It’s Bloody Bipolar
Ninja Gaiden 3 is a game that I desperately wanted to love. I remember watching videos for it prior to playing it, pumping myself up for its “Steel and Bone” mechanics and darker, more personal storyline. I saw that the combat had changed, heard Hayashi talk about how it would be a more forgiving experience, and tried to keep an open mind. That said, as soon as I popped it in, I flipped the difficulty up to hard and got cracking. The first thing I noticed? The controls.
In fast-paced action games, control is paramount. There isn’t a single standard for them, as different games in the genre have different requirements, but the general consensus seems to be that precision and responsiveness are paramount. A player should be challenged by the enemies on screen, not the controller in his hand. Ninja Gaiden 3 makes some odd choices in this regard, feeling “sticky.” I would also use “rigid,” but for different reasons. Dodging in the game, your primary method of defense, is now also an offensive slide. This is cool, except that it feels difficult to control its direction, and it doesn’t always activate when you want it to do so. In God of War, Bayonetta, and the previous Ninja Gaiden titles, dodging was an integral part of combat, and just another thing you did reflexively. In Ninja Gaiden 3, it feels like an event. Part of this is that it moves Ryu a long distance and takes a lot of frames out of your control.
As I said, the slide’s direction can be difficult to control. This applies mostly with enemies around, when it, and every other attack in your arsenal, seems to lock onto an enemy around you. I say “seems to” because it’s only occasionally an enemy in the direction you’re tilting the stick. Often, Ryu will spin around as soon as you press the attack button, or dash (on his own) to a distant enemy. This works well for boss battles, but is frustrating in group combat, since Ryu will take a lot of unintentional swings at enemies who aren’t an imminent threat and put himself in harm’s way.
Combat in general is unsatisfying, which is unfortunate since it’s the core of the experience. For the most part, it’s fairly easy—there was a point at which I was falling asleep while playing, not really looking at what was on the screen while punching in a few core combos over and over. When some flashy stuff happened, I jerked awake to see Ryu laying waste to the last villain. Enemies don’t attack smartly: They attack with numbers, spawning reinforcements four or five times in battles that are only ever challenging due to their interminable length. That also makes them exceptionally boring, especially when played one after another. They drag on and don’t offer a sense of progress until suddenly there just aren’t anymore enemies.
In fact, fighting only really gets difficult when Ryu comes up against enemies who don’t get launched into the air. This limits his combo choices considerably, and keeps him very open to throws, which these (generally large and powerful) foes are all too happy to perform. Even then, it’s only really a problem because the only way to heal in combat is to use ninpo, which is now linked to a “Ki” bar that builds as Ryu damages and kills his opponents. Whatever progress you make on the meter is wiped out at the end of each encounter, at which point it helps recover your health. If you fill it up all the way, though, Ryu can launch an extremely powerful ninpo attack that seems to instantly eviscerate everything on the screen and restore his health proportionate to the number of enemies caught in it. Sometimes, usually when it would be most useful, the game decides that you won’t be able to do this. Certain encounters are rigged so that striking enemies doesn’t significantly build the Ki bar, and obliteration techniques (which normally give it a massive boost) don’t fill it at all. This is doubly frustrating since the amount you heal after an encounter is directly tied to how full the Ki bar is, making these battles wars of attrition. Can you keep Ryu’s health high enough long enough to push through? It forces you to be cautious, taking it slow in a game that already asks you to spend far too long on a single encounter.
This “until we say so” theory of gameplay extends to Ryu’s “ultimate technique” as well, which sometimes just refuses to activate even when his arm is pulsing red. Is this an intentional thing? A glitch? Is it just not glowing enough? The game is unclear about it. Not knowing when or where you’ll be able to use your abilities takes a lot of the strategy out of the game’s combat, and homogenizes the action in a title that already lacks variety in its combat engine.
More weapons are coming, but the only one you have right now, both in the campaign and in multiplayer, is a sword. Projectile-wise, you also have shuriken and a bow. I like that the bow is now mapped to its own button, allowing for a player to use whichever ranged weapon is most appropriate on the fly. There is one ninpo, in the campaign. It is super useful when you can use it, but you’ll be seeing that fiery dragon very often. There are maybe half a dozen basic enemy types who you’ll see over the game, with different costumes as appropriate to their location. They all look similar enough, though, that you can tell which is which as soon as you see them. None of this is helped by the environments, which generally lack the sorts of architecture one needs to really use them in combat, which reduces Ryu’s overall mobility, as well.
As one-note as the combat may feel, though, the game’s new “cinematic” features do manage to spice things up. “Bone and Steel” attacks, which freeze the action and zoom in on Ryu as he’s blade-deep in an enemy’s chest, offer a visceral thrill as he performs a visually satisfying kill that coats his blade and body in the enemy’s blood. Pressing a button to continue these is initially prompted, but soon becomes intuitive and satisfying. Once enemies are out of commission, they stumble or crawl around until they either expire on their own or you deign to finish them with a flashy, brutal obliteration technique.
This is a game that earns its M rating with endless waterfalls of crimson and close-ups of particularly brutal kill animations, though it’s strange that there’s rarely any sort of decapitation or limb removal. Bodies in the Ninja Gaiden 3 world appear to be made of sterner stuff.
Multiplayer, too, is a neat addition. Clan battles are fast and hectic, rewarding those who think quickly and take advantage of the chaos of others. It uses a level system that unlocks new costume parts, but also enhances one’s abilities (including such basic things as what sword techniques one has available), which means that those who have been playing longer have a tremendous advantage. Luckily, levels gained in the Ninja Trials, which can be played either solo or through online co-op, carry over, meaning that one can increase one’s repertoire before jumping into online matches. There’s definitely some lag and hitching when playing online, but it’s only occasionally a frustration. Pulling off a stealth kill or a “Bone and Steel” finisher in multiplayer is immensely satisfying, and well worth the occasional network hiccups.
The story is a tremendous step up from previous entries, with a more vocal and sympathetic take on protagonist Ryu and a villain who tends to wax philosophical. He oozes melodrama and that, combined with his thick British accent, makes him fun to watch during cutscenes. There’s a child involved, and it’s incredibly awkward almost any time anyone speaks to her, but the game’s attempts at pathos are appreciated, even if they often fall flat. There are some neat nods back to previous games in the series as well, both with regard to plot and gameplay. Some of these references actually stretch all the way back to the original NES games, which fans of the series are sure to appreciate.
It’s odd, though, that there’s so much there for the fans in a title that generally seems ashamed of its roots. There are so many generic action games out there, did we really need Ninja Gaiden to become another? I desperately wanted to love Ninja Gaiden 3 and, as I played the game, I found things in it that definitely demanded praise and consideration. I never really crossed that threshold, though, and there were several moments that induced frustration—whether due to the wonky controls, throw-happy enemies, or artificial limits on Ryu’s ability usage—that were clearly just poor design choices.
Ninja Gaiden 3, I’m sorry, but I’d like to just stay friends.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Visceral, satisfying kills and compelling character designs in vast and varied environments: this game looks good . 3.0 Control
Combat feels inexact, with Ryu doing too much per button press or movement of the stick. He feels unwieldy at times, and it makes the combat far less satisfying 3.5 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
While the sound effects of combat are superb, the music is fairly generic rock and the enemies tend to spout the same lines over and over again. 3.0 Play Value
I’ll definitely be coming back to the multiplayer, but this isn’t the sort of game where it feels necessary to keep going back to the campaign and refining my tactics. 3.3 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best