Ninja Gaiden 3 can be used as an example of what happens when an established developer tries something different with a franchise and in part attempts to open it to a wider audience: it becomes terrible. While most of the elements in Ninja Gaiden 3 aren’t broken or filled with game breaking issues, the experience is far from perfect thanks to combat that lacks the skill the series is known for and visuals that are as dearie and bland as a ninja game can be. There are glimmers of hope in the multiplayer mode of the game, but the core Ninja Gaiden 3 experience simply fails to live up to its predecessors and instead will simply make people appreciate how good the first two Ninja Gaiden games were.
+ It’s a video game starring a ninja.
+ Trophies/Achievements are handed out like candy on Halloween.
+ The combat controls moderately well.
+ Multiplayer modes are a nice touch as mass ninja battles are occasionally fun.
- Story is a mess and tries too hard to be serious.
- Combat feels weak and lacks depth.
- Levels are boring, both in part to the art direction and lackluster graphics.
- Tonally the game is all over the place which makes for a difficult and uneven experience.
- QTES during combat and boss encounters are annoying.
- Voice acting is flat and Ryu (voiced by Troy Baker) sounds bored.
- PlayStation Move integration is terrible and shouldn’t even be bothered with.
There’s something extremely interesting about seeing a video game series evolve over time. To a lot of gamers seeing a particular game evolve is something that should be expected and is ultimately anticipated since it guarantees new elements and hopefully loads of new fun. But sometimes the evolution of a video game doesn’t go according to planned since no one can really mold the perfect specimen, or in this case the perfect form of digital entertainment. With Ninja Gaiden 3 we have a game which has evolved to a different form but in the end it isn’t as sleek or advanced as one would be when major changes occur. Instead of receiving yet another entry of the most action packed ninja adventure that can possibly be given to us, Ninja Gaiden 3 simply plods from scenario to scenario in an experience that’s bland and almost completely devoid of any soul.
In a rare case of a developer sticking with their guns per say, Ninja Gaiden 3 is developed by the same team that developed the previous Ninja Gaiden games. Former Team Ninja head Tomonobu Itagaki of course isn’t involved since he’s busy at his new studio Valhalla, but for Ninja Gaiden 3 Tecmo Koei didn’t pull a Capcom and decide to entrust their core franchise with a Western developer. In a lot of ways that move may sound good, but after playing Ninja Gaiden 3 I began to wonder if the game would’ve been better off going the Western route just so it could be a smidgen of fun instead of being as boring as it is.
Ninja Gaiden 3 isn’t one of those games that feels broken or that does the basics of game design wrong in every way. The game simply fails since it was decided a change in tone was needed which ultimately feels hackneyed and in a way betrays the silly tone that made the previous Ninja Gaiden games so much fun. The plot of Ninja Gaiden 3 isn’t tough to follow as its core is simple enough to follow. Living a life of solitude in his village training new ninjas, Ryu Hayabusa is summoned into battle by a mysterious Japanese government agency that needs his help to stop a madman unleashing a diabolical plan on the world. A ninja fighting evil doers with grand plans of world domination isn’t anything new or horrific, but where NG3 stumbles is in its attempt to be serious through Ryu’s “infection”. Early on in the game Ryu is imbued with some magic hocus pocus with the souls of all the people his Dragon Sword has killed, which for some reason makes his right arm look like red cottage cheese mangled with Red Vines.
The potentially interesting aspect of Ryu having to face his past and the enemies he has killed ultimately has no bearing on the game aside from being a poor attempt to make Ryu more of a character or build a connection between him and the player. It would’ve been interested to see the master ninja reflect upon his life in some dramatic moments, but there aren’t any complex moments such as that at all. It appeared that Team Ninja wanted to do something along those lines as they included moments in which Ryu had the “choice” to kill a soldier begging for his life while talking about his family or other moments in which he’s suddenly overwhelmed by his magical curse and “losing” control, which results in Ryu stumbling around like he’s drunk and has a sword stuck up his rear end. Moments such as those could’ve made an impact on the experience but ultimately fail since there’s no control on the part of the player other than experiencing the scripted moment until it’s over, which in the case of Ryu’s dizzy spell moments is executed rather poorly seeing as how he’s immediately fine after entering one area.
The story of Ninja Gaiden 3 may not be striving for a Batman Begins style reboot after horrific things akin to the Joel Schumacher Batman films, but the story is just flat and in the end doesn’t know what it wants to be. With plot “twists” that you can see coming from a mile away, Ninja Gaiden 3 is filled with aimless cutscenes that are so bad that there’s even a “stone cold killer’s heart is warmed by cute young child” element. I really don’t want to see a cutscene involving a mute little girl asking Ryu to be her daddy. Instead I want hardcore ninja action that has a hint of a 1980s action movie vibe. I don’t think the story in Ninja Gaiden 3 is one of the worst things we’ve ever seen, but it simply feels all over the place and simply plods along with moments that are obvious attempts to drum up emotion or that simply boil down to things no one has an interest in like Ryu and his allies being chewed out by an American military general.
Ultimately Ninja Gaiden 3 has a plot that feels unfocused and like it could’ve used some fine tuning and sadly the once perfect ninja combat gameplay is the same way. The Ninja Gaiden series has been one of those rare franchises which are on a higher tier when it comes to combat, so much so that people have elaborate strategies for boss battles or simply fighting a basic group of enemies with the goal being to look completely flashy and kill everyone with style. One of the big three action combat games (Devil May Cry, Ninja Gaiden, Bayonetta), Ninja Gaiden 3 feels like a huge step backwards so much so that it’s not funny and is simply depressing.
Before I further dissect the gameplay of Ninja Gaiden 3 I feel like I should make it clear that the game doesn’t totally bomb in that regard. It’s not as if Team Ninja retooled the basics of everything and the end result is a game that feels more like God of War as opposed to a Ninja Gaiden experience. The main problem with the game is that it simply doesn’t flow as well as its predecessors and it has a lot of the depth and skill knocked out in favor of gameplay that tries to be elaborate but simply isn’t. The moves of Ryu are still fast and there’s no major input lag on them, but weapon switching brings the game to a screeching halt, the magic attacks lack a real impact, and the game feels sloppy all around. Those issues and new elements like stealth sections or the Kunai climb (alternating pressing the shoulder buttons to climb a structure) feel odd and completely out of place given the existing themes of the game.
Enemies still put up a fight that required me to keep my attacks varied, but even with that element Ninja Gaiden 3 just feels like it took 10 steps backwards in nearly every department. The camera in the game gets lost easily which makes it a chore to keep track of the action and that certainly doesn’t help things as combat in general is flat out boring. With new weapons and magic abilities being kept to a minimum, Ninja Gaiden 3 quickly falls into a pattern of repetition, more so since I fought the same enemies for at least two or three levels at a time. Having reoccurring enemies may be expected, but in Ninja Gaiden 3 it gets old extremely fast as the NPCs are chatterboxes who won’t shut up during combat and considering the direction the game goes in (long battles revolving around skill are replaced with battles focused on fighting waves of enemies) things become old and simply tiresome.
I still had that same element of ninja fun upon hitting an enemy, knocking them in the air, and ultimately giving them the killing blow but there was something off in the game which I ultimately figured out: the lack of dismemberment does indeed take a lot away from the experience. With Ninja Gaiden 3 the game tries to be edgy or at least different by doing close in quick cuts when Ryu attacks an enemy, which includes a brief timed button prompt which I could forgo (at least seeing the prompt) by simply quickly pressing the correct button as each move is the exact same animation. I didn’t mind seeing the action up close during particular moments, but seeing massive squirts of blood and Ryu’s sword go through the should/upper torso of an enemy only for them to still walk around a bit was just silly as it presents an obvious façade to the violence.
In a way the action in Ninja Gaiden 3 felt like it was a staged performance with stuntmen wearing blood packs or in this era the blood being added via post production CG. Ryu’s moves are fine for the most part as not everything is a damn QTE, but there’s no impact to the action which in the end simply makes it a vast blur of violence that isn’t all that fun to experience. The lack of fun was inherently felt in the boss battles of the game which start off extremely slow (I never want to fight a helicopter again) and then slowly go into a weird zone that seems to revert back to silly mode as I fought a cloned T-Rex and what was dubbed a prototype god. Intense boss battles used to be the bread and butter of the Ninja Gaiden franchise but in NG3 they simply resort to being more QTE fests that are usually split up into different parts for no real reason other than to be “complex”, which in my view simply made them more annoying.
Ninja Gaiden 3 controls fine in how Ryu responded to most of my commands, but the game totally fails in its integration of the PlayStation Move. Having Move support for a game like Ninja Gaiden could’ve been one of those things that resulted in gamers dusting off their Move to play the game, but the integration of the device is just dreadful. After a lengthy start up process which in no way is made with the Move in mind, I experienced a ninja adventure that treated the Move as it was a regular DualShock controller as nothing really used the in a special way to warrant it being used at all. I know the Move already is treated like a second class citizen by many game developers when it comes to utilizing it in their game, but Ninja Gaiden 3 really tops the cake of how lazily the Move was integrated into a product.
Surprisingly the Ninja Gaiden 3 experience fairs slightly better when in the context of the multiplayer and ninja challenge modes. Still not as perfect as they could be, partaking in some multiplayer ninja clan battles proved to be a fun task as hopping around on small buildings and slicing people up provided a more intense experience compared to playing against the predictable A.I. combatants. The options in the multiplayer modes of the game are rather deep as I could outfit my ninja with a different color of garb along with various weapons or abilities like being able to do a stealth kill. It’s nice that the Ninja Trials share the same character data as the competitive multiplayer mode as I was able to build my ninja up by fighting against enemies in specific areas with unique challenges being doled out. The inclusion of the Ninja Trials, which can be played solo or co-operatively, don’t suddenly make the combat of the game that much better, but being able to take on enemies in a closed arena and try to chain together combos and level up did make for an experience that was slightly more fun than what I endured during the single-player campaign.
Perhaps the biggest element which brought a tear to my eye as a gamer was the shift the art style received in Ninja Gaiden 3. With Team Ninja striving for a more “grounded” or at least “darker” experience, the game in turn received the all too familiar dark banal art style we’re all too used to seeing this generation. The Ninja Gaiden series may not have ever had stellar art design that was as good as something like Ico or to an extent Devil May Cry, but even with gaudy aspects of the previous NG games there was a level of detail and more importantly pride behind what was on screen. Whether it was fighting inside the belly of a beast or coming across a villain that looked like they were ripped out of a Super Sentai show, the first two Ninja Gaiden games had a unique personality to them. Ninja Gaiden 3 on other hand simply has a soulless look to it which is in a way due to the homogenized art which combines pre-existing fantasy motifs with slight sci-fi riffs to amalgamate to something you would see out of a mid-tier toy line; it’s passable but it’s nothing you haven’t seen before nor will you remember months from now.
What’s even more disappointing is that the poor art direction of NG3 is only the first major problem as the game visually isn’t that hot looking. Say what you will about the old Ninja Gaiden games, but there were always nice visual touches strewn about which indeed may have been too shiny in some cases but were none the less appealing. I don’t know what happened with Ninja Gaiden 3 as the game is honestly ugly at times. Beyond the dark levels which boast no character to them, Ninja Gaiden 3 sports questionable textures, poor blood effects, and character models that simply look like something we would’ve seen two years ago. As I said the Ninja Gaiden series has never been about immense graphical proficiently or amazement, but given the stature of the series I was amazed at how Ninja Gaiden 3 looked like a mid-tier action game instead of something that would be given the tier A moniker. At times the lack in visual detail may not visible due to the hectic action that’s happening, but during a few boss encounters or overly long cutscenes it’s hard not to see graphical touches that were all but excoriating to look at.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is honestly the biggest disappointment I think gamers will see released in 2012. Based on the lineage of the series it’s disappointing to see what the end result is as it could’ve been amazing under the new leadership of Team Ninja but in the end simply fails on nearly every level. With action that’s repetitive and that has no meaning or impact to it, Ninja Gaiden 3 is simply a game that’s trying to mask itself as a ninja action experience. The seemingly fake façade of Ninja Gaiden 3 was definitely broken by the mid-point in the game as I simply fought the same incessant enemies, watched a cutscene with soulless voice acting, and then fought a boss that was simply inane in how it was executed and what it meant for the game as a whole. As much as it may pain me to say this, Ninja Gaiden 3 is a game that fans of the series may be better off not playing and acknowledge its existence as it’s essentially a Devil May Cry 2 incident i.e. game is bad and should not be considered canon by any means. Ryu Hayabusa may still be a ninja legend and I hope he receives a proper game instead of the shallow and ultimately soulless experience that is Ninja Gaiden 3.