Murderer or Hero?
Ninja Gaiden 3 feels like a departure from previous games in the series if only due to the fact that it feels much more forgiving in its difficulty. Combined with what attempts to be a focus on dramatic narrative, the toned down difficulty seems geared at pulling in a wider audience to travel the path of the ninja. The game repeatedly throws out the question to its players: Is Ryu Hayabusa a murderer or a hero?
Sadly, the story never commits to one or the other, and even cites this fact itself. Fittingly, the actual game the tale is tied around suffers from this same problem of uncertain identity. The story in a nutshell is that Ryu is faced with the moral conflict of killing all of the people he kills, and the solution... is to just keep on killing people. Unlike the story of Kratos, however, who dives headfirst into this tragic spiral with gusto, Ryu's story sputters along in an ill attempt to make him out to be a brooding, tragic hero. Oh, and there are scientific experiments meant to destroy the world.
While in the past, Ryu wielded a variety of weapons, he is limited to only the sword in this title, as well as a bow that feels very tacked on to the mechanics. As is expected, combat is fast and flowing, and once the player is actually able to use all of Ryu's attacks freely (they get stripped down for the earlier portion of the game), it can feel very slick and smooth. Flashy animations abound and even traversing the environment can feel engaging at first. However, everything that the player is tasked with doing in the first hour of the game is essentially what they will be continuing to do for the next seven.
The same quick-time events repeat. The same simplistic combos and death animations repeat. The same handful enemy types repeat. The same group of idiotic threats repeat. The same minibosses repeate. Even one of the actual bosses repeat a few times. The same 'tap the shoulder buttons to climb walls' mechanic repeat. The same process of mashing attacks and using the insta-kill power repeat. And then the one time that the game alters course and tries to be an on-rails shooter is meaningless due to the game's auto-aim bow controls.
Make no mistake, there are plenty of other action-adventure games with campaigns about as long (or longer) than Ninja Gaiden 3 that do admittedly have some of the same issues with repetition. But generally those games, like God of War and Bayonetta, feel progressively different as the game goes by because players upgrade their abilities, learn new moves, and are often presented with different enemy combinations. Ninja Gaiden 3 doesn't do this at all. There is absolutely no motivation for slaying enemies in the campaign—no new moves to learn, no new weapons to unlock, nothing. There are entire chunks of the game where the player can choose to run past enemies to progress—it may even be the better decision.
I considered that perhaps I made the mistake of playing the game on the default “Normal” setting. But even on the “Hard” difficulty, I literally ran through the first level mashing the basic attack button ad nauseum and with some occasional dodging and blocking got through fine, which only served to remind me that this was exactly what I had been doing in the game's final portion as well: sliding, blocking, and mashing attack. Over and over.
This is unfortunate because there are some good things in Ninja Gaiden 3 and some potential for lightning-fast combat. Some will be able to appreciate what's here, and may enjoy the trial mode as well as the fact that gameplay sessions from that mode and even the campaign can be saved and reviewed later. But even that feature itself brings up another problem: the lack of camera control. There's no lock-on option, and all too often the camera will travel right through an enemy as you dodge past them, leaving you vulnerable to attack.
Aside from the trials, there's an online multiplayer (pass required) that players can try out, which essentially copies the combat of the single-player mode and chucks in some more players to fight each other. It's chaotic but not in a good way, resulting in a bunch of ninjas sliding around and mashing attack buttons—which is exactly what you'll likely do in the single player. You can unlock things like extra arrows, alternate ninja suit colors, and um... slightly different arm guards... and different kanji letters to put on the back of your ninja suit. Excitement?
I get the impression that other weapons/characters from prior Ninja Gaiden games will be tacked on as DLC at a later point in the form of unlocks in the online or the trial modes—anything that could have offered more replay incentive. As it stands, I don't expect many will see any point or motivation to go through the campaign a second time or spend more than a few minutes on the online multiplayer.
It sounds pretty grim—fitting for the life of a ninja—but there are some good spots here. The visuals are sharp, if lacking in creativity, and the campaign does go through a variety of locations from London to the Middle East, the Arctic, battlecruisers, and more. Visibility can also become a factor in the gameplay, but the environments don't solve the problem of the bluntly repetitious fighting and in fact sometimes result in the game slowing down, sometimes even to a crawl of about half its normal speed.
For all Ninja Gaiden 3 tries to pull sympathy from its players onto its protagonist, it seems to have lost its way. It's an example of a game that is less than the sum of its parts—each on their own are fine, perhaps even good—because the entire thing is just stretched too thin. A two-hour campaign for a fraction of the cost would have, ironically, been much easier to recommend. But with things as they are, Ninja Gaiden 3 will only satisfy people wanting the video game equivalent to the weekend popcorn action flick.