. This is especially evident in the boss battles, none of which really stand out as being unique or particularly difficult. One particular fight early on requires you to enter a quicktime command to avoid being hurt, but it comes up almost instantaneously and often while you’re already slicing and dicing away. Of course, all of that swordplay means that you’re not pressing the buttons that the game wants you to and you get stung for it. Such moments are the very definition of bad quick-time – they come up out of a context that they don’t really belong in. Effectively, this reduces you to having to hold back way too often to see if a quicktime moment comes up so you can implement it correctly, and it really just feels unnatural. It just drives home how much of a crutch quick-time has become for games, as opposed to devising situations where skills, strategy and reflexes are the order of the day.
Another control method brought in for the first time has to do with the obligatory walls that ninjas always seem to be scaling in some manner or other. Using you kunai daggers, players can climb up sheer walls, with the ability to both dodge and attack enemies using your throwing kunai. The controls seem a bit awkward at first but unlike combat quick-time you do get into a rhythm after awhile and the new technique actually feels like it could be part of the universe of the game.
One thing that Ninja Gaiden 3 does get right is its presentation. The visuals and sound design are both astounding and remain largely unchanged from previous games. The transitions between cutscenes and gameplay, while not quite seamless, are pulled off with suitable grace and don’t prove to be jarring. The cinematics themselves are of the highest degree, even though your mileage may vary on the quality of the story that’s actually being told. Speaking of cinema cutscenes, one of the real highlights of the game for this reviewer at least was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo from a certain character from Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos, which will likely elicit cheers from fans of that particular entry in the series.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is not an absolutely terrible game. It gets more enjoyable the more you play and it’s technically proficient, but given its rightly proud lineage it’s a very disappointing one. It’s way too easy and overall there’s just simply nowhere near as much stuff to do. It feels like the game has been stripped back to its essentials, but those essentials aren’t refined and polished enough to make it truly compelling. The quicktime events aren’t something that anybody asked for or wanted, but they seem to have been included to again have the effect of dumbing down the game overall. Whether this was done to make it more easy and thus more appealing to mainstream gamers is very much up for debate. The gameplay and difficulty are distilled to the point that once you finish it all you won’t really feel like you’ve accomplished a lot or feel the need to boast, as many did whenever they completed any of the games of this or the NES generation. Ninja Gaiden 3 is still solid in what it has become, but at the cost of what made the series stand out in the first place.