The Ninja Gaiden franchise is a bit of an anomaly in today's gaming world. A classic NES franchise that seemingly died off in the 16-bit era, only to be revived on the original Xbox in grand fashion, followed by a success of updates and sequels. It's not often that a game series can lay dormant for so long, only to return so triumphantly, but, with Team Ninja at the helm, the new games pushed the boundaries of the ninja subgenre. While the classic titles and the ones adapted for modern console generations have very little in common, there were two ties that bind them; the main character, Dragon Ninja Ryu Hayabusa, and their patience crippling difficulty. Only one of those returns in the series' latest release, Ninja Gaiden 3.
After a terrorist group lays siege on Great Britain and holds the Prime Minister hostage, their only demand is to bring them the famed Ryu Hayabusa. Always ready to step into the role of hero, Hayabusa obliges, thus beginning another twisted tale of deceit, brutality, and (most importantly) lots and lots of sword slashing. As the plot unfolds, it turns out the nefarious corporation LOA is involved, with the brains of the operation being a mysterious masked man, claiming to be a modern day alchemist. It's up to Ryu, and his small support team, to investigate before a final calamity is released on humanity in seven days.
Ninja Gaiden 3 plays out very similarly to its predecessors; it's a third-person ninja game that has you slicing and dicing your way through different types of enemies in a variety of different locations. This time around, Ryu is only packing a few weapons, working his way through a series of different blades, which are complimented by a bow, and his shuriken. A new addition to the series is multiplayer, which can be played in either co-op or competitive modes, both of which are unique experiences, especially in the Ninja Gaiden world.
Ryu's return signifies that a lot of people are going to die, so much so that this has become one of the major story points in the game. Our hero's arm has become infected with a mysterious evil, and is slowly taking over, but that doesn't mean that Ryu is heading over to the dark side. Much like many other parts of the game, the main character gets a bit of a revamp in Ninja Gaiden 3, going from an ice-cold ninja killer to a more visibly emotional man on a mission. If this seems a bit suspect to anyone that has played the previous games in the series, it's just the beginning.
The game's controls received the biggest tweaks in Ninja Gaiden 3, making a shift from a veritable thumb ballet to a much more mash-centric control scheme. Without a host of weapons to choose from, Hayabusa must mainly rely on his sword, which isn't too different from NG1 and NG2, but the button mashing is. Boiled down, the attacks in NG3 mainly consist of pressing "X" a whole lot. You'll find yourself occasionally switching it up with "Y" for a strong attack, and even jumping to "B" for the occasional ninja star, but the vast majority of the battles can be won by button spamming. It's a vast change from a series that has always forced players to be so calculating.
The other big change in NG3 is that fact that most battles can be won by button spamming. That's right, the latest game in the series that has cost you so many smashed controllers has become easier. Ryu will still be swarmed by hordes of foes, but patience, a smart course of attack, and well-timed use of his two special attacks will allow for most gamers to walk through normal mode, at least until the battle with the T-Rex (yup, that happens). Upping the ante to the game's harder settings make for a scenario that is a bit more reminiscent of the previous two games, but it's still not really the same.
Perhaps in an attempt to truly separate this game apart from the rest of the Gaiden series, NG3's multiplayer offers an interesting diversion from the game's solo mode. For starters, there are co-op optional missions, ninja trials that test your skills at taking down waves of bad guys. In addition to that, there's the team-based, competitive clan battle mode, which pits teams of up to four ninjas each against each other. It's a slashing good time, at least for a little while, well worth committing a little energy to if you happen to pick up the game.
Right out of the gate, you get a sense that a lot of focus went into making Ninja Gaiden 3 look amazing, because it does. However, once you see through the polish, it's pretty clear that something is off. It takes a level or two to realize it, but a vital part of the game is clearly missing from Ninja Gaiden 3; that ninja essence just isn’t there. Whether it's that the game's difficulty has been dialed down, the gameplay itself has been streamlined, or the fact that this is the first Ninja Gaiden game without Tomonobu Itagaki at the helm, Gaiden 3 is definitely not on the same level as its predecessors. At its core, it's still a good action game, but fans of this series have come to expect a certain standard of punishing gameplay, no matter what level they're on, and this release just doesn't have it. Maybe it will take a Sigma release to finely tune what is missing, but NG3 will leave fans of the series a bit unsatisfied.