How Sharp Is This Blade?
Back in March of 2004, Tecmo did a fantastic job rebooting a series that was heralded on Nintendo’s old bit consoles. The series, of course, was Ninja Gaiden, which evoked fond memories for gamers who remembered the simple yet satisfying ninja side-scrolling of an age long past. The series returned, receiving critical acclaim as well as excellent gamer support. Staying true to the expert challenge level, using fluid and satisfying combat controls, and, of course, splashing a little blood here and there, it was instantly likeable by the hardcore gaming audience, whether or not they were fans of the martial arts.
Now, however, it seems the spotlight has dimmed. The trailers and gameplay footage for the upcoming entry, Ninja Gaiden 3, are still receiving a few cheers, but those cheers are subsiding much more quickly. In fact, it almost seems that the weight of the criticisms and anxiety are burdening the shoulders of developer Team Ninja and publisher Tecmo, no longer under the guidance of legendary designer, Tomonobu Itagaki. Nonetheless, Team Ninja continues to work diligently to overcome all skepticism, bringing some fresh ideas to this longstanding franchise. So how is the project looking so far?
In Ninja Gaiden 3, the action blends with a political story, as London is seized by terrorists and the Prime Minister taken hostage. But the singular purpose of this attack is to lure hero Ryu Hayabusa out of the shadows. After coming face to face with the terrorist leader—known only as the Regent of the Mask—Ryu is struck with a curse on his right arm, which leaves it stricken with pain and soaked in blood. This curse, called the Grip of Murder, is powered by the lives cut short by the sharp blade of Ryu’s katana.
Despite taking the form of a curse, the Grip of Murder actually builds to an ultimate attack after a certain number of enemies are killed, as Ryu’s arm glows red with searing heat. The long-term consequences of this curse remain a mystery, but it’s likely we’ll see some wear on Ryu’s conscience as the story unfolds.
A few changes to the combat strategy will have you retune your controls if you’ve just come off a refresher run through Ninja Gaiden II. The Reverse Wind technique, the go-to dodge maneuver, has been replaced by a slide, which closes the gap quickly between Rya and his enemies, staggering them briefly. It will also be used during exploration to access low-profile areas. Another new and multiuse feature comes in the form of kunai knives, which can take down snipers on rooftops or help Ryu reach those rooftops by acting as a climbing tool.
Although Ninja Gaiden 3 is certainly not skimping on blood, an interesting development choice is the removal of decapitations. It’s true that some players may tire of that sort of thing, depending on who you ask, but considering the typical extent of violence that comes from using an extremely sharp blade, the authenticity of the action may be questionable here. Of course, the new slow-motion cinematic camera shots of your blade piercing the torso of a terrorist thug and slicing through bone will have you checking Mortal Kombat for comparisons, but these new slow-mo visuals may work against the quick combat pacing the series is known for.
The Muramasa store has also been eliminated, and instead of upgrading your weapons using essence, they will simply upgrade over time during gameplay. The Dragon Statues (save points) have been replaced with falcons that swoop down at specific checkpoints. Thankfully, the Ninpo magic is still an alternative in combat, but instead of slots, a green bar is filled as enemies are killed.
Ninja Gaiden 3 will attempt to improve upon the multiplayer seen in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, the only iteration in the modern series to incorporate it. Surprisingly, the highlighted mode is not going to be a free-for-all Deathmatch; there will be a strong focus on co-op instead. Ninja Trials will pair you with other players to tackle objective-based missions, with some fiendishly difficult scenarios, much like the challenge you’ll find in the single-player campaign. Clan Battles will allow you to test your skilled team against others around the world, competing for experience to spend on customization and item unlocks. A dozen player-controlled ninjas slicing through the arena sounds like fun, but from gameplay footage so far, the level design could stand to use some work and the movement speed could benefit from a little more pressure on the gas pedal. Considering multiplayer is a relatively new feature for the Ninja Gaiden series, it will be interesting to see how the finished product holds up against the stiff competition.
Ninja Gaiden has an iconic history, and the series reboot did a fine job enrapturing us once again. However, the newest entry is taking us on a slight detour from what we’ve come to expect, and only the full release will be enough for us to know which way to turn our thumbs. Fortunately, both PS3 and Xbox 360 owners will have the same game to test, and even those awaiting Nintendo’s Wii U will have this one to look forward to once the system is released.