Fans have been waiting four years for a true Ninja Gaiden game, but the lack of former Director Itagaki has some people worried. Team Ninja has been going in a significantly easier and less bloody direction ever since Itagaki left, but those issues only affected the Sigma versions of the games.
So does an Itagaki-less Ninja Gaiden translate into a bad Ninja Gaiden? Well, yes and no.
Ninja Gaiden III’s whole mantra is “more focus on violence, less focus on dismemberment”. Ryu will have to deal with everyone he has previously killed – literally, as he now has a curse attached to his arm, that forces him to “feel” the sorrow of everyone he’s killed. So does it work? Do you actually feel for Ryu, or do you want to just go “slashy slashy” on everyone?
To be blunt, no. Ninja Gaiden fans don’t play Ninja Gaiden games to cry over a nameless slawjacked soldier: they play them to execute cool combos and to conquer a challenge. If emotional engagement was done in a proper way (preferably in another series), it would have been a fine experiment, but that’s not really what happens here. For a few moments, you may feel emotional attachment to the soldier who begs for his life on behalf of his family — but 2,000 meat-sacks later, you won’t really care.
So how does the game attempt to present this concept? For starters, enemies will occasionally beg for their lives. It’s kind of a cool idea, but given the backdrop of the series, it kind of falls flat. For instance, it’s a bit hard to get emotional during a game that features giant robot T-Rex boss fight.
One initially cool aspect is that minor enemies will realistically cower in fear after using the only ninpo attack (summoning a giant skyscraper fire dragon) — but this quickly gets old, and becomes more of an expected reaction than an emotionally effective one. Ninpo itself is now completely stripped away; a shadow of it’s former self mechanic that you are forced to use periodically use rather than save up strategically for encounters.
Ninja Gaiden III also offers a few new mechanics in addition to the “emotion” system. Kunai climbing (basically vertical rock climbing with picks) is fairly throwaway, and the stealth kill system are among a few of them. Both of these mechanics can be widely ignored and are a useless addition to the game. Ryu also has a new sliding technique (that will be required to get around in the field), that replaces the old rolling move — this pretty much functions the same as the roll (but doesn’t feel as fluid). Combat wise, you’re going to be stuck with the Dragon Sword the entire game — so fans of using multiple weapons are going to be disappointed (although new weapons will oddly arrive through free DLC).
Another aspect you might be worried about is all the QTE videos you’ve seen up until this point. Thankfully, the constant QTEs during normal combat can be turned off, so no complaints there. Some large encounters will still have QTEs God of War style, but they’re not incredibly offensive, and I had fun with them — I’m just thankful they’re not needed for every single enemy.
But while QTEs are missing, the”Steel on bone” mechanic, which zooms in really close so you can “feel” the impact of the enemy’s death is annoying. As a general rule, I want the camera to be as zoomed out as possible to get a view of the action — I don’t want the game to constantly zoom in and distract my tactics. But then again, it’s not like I’d really need that extra assistance, given the low difficulty level.
To be clear, if you’re looking for a massive challenge, prepare to be disappointed. Ninja Gaiden III, at times, is easier than Sigma II. Series veterans are going to want to start on Hard, and even then, you won’t really be having fun until you play Master Ninja. A new free harder difficulty mode is coming later via DLC (see the trend?!), but until then we can’t comment on the viability of this mode. There is also no more Muramasa’s Shop, no more yellow currency essences, and no more Dragon Statues — talk about streamlined.
But not all hope is lost, as Ninja Gaiden III is still a serviceable action game despite all of the steps backwards for the series. For the most part, the game’s locales are enticing (some of them are the coolest looking in the series), enemy designs at least look cool, and the game looks gorgeous to boot. Just like past games in the series, it won’t be hard to lose yourself in the mythos of Ninja Gaiden and you’re still capable of having a good time slicing and dicing foes. In the interest of longevity, you don’t really unlock anything significant for the story mode, which is a stark contrast to the rest of the series). Unlocks are multiplayer focused, which will no doubt piss off a lot of long time fans.
So the single player has some issues, but does the online-pass-required multiplayer work? Like the main game — sort of. Coop missions are extremely fun, but very short lived. Missions usually run around ten minutes, and that’s it. While you can go solo, no local coop is included — so if you don’t have online access, you’re completely out of luck. The missions themselves are sort of like Call of Duty’s Spec Ops mode, which is to say that there’s a ton of fun — I really wish that this mode was expanded upon, as it would have made the total package much more enticing.
Competitive multiplayer seeks to pit ninjas in four on four combat, but that’s also a fairly shallow affair. Despite the attempts at customization, every match feels pretty much the same, and the low level count doesn’t help increase the fun factor (more levels coming via DLC!). Because of the lack of depth, you’re probably going to outright skip this mode after a few tries — it simply doesn’t offer anything new. For those of you who do dig it however, there are unlockable moves and attacks available.
Ultimately, Ninja Gaiden III is a step back for the series, but it’s still better than a number of action games currently on the market. It’s a shame that Itagaki is gone, but at least all hope isn’t completely lost for a turnaround.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 game Ninja Gaiden III
[In the interest of disclosure, again, we tested the Xbox 360 version of the game, which did not have Playstation Move support]