Review: Ninja Gaiden 3
(Note: This review can also be found at Front Towards Gamer)
Since its 2004 revitalization, Ninja Gaiden has become synonymous with one thing: fast, brutal combat which, when mastered, is immensely satisfying. It’s become something of a rarity in a console generation defined by terms like “accessibility.” Now spoiled by yearly franchises that pander to publishers’ bottom lines, games like Ninja Gaiden have become almost as much relics of the past as the series’ original NES platformers. With Ninja Gaiden 3, Team Ninja has attempted to straddle the line between accessibility and the hardcore action the series is known for. From a purely generic action game perspective, Ninja Gaiden 3 succeeds at this. Unfortunately that’s also its main problem. NG3 is so cut-and-dried in its execution that it ends up being little more than a shell of the games that preceded it.
It doesn’t take long to see the direction Team Ninja has taken Ninja Gaiden 3. Not more than 40 seconds in, you’re faced with a quick time sequence topped off by a button mashing crescendo, which sets the tone for the next seven-odd hours. While mildly entertaining at first, NG3 never provides enough variety in the types of QTEs it forces you to repeatedly complete. As a result, a large majority of NG3’s gameplay gets stale quick, particularly the kunai climbing and traversal portions.
As part of Ninja Gaiden 3’s streamlined approach, many of the series’ staples have been removed. Ryu has only his trusty katana for slicing and dicing baddies (though Team Ninja will be releasing two additional weapons via free DLC), a room-clearing rage attack, and a single Nimpo attack which builds up during combat. Muramasa’s shop is completely MIA, as are healing items. In their place is a regenerating health bar. Though the streamlining does simplify combat to an extent, the decisions feel more like a lateral move than anything else. Unless you really loved mixing up your Nimpo attacks or getting stuck on a boss battle with low health and no healing items in previous games, these changes won’t really affect you either way.
What does hurt Ninja Gaiden 3 is its oversimplification of combat. In previous entries in the series, you really had to learn an enemy’s attack patterns and punish their mistakes. NG3 forgoes this strategic approach in favor of a larger emphasis on action. Enemies attack with reckless abandon regardless of the situation, removing the nuance that made previous iterations so great. The gameplay is a lot faster as a result, but it all feels mindless and unrewarding. Making things worse, Ryu has frequent periods of unresponsiveness immediately following attacks. This was extremely frustrating; particularly during boss battles where one hit can spell death. Another head scratcher is the omission of enemy decapitation. While not integral to the franchise, separating life from limb had tactical implications. Enemies would become more aggressive and desperate in their attacks after losing an arm or leg, making enemy prioritization key.
The Ninja Gaiden franchise has never been much for story or characterization. Ryu Hayabusa is a badass ninja, and badass ninjas kill lots of dudes, preferably in as flashy and gruesome a manner as possible. It’s not high art, but that was never the point of the series. While Ninja Gaiden 3’s narrative is a bit more ambitious than that of its predecessors, it quickly devolves into the same old process of clearing each area of enemies in order to progress onward. That’s too bad, because the voice acting is excellent (though a Japanese option would have been nice), and the Regent of the Mask is one of the cooler villains in recent memory. What could have been a real strength ends up being squandered by poor execution.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is a game defined by missed opportunities and unnecessary refinements. It takes too many cues from its contemporaries and forgets what made the series special in the first place. At its most basic level, NG3 is a competent action game. Mindless as it may be, cutting down legions of foes with a katana will always carry with it some level of satisfaction. But for a franchise built on thoughtful, challenging combat, fountains of blood can’t disguise Ninja Gaiden 3’s lackluster gameplay. The pieces for an impressive Ninja Gaiden title are there, but the manner in which they’re executed spoils what could have been.