raycarter's Ninja Gaiden 3 (Xbox 360) review

Was it THAT Bad?

Now, when shaking hands, Ryu must only use his left hand for the occasion.

*Hello. RayCarter here. This is the final piece of my arranged "Ninja Month", where I look at four games revolving around famous video game practitioners of ninjutsu. I reviewed two Tenchu games and most recently gave an opinion/piece on Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword for the NDS. Now, with an exhaustive review, I will give my two cents on Team Ninja's latest, and probably most maligned, product, Ninja Gaiden 3. Was it as trashy as (its numerous) detractors make it out to be?

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Change is the only constant, or so the saying goes. It is no different for one of the most revered action game franchises today.

The first Ninja Gaiden game created by Team Ninja without its go-to-guy Tomonobu Itagaki, Ninja Gaiden 3, was noticeably different from its predecessors. For one thing, there is a major reduction of weaponry. The once branching combo tree is now significantly chopped down to more manaegable parts. The difficulty had a complete 180, meaning that players will no longer get swamped and overwhelmed and will instead by subjected to more handholding. Ryu is also turned into someone that's not JUST about slicing and killing demons and the like, unlike previous installations. All these changes look like backward steps, and many reviewers and critics saw it as such.

But was it really? Well, it really depends on who you are. Those who faithfully follow the journeys of Ryu Hayabusa (read: played NG 1 and 2 and the many spinoffs) will probably be disgusted by the increased accessibility and so would look down on this game the same way a shepherd sees his/her black sheep. Everyone else though, myself included, who know little about the franchise or haven't popped a Ninja Gaiden CD into an XBox (or PS3), rest assured and remain calm; line up all the action games on the XBox 360, and Ninja Gaiden 3 is still more than capable to rise above the middle of the pack. For most players, especially those who are going into Ninja Gaiden for the first time, that's more than enough.

I first want to address something that is a bit underrated and underappreciated in my opinion: The plot. I would argue that the story in Ninja Gaiden 3, flaws and all, is at least a step sideways from previous installments and at best is a noticeable step in the right direction. The plot for the game is deemed convoluted and rightly so, as alchemy, big business economics, cloning and DNA are all briefly touched-on topics, but at its core is still a familiar "Ryu saves world from big baddy" narrative. In this chapter of Ryu’s adventure, the badass ninja gets sent to London to deal with an enigmatic insurgent group in London. In the fighting the faction’s masked leader curses Ryu’s right hand, fusing it with Ryu’s heralded Dragon Sword, and in doing so slowly devouring our hero thanks to the murderous pollution from the sword (or something like that). Now, Ryu not only has to deal with the insurgency and the curse inflicted upon him, but because of the nature of the illness he starts to ponder about his identity of just being a cold-blooded killer (at least theoretically). I give Team Ninja kudos for making the story a bit more interesting beyond just using a story as a reason for Ryu to do X and do Y.

Ryu is bloodied psychologically... kind of.

In this game, Ryu is seen not just as a death-dealer to millions, but a human being not unlike yourself. Remember, he had supposedly been given a moment to pause because he is cursed with an affliction powered by the numerous lives he has taken in adventures past. Now, the writers have the unfortunate notion to forget about Ryu's self conflict of being deemed just a killer, because right after a cutscene Ryu continues to spill the blood of many more people without pause. But the few, quieter moments are handled well, when usually-unmasked Ryu actually tries emoting to the rest of the cast and does something besides talking about the mission at hand.

Re-interpreting characters and their personalities achieves mixed results; sometimes you get Chris Nolan's Batman, other times Bay's Transformers. The quality of Ryu's character subplot is between the two but I personally like this reinvention of the Dragon Ninja despite its admittedly sporadic appearances: warm, friendly, human, but every bit as dangerous as before. But of course, this is just my opinion. I can completely understand the argument that Ryu should best be left enigmatic and only admired afar, by his deeds and not by his personality.

But Ryu is not just the only good character; leading lady Mizuki McCloud, an agent who accompanies and helps Ryu through his jobs, is someone else I really liked. For all due respect to the previous leading ladies of the reboot franchise (esp. to Sonja, who I saw in NG 2 cutscenes but never played NG 2, and Momiji, who I saw in Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword and in this game), but these female characters have usually come off as fan services and damsels-in-distress for Ryu to rescue. In that sense, Mizuki is a good change of pace: someone who has the looks but doesn't overstate it, and she thankfully doesn't play the damsel-in-distress role (at least not in the traditional, woe is me, sense). Her best moments come when she interacts with her daughter Canna and with brother-in-law Cliff (who also works with Mizuki in the Japanese Ministry of Defense). The way she changes tone from colleague Ryu (professionally, eventually friendly) to brother-in-law Cliff (casually and friendly) to daughter Canna (motherly) is subtle but again exquisitely pulled off.

Her realistic, fine acting and non-fan-servicelike proportions/attire separate her from previous leading ladies in NG and in essence many other female characters in video games in general. I'm not trying to insinuate that she's perfect, as she doesn't play an incredible role in the grand scheme of the plot, but as Team Ninja's first stab at creating a leading lady without the use of T & A, Mizuki is a GREAT foundation block and template.

Not much chatter about Mizuki McCloud (left) in reviews. I think she's a big plus narratively.

All in all, I think Team Ninja did a better job creating a plot and a cast that people would care about beyond the reason of "Hey, Ryu can kill this dude like that!" You won't mistake this story for Nobel-prize material but it is a positive step away from previous plot efforts and is one of the better if not more intriguing plots for most action games. At worst it is still an interesting failure to behold.

Team Ninja also did itself a favor by upholding moderately high presentation standards. If you didn't see it from the screenshots in this review the game looks really good, with detailed character models and sceneries that doesn't compromise the frame rate. The music has its usual set of rock tunes combined with some slow, contemplative music to go with the quieter moments of the game; ironically, the latter is more memorable than the former! The voice acting is mostly good, with Ryu and Mizuki having the best voice actors capable of emoting humanity without exaggeration, while everyone else holds their own. In short, Ninja Gaiden 3 still has the look and feel of a big budget game.

But of course, nobody really wants to talk about the revamped story or the presentation, but the gameplay. In that front the pundits are right when asserting that NG 3 is a step back from its predecessors, but first a look at the positives: Even with the simplification of the combat mechanics, the fighting still feels incredibly fast and incredibly exciting, conceding the fact that the game doesn’t require much input from its gamers. I especially like the Ultimate Technique that has Ryu jump from place to place slicing up enemies in rapid succession. There is still a terrific energy, in addition to the cohesiveness, to the fighting and violence that is fun to watch, and the decreased difficulty level makes these moments easier to pull off and therefore more numerous. Even with the attack animations recycled after a third of the game through I never had the sense that the action was any less cooler.

Combat is still glorious and eye-catching...

Now a look at the raw changes: The number of weapons is heavily reduced. The franchise that ran the gamut of scythes, claws, tonfas and the like took away a good chunk of the arsenal, meaning that the only remaining equipments include a sword, bow and arrow, throwing daggers and a Fire Ninpo (magical spell).

The combo tree, once a major draw for most gamers, is now downsized. While Izuma Drop (X Y X X X Y) is still possible, many other combos are not named and therefore I assumed that players were meant to just spam either the light attacks or heavy attacks in the mold of Dynasty Warriors. The other attack moves that actually have names include Steel on Bone (kill one enemy, then instakill others), Ultimate Technique (kills up to 5 units), Obliteration (kills one enemy on the verge of bleeding out) and the aforementioned Fire Ninpo. In a vacuum this list of moves is not terrible, but compared to the combos of previous Ninja Gaiden games it falls well short.

Ninja Gaiden 3 also makes heavy use of quick-time events, both in cutscenes and in-game. The timing required for these events is mostly forgiving, meaning that they amount to either complete spectacle or the fastest way to kill an enemy. Unfortunately, the moments in which you are supposed to say “Oooh” or “Aaah” to are on the underwhelming side, as they amount to generic acrabatic feats like Ryu jumping from above or climbing a wall with kunai (plural) in hands. There’s also certain times when Ryu’s cursed right arm becomes so overpowered that he needs to limp across the room to one-hit-kill the remaining enemies. I can see where the game is heading with the idea but the experience results in the game slowing down way too much for its own good and lost momentum for the gameplay. Now, there are great cutscene moments, especially when Ryu takes down a monster more than ten times his size. But when compared to other cutscene action, like that from Xbox 360 action game Ninja Blade, Ninja Gaiden 3 feels tame and unexciting at least on the cutscene front.

Just don't expect a grand challenge.

Controls do work fine in most instances, but there are issues when it comes to targeting who and where Ryu strikes. If the Dragon Ninja is not using its lock-on bow it would be incredibly difficult to predict where he will be striking next. This is especially frustrating in most boss battles, since I often find Ryu striking at nothing but thin air at one direction while the supposed target, the boss, is in the other direction. Not to say that this problem breaks the game, because of the last and controversial point:

Broadly speaking, Team Ninja decided to decrease the overall difficulty level of this game. Enemies are not as aggressive as in previous installments, die easier, while Ryu gets a regenerating health bar allowing him to stay in the level for longer stretches. This decreased challenge is also applied to the cutscenes, which I stated before are generous when it comes to what button to press and how long a window the player gets to input the commands. Boss battles are not frequent and are mostly straightforward as long as players can grasp the boss patterns without losing too much health in the process. In short, Team Ninja made the franchise more accessible in NG 3 (yes, I used that other “A” word), and for those who didn’t have the patience or skill for the first two Ninja Gaiden games could breathe easy while the hardcore, experienced veterans would pull out their hair and scream (which is what happened when discussing the critical reaction for the game).

The main campaign lasts for roughly five hours, assuming that you went with the game’s normal difficulty. Once that’s over with there are other gameplay options to extend the game’s shelf life. First, Ninja Trials pits you against a wave of enemies and provides a stream of instructions to complete the mission. There’s also the multiplayer that pits your personal ninja against others in deathmatches. On the whole these options work but they really do not add much to the package as a whole.

Wannabe ninjas dot the uninspired multiplayer and Ninja Trials.

I will not deny that Ninja Gaiden 3, from a game/mechanics perspective, leaves a lot to be desired. It’s one thing to make the game slightly easier with a tweak here and there. But it’s another to overdo it despite the numerous positives from the previous build. From that point, I concede to the critics.

But I can also recall with great clarity (and fondness) the moments between Ryu and Mizukui’s daughter Canna, from the latter asking Ryu to be her daddy via a text box on her mobile phone, to building him a paper shuriken via origami.

I can remember even more clearly, and with more endearment, a tender scene between Mizuki and Ryu on board a destroyer’s infirmary after the former rescued the latter from a warship going down. Nothing physical ensued, but I could sense a strong connection between the two who were only a week ago perfect strangers. I came away from this game hoping that Mizuki would come back and reprise her leading lady role for another Ninja Gaiden game.

I came away much satisfied from Ninja Gaiden 3, all gameplay concerns accounted for. The loud, boisterous moments have lost a lot of its luster, mostly due to the fighting dumbed down to very simple button commands. But I found that the quieter, more character-building moments are handled well, not just relative to other Ninja Gaiden games. These good moments counterbalance the shallower gameplay and other nitpicky weaknesses. I probably won’t convince Ninja Gaiden veterans to all of a sudden pick this game up, but I wouldn’t turn away anybody new to the franchise from this game either. The mostly functional action still looks great, the story is underrated, and the game is aesthetically pleasing. In the grand library of action games on the Xbox 360, these three attributes already make Ninja Gaiden 3 well above run-of-the-mill quality.

Pros:

- Strong graphics, good soundtrack during quiet scenes

- Mizuki McCloud and a tiny bit of revamped Ryu Hayabusa

- Action and violence still look great

Cons:

- Gameplay is oversimplified and a bit too easy

- Whole game doesn’t last very long, even counting the bonus game modes

Final Verdict: 3 and a half stars. It’s not as good as its predecessors, but it’s still a decent experience.

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Well, that’s it; this is my final review for Ninja Month. I hope you enjoyed this month-long ride through 4 ninja-themed games. It looks like I’ll have to review Ninja Blade some other time, hopefully in the near future. Please leave your thoughts about this review and recommend (or not) this piece. Your contributions are greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

RayCarter

PS: This review is also up my blog on Chronicles of Ciahlo. This is not an act of plagiarism.

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