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Team Ninja’s 2004 Ninja Gaiden and its sequel are two of the best titles to have been forged in the fires of Japanese action game development. Survival in Tomonobu Itagaki’s world of killer katanas requires economy of movement, split-second timing and keen spatial awareness. They stand as games where discipline and determination are rewarded emotionally and psychologically, and you must know your enemy as well as your inventory to survive. They’re like Demon Souls gone hyperactive, and with buckets of blood.
It’s therefore hard to envy the ‘new’ Team Ninja’s task of succeeding, or even continuing, that legacy of quality, and it’s easy to see the reasons behind Ninja Gaiden 3’s missteps. An attempt to broaden the player base and take the brand from the niche to the newcomer means the experience now feels shallow, constantly in the shadow of its forebears. Meanwhile, the absence of item management, weapon customisation (the scythe and talons are due as DLC in the weeks after release), varied choice of Ninpo attacks or even a deep moves list strips away a crucial layer of tactics and involvement.
Combat maintains the same core pillars of light, heavy and projectile attacks, and Ryu moves with the same sense of weight and athleticism as before. What’s new is an overreliance on button prompts, even in the core ground-level skirmishes. Finishing moves throw up a prompt to deliver an excessively gory killing strike, and the camera slams in to frame the moment with an extreme close-up. It’s a stylish bit of visual feedback, but it also disorients you, often resetting your field of vision and damaging forward thinking. Furthermore, it breaks the flow of a fight, and for the most part Ninja Gaiden 3’s duels are chaotic affairs. Peripheral enemies rattle off machine-gun fire, launch rockets and shoot other (occasionally offscreen) projectiles into the mix. This is difficulty by way of quantity of threat, not quality or intricacy of game design.
The obsession with onscreen prompts doesn’t just infect the combat, though. Scaling walls via the Kunai Climb (which requires the repeated bashing of L1 and R1) is a diabolical ask in a series where graceful fluidity of motion has always been a hallmark. In the past, Ninja Gaiden’s platforming was a seamless change of pace, with collectibles and items encouraging you to explore its world – something made irresistible by the elegance of Hayabusa’s movement and the finesse of the responsive controls. Here, traversing walls and ropes is a chore, and one that you’ll be repeating throughout the entirety of the lengthy story mode.
Boss battles, though no longer punishing in their difficulty, are infuriating in their own right, loaded and burdened with QTEs, and often employing awkward fixed cameras that make return playthroughs uninviting. The more casual approach to the design does offer up some benefits to ease the frustration: there’s a generous number of checkpoints throughout, plus regular opportunities to save and replenish health (which also recharges after you’ve cleared a wave of foes).
The middle act of Ninja Gaiden 3, however, is worth fighting for. It manages a U-turn that almost makes the early grind work a dim memory, with a greater variety of villains finally forcing you to counter, dodge and think about each strike, eyeing up gaps in attack patterns and unleashing your special attacks carefully, rather than spamming the buttons. QTEs become less of a nuisance as well, and help to punctuate some quite thrilling action sequences that are as enjoyable to watch as successfully execute. Yet despite the reward of this dazzling section, the final stretch of the game is a repetitive drive to the finish that recycles enemy types as the plot spirals ridiculously out of control.
The story has a firm hand in Ninja Gaiden 3’s identity crisis. Hayabusa’s globetrotting – he’s on the hunt for a terrorist gang called Lords Of Alchemy – offers up a variety of settings from London and Saudi Arabia to Antarctica and Japan, but none leave an impression. Stages are mostly made up of rigid dens for you to swipe and swing your sword about in, and there’s none of the scale, scope or colourful creativity of previous titles. The standout, tellingly, is a section set in Hayabusa Village, evoking memories of past games while delivering some vicious gauntlets of rival ninjas. In these passing moments, as ninjas whelp and blades whirl, we’re reminded of where Hayabusa came from, and just how much we miss it. For all the talk of a heavyweight hero’s journey, the narrative is a congested mess of ideas. Team Ninja’s productions have never excelled in their storytelling, and they’ve often wisely shied away from it. The tall tale of Hayabusa’s battle across the continents attempts to tackle the themes of consequence and allegiance, but it ends up a tangled concoction that will likely perplex the new players the game’s more accessible action is meant to entice.
While you may be deterred from taking on a repeat playthrough by the sheer repetition and dearth of ideas – the absence of a skill and weapon tree hurts more than any blade wound – some bells and whistles are provided in the form of the shallow challenge and multiplayer modes. It’s a shame co-op is reserved for specific challenges, though, since a number of in-game scenarios see you joined by a (badly trained) AI companion, making you long for human interaction.
This is a less accomplished but more immediate Ninja Gaiden, then, one that will temporarily distract newcomers and disappoint dedicated followers. Yet it feels destined to be forgotten by both audiences, chalked up as another casualty in the east’s drive to conquer the west with bravado rather than its sought-after, ever-rarer Japanese steel.
PlayStation 3 version tested. You can discuss the game and review in the comments section below, in the Ninja Gaiden 3 Edge forum thread, or on our Facebook and Google+ pages.