Upon booting up Ninja Gaiden 3, my nerves began to race uncontrollably. I was nervous because I had heard so much about the game. Team Ninja had clearly outlined several things they would be removing/adding well before the game’s release, so I knew the game would be more than a bit different from past installments. Yet, against my own better judgement, I convinced myself to trust Yosuke Hayashi and the new Team Ninja to make it phenomenal. Sure Itagaki demanded all of the credit and attention for Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden 2, but he didn’t craft those games single-handedly.
I convinced myself that because Itagaki was gone, Team Ninja would have no choice but to tread carefully with such a prized franchise, reboot or not. Yet as I booted up the game for the first time, my nerves were racing. Because even though I was giving them the benefit of the doubt, I knew that there was still the possibility that, with the rightful lead designer gone, they would ruin the Ninja Gaiden series. And after they did, there would be no turning back.
Ninja Gaiden 3 fancies itself a series reboot, but it has so little in common with past games that it would probably have made more sense to present it as a new franchise altogether. The story in Ninja Gaiden 3 takes itself more seriously than in any of the past games. Protagonist Ryu is cursed by a masked villain, with a curse that infects his body with the hatred and anguish of the countless souls Ryu’s Dragon Sword has absorbed. As he battles to stop said villain from completing a plan to destroy and recreate the world, he must also battle himself as his body starts to suffer from the effects of the curse. I found the story in the game to be moderately entertaining. The team has clearly put more time and thought into the narrative this time around than in past games.
However, the way the game tries (and fails) to humanize Ryu does the series a great disservice. Ryu Hayabusa is indeed a murderer. He may be murdering for the greater good, but he’s a murderer none the less. In the past NG games, this fact wasn’t only apparent but it was emphasized. Ryu barely spoke in the past games. There was nothing to say; regardless of what was said, the player still needed to end up bloodily killing dozens of foes. In this game, someone calls Ryu a murderer and that makes him quite sad. Yes, master ninja Ryu Hayabusa is sad because someone called him a name. He entertains a love interest and her daughter, even taking a role as a father figure for the young girl and emotionally connecting to her. It is as sickening as it sounds.
Instead of the bold, fearsome ninja hero we saw in the first games, we get a conflicted, confused ninja that raises kids and feels remorse for killing villains. It isn’t pretty.
Ninja Gaiden 3’s graphics hold up well. It doesn’t look worlds better than Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, but it is polished and an improvement overall. Pre-rendered cutscenes look fine, and the game engine looks nice in general. The environments and enemies are detailed and clear, even in the midst of fast, gritty combat, you can still see everything clearly. I also appreciated overall variety in the stages. The game suffers from a severe framerate drop when too many things are happening on the screen, but this only happened about twice in my entire time with the game. I really didn’t like the way the blood looked like red ribbons floating through the air, but it was kind of cool I guess. All said, the graphics are an improvement over Ninja Gaiden 2 but not by a whole lot.
The same can be said about the music, which is appropriate and more noticeable than in past games but not remarkable. The fast paced punk/metal/rock that plays during combat isn’t great but I’m a fan of some of the slow, instrumental stuff that plays during cutscenes and story segments. I don’t want to piss of anyone who liked the music in the older games but, it never really made an impact on me. I’d say this soundtrack did better in that regard.
I told myself that no matter how crappy the story, visuals or any other component of Ninja Gaiden 3 was, I would still be a fan if the game-play was tight. As always, the biggest part of the game-play is the combat. There’s really no easy way to say this but I need to get it out of the way: you will use only one weapon throughout the entirety of Ninja Gaiden 3 and that is a classic katana. That’s right; where older games were praised for their expanse of weapons and combos, this title trades it all in for just the katana. Since the release of this game the developers have revealed that free weapons are coming to the game via DLC, but that hardly changes what’s on Ninja Gaiden 3’s disc.
Ninja Gaiden has always featured a wide variety of main weapons, but this game only features one. The only reason I could imagine the team would make such a decision is because of the QTEs, which I’ll get to in a moment.
I don’t know what Team Ninja did with all of Ryu’s weapons, but they must’ve done the same thing to all the items. Ryu no longer collects money since there are no items and no shops. Series fans are accustomed to using old man Muramasa’s shop to buy health and ki restore items, weapons and upgrades. This entire system is gone, and the player needn’t worry about an item, an upgrade or a gold coin for the duration of the game. No upgrades = no progression, and the game really suffers from this. Progressing through the stages is linear in comparison to past games, where items, weapons, and enemies could be discovered in different places throughout the stages. Now there’s nothing to discover, find or collect at all and moving through a stage is much more streamlined.
The new platforming components were pretty wretched in my opinion. I especially disliked the wall climbing. I’m not really sure what, but something about the timing or responsiveness during that sequence made it just so irritating and ineffective. The combat is great when you aren’t being spammed with QTEs. Yes, as if the act of adding QTEs wasn’t bad enough, the developers also had the audacity to use them so frequently that at some times you’re absolutely spammed with them. These sequences slow the action down and feel illegitimate in the game formula.
Once I was pulling off a ‘steel on bone’ attack every few seconds, I thought I understood why Team Ninja had avoided all of the other weapons – because they’d have to design QTEs for each and every one, just so that they’d perform as well as the sword.
You’ll also see QTEs for jumping from a building, using a falcon dive air kill, and several unique ones during boss fights. No matter what you do in Ninja Gaiden 3, you can’t get away from QTEs and I (like series creator Itagaki) have never really cared for them. These issues aside, the combat holds up wonderfully. Ryu gets the full use out of his one and only weapon as he executes dozens of stylish combos and techniques. The controls are air tight and responsive. There is a comprehensive move list that shows you the astonishing amount of things the katana can do. Combat is fast, bloody and great, as expected. The obliteration techniques from NG2 have returned and they work as well as I remember.