Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge has reestablished my wobbling faith in the house that Itagaki built (but no longer inhabits). It succeeds where its predecessor failed because it effectively incorporates what players missed about earlier games in the series into the basic shell of Ninja Gaiden 3, a game that wasn’t outright bad, but certainly lacked the feel, and core, of a Ninja Gaiden title.
And, having proven that they are distinctly capable of continuing the legacy of this modern Ninja Gaiden reboot, it falls to Tecmo Koei, now bereft of Team Ninja in name, to continue their passage through the valley of blood and gore, over the mountains of swords and shuriken, to the holy land of a perfect Ninja Gaiden sequel (and not Yaiba; that’s a Keiji Inafune-headed spin-off).
Because, while it may be many things, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge is not perfect.
Step One: Simplify
It’s not that combat is especially complex or confusing in Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge. The pace is fast, the flow is smooth, and the gore is enjoyable. Enemies generally have distinct and noticeable patterns that aren’t so simple as to be outright “solved,” but certainly allow one to react.
Too often, though, the fighting feels abstracted by the long flourishes Ryu works into his combos. It looks dynamic and exciting, but it takes control away from the player for a bit and ends up making the combat feel a little vague and automatic. This is a trend that actually stretches back to Ninja Gaiden Sigma, which used the dual katana weapon as an excuse to turn Ryu into a lidless Cuisinart. Again, while it looks good, it ends up feeling button-mashy, and Ninja Gaiden is at its best when it’s precise.
To this end, encounters don’t need to be too massive. Make the enemies smarter, not more prolific. Combat with them should be a thrilling exercise in almost fighting-game-esque precision and reaction. For what it’s worth, I think a no-damage playthrough of the original Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden Black felt feasible, even for me. Ninja Gaiden 2 and 3? No way in hell. I like when it feels like the game is balanced in such a way that skill is all you really need. Take out the luck element.
Step Two: Fix the Camera
This is the seemingly unsolvable quandary of three-dimensional gaming. While it’s pretty and offers so much more freedom of movement and overall gameplay potential than a title confined to two dimensions, three-dimensional games tend to struggle with the player’s viewpoint. Where should they sit while they watch the action? Should it be a static throne? A fly buzzing around, following their protagonist’s back?
Ninja Gaiden and its sequels have done a decent job with this, but the camera tends to be a bit sluggish and gets trapped in corners. Its love of dramatic and preset angles for ultimate techniques exacerbates this issue, since the camera then has to reset afterward. In the third game and its remix alike, this becomes a particularly notable issue since there camera does a similar trick during Steel on Bone maneuvers and it also introduces the “snap-to-enemy” targeting mechanism for the bow. It can be very disorienting, especially in a boss fight that mostly sticks the focus to the boss itself.
Speaking of such battles, since those bosses tend to be in the background, the camera is the primary force of chaos in such situations, forcing the player to choose from an effective angle for combating agile foes or one that allows the player to avoid the boss itself when it strikes into the foreground. A nice middle ground would be awesome.
Step Three: Power to the Player
The biggest complaint about Ninja Gaiden 3, and one that still holds partially true in its most recent update, is that it wrests control from the player too much. Rather than leaving the player to make their own mistakes in combat, it tends to revel in set piece moments, automated QTE or button-mashing moments that interrupt the flow of battle. It epitomizes this with a bow and arrow that auto-targets so superbly that taking out distant rocket launchers or flying enemies is an exercise in repeatedly dash jumping, tapping the targeting button, popping off an arrow, and moving once more. You can be sure it’ll hit.
While this certainly improves the pace of the game, it does take away some of the purpose for such elements, which were primarily tied to now-absent puzzle solving. Enemies in your immediate vicinity already have ranged attacks. Either use the distance weapons for puzzles and give the player control of them, or excise them entirely.
Step Four: Break Up the Pacing
Ninja Gaiden 3, and even Ninja Gaiden 2, really, are obscenely hectic games. They take the player from one fight to the next with nary a chance to breathe in between. The original, meanwhile, had a hub world of sorts, an open city one could explore and fight in while traveling from mission to mission. It also had some puzzles of the “insert glowing relic A into doom receptacle B” variety. They weren’t stellar, and some of the platforming puzzles were outright frustrating (Ninja Gaiden’splatforming is kind of loose, but that’s okay), but they did tend to break up the action and provide a change of pace from the constant slaughter.
Actually, some of my favorite moments in Razor’s Edge involved figuring out how to navigate the environment to begin a Crystal Skull challenge. I’d love to see that sort of minor “put on your thinking cap” type of road block make its way into the next Ninja Gaiden.
Step Five: Chekhov’s Gun
If you’re going to make us perform stealth kills in the first level of your game, don’t spend the rest of the title disabusing us of the notion that we can be stealthy. No, Ninja Gaiden games aren’t traditionally about stealth, but Hayashi and company wanted to work it in. Ryu is, after all, an assassin of sorts. The issue is that, after one or two opportunities for stealth kills, they’re almost entirely absent. Enemies begin each encounter aware of you for the rest of the game.
Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance showed that a fast-paced action game can still have satisfying stealth action. It doesn’t make set pieces out of it, instead working that stealth into the rest of the game as a consistent option, because it allows the player to instigate most encounters instead of immediately finding themselves beset upon by the enemy. Learn from this example, Ninja Gaiden team.
Step Six: Tell Us a Story
Ninja Gaiden 3 has some moments that actually make me feel. This is more because I’m overly emotional than because the game actually tells a good story, but it actually does a pretty good job of fleshing Ryu and his friends out into actual characters instead of the caricatures they were in games past. This is, unfortunately, a bit inconsistent, with individual characters’ voices wavering throughout, but I definitely think it’s a step in the right direction with regard to story.
Actually, the best writing in the series might be from a spinoff game. Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, on the Nintendo DS, used the Hayabusa village as its hub, which introduced us to many of Ryu’s friends and charges for the first time. We interacted with them on a basis other than slash-stab-explode, and there was definitely something engaging about the way they were portrayed. More of that would be terrific.
I’m sure there’s more that I’ve forgotten, details related to gameplay and presentation that lovers of the Ninja Gaiden franchise would want to see in a prospective Ninja Gaiden 4. For them, I invite you to pitch your ideas in the comments, where we can all gather around and argue as to whether we want puzzles or straight-up combat, flashier combos or greater precision, and if the dreamy Dragon Ninja is better suited to Mizuki or Irene.
Maybe that last one only interests me.
Date: April 12, 2013
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*