Ninja Gaiden 3 Preview

Hack, slash, stab, cut, thrust, chop, slice, block, dash. Now repeat!

At the Team Ninja event in San Francisco, we were told by Ninja Gaiden 3’s designer, Yosuke Hayashi, that the theme of the game is “Unmask", promising to reveal the character of Ryu Hayabusa as a Japanese dark hero and as a human being. The press release they handed out with fancy Team Ninja letterhead even reads, “Once seen only as a mindless killing machine, players will unravel layers of their hero as they see his motivations and learn about the man behind the mask.” After the end of the press conference, when I got to play the game, I killed scores of human enemies who erupted into fountains of blood, some of whom protested in fear before I stabbed them through the chest. I’m not sure exactly how this reveals Ryu’s humanity, but we were told it was only the second level.

After the brief cinematic revealing the desert setting, the level introduces the game’s bow mechanic while Ryu is attacked by enemies on what looks like the sand version of jet-skis (sand-skis?). When the left shoulder button is held down, Ryu’s bow automatically locks on to the front-end of the vehicles, which takes several hits before exploding. Just for kicks, I panned up to fire at the chest of one of the riders, which caused the explosion in one shot. I couldn’t do it a second time to confirm whether or not it was just a fluke, but it accomplished what every action game should: It made me feel like a badass.

Shortly after using the bow to snipe enemies with rocket launchers from a series of towers, the game gets into the nitty-gritty of close combat. Intense and fast, Ryu responsively whips from one combatant to the next, occasionally pausing for a quick-time event to cleave straight through hapless foes. When Ryu’s cursed red vein-encrusted arm glows red, an attack becomes available where Ryu dashes from one foe to the next, gutting them with an instant kill.

These periods of slashing and cleaving are broken up by rebounding wall jumps, wall runs, and gymnastic leaps from one beam to the next. Yup, it’s Ninja Gaiden. The new Kunai Climb mechanic, which that has Ryu digging the knives into a wall, is reminiscent of the ice-climbing section from Modern Warfare 2.

The demo ends with a fight between Ryu and three magic-wielding characters, Alchemists, who fire spherical blobs made out of black cubes. (Sub-Zero wannabes…) A strong sword attack removes their ability to fire the blobs and defend themselves against quick attacks, but it's a challenge to manage all three at once.

Before reaching the three, a glowing golden falcon indicates a save point. Out of curiosity, I tried to shoot it with Ryu’s bow to see if it would remove the ability to save, but the arrow missed. All things considered, it’s probably a good thing you can’t kill your save-point icon.

If there’s one thing that’s worrying about this build of Ninja Gaiden 3, it’s that the awesome dismemberments from the previous game have been removed. Though several dead enemies seemed to have their arm lying next to them, detached, they remained attached while the character was alive. The demo lacks health potions or other power-ups, and health was restored following the end of each fight. I’m not sure if Ryu’s glowing arm is considered some form of ninpo magic, but otherwise, these are also missing from the level; however, since magic attacks appears in the multiplayer component, they’re sure to appear in the single-player experience.

The developers took time at the press conference to highlight the game’s new multiplayer section, suggesting that an action, non-shooter game multiplayer component has never really been done successfully. The four-on-four match they had available allowed players to create a cosmetically customizable ninja with different masks or headgear, forearm, shinguards, a Japanese kanji character on the back, and multiple colors of ninja gis.

The map available takes place in a medieval Japanese village, and allows players to use the same move-set as the single-player experience… for the most part. Different from the single-player demo is a magic bar underneath the health bar that's built up slowly by attacking enemies. This bar continues to power-up even after a character dies and respawns; when full, the player can unleash a magical ninpo attack, which kills almost everything in a single direction if the opposing ninja doesn't dodge. (A ninja who gets hit doesn't deserve to live anyway.)

It's a blast to climb up the side of a building to fire flaming arrows down at members of the other team below, or snap a few shuriken at a foe to put them off-balance, and then move in for the kill with a series of bloody blade attacks. While less exciting to be caught in one of these attacks (or anywhere near the dreaded ninpo magic blast), the block, and especially the dash technique, becomes extremely handy in avoiding damage. In one match, a fellow writer pointed out that one of the developers was sitting in, who subsequently cleaned everyone’s clocks by unleashing wave after wave of ninpo magic. Let’s hope the game has a good matchmaking component…

Ninja Gaiden 3 is the first game in the current series not to be directly supervised by former Team Ninja lead Tomonobu Itagaki, who left in 2008 to found Valhalla Game Studios. So far it looks like Team Ninja has risen to the challenge and is developing a game that continues the legacy of lightning-fast, blood-drenched ninja action. Ninja Gaiden 3 is slated to release in March 2012.