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Ninja Gaiden and its thousands of re-releases has for a long time enjoyed being a prime example of what an action videogame can accomplish, challenging difficulty, varied combat, over the top themes, ninjas, magic and enough blood to keep the Red Cross happy for 100 years. While the crushing difficulty has been the Achilles heel when it comes to new players getting the most out of the game, that difficulty and satisfaction of defeating the tough, but for the most part fair, action series is almost unmatched in the gaming landscape. Former Team Ninja Tomonobu Itagaki's vision of the game has lead it to be one of the best action series available for those who want the challenge, it's such a shame when Itagaki is no longer with the company, Ninja Gaiden 3 threatens to be the best in the series, only for it to crumble in on itself and render it a miserable mess.
Ryu Hayabusa is the young super ninja, descendent of the Dragon Lineage and holder of the legendary Dragon Sword, a weapon used to defeat archfiends and to protect humanity. Throughout his campaigns against evil Ryu has made a lot of enemies, and now all the grudges he's set have come back to haunt him. Recruited by the Japanese government he is sent in to investigate a hostage situation, and finds himself fighting for his very survival from an unknown enemy who has cursed him with the blood of all the victims he's taken. Eventually the curse will kill him, but Ryu must stop this shadowy figure before everything he knows is destroyed.
Pretty much standard fanfare for an action game, but where previous titles have focused on Ryu stopping demons and killing the bad guy, there has never been much exploration of Ryu as a character. For the most part he has been portrayed as a stalwart, predominately quiet protagonist who lets his sword do the talking for him. NG3 stands to change this somewhat by turning the story and focusing it on Ryu and his struggle to solve who is trying to kill him, this has also translated into some serious changes in the game design.
For starters there are no puzzles to solve, no secrets to unlock, no hidden areas and nothing to explore. The level design is one continuous flowing run from battle to battle which brings up the biggest problem in the game: it's repetition. Each fight is held on a fairly square field with wave after wave of the same enemy type, clear them out and you think your done? Do it again and again. After about 3-6 waves of the same stuff you move on to the next area and do the same thing again. And again.
Combat isn't exactly clean and fun either. Throughout the entire game you have one weapon. One. Single. Sword to use which means you have virtually the same combos the entire game with power ups only happening at key intervals in the story. It is entirely boring. Previously we had the option of choosing what weapons we wanted for each fight, an array of flails, nun chucks, swords, poles, claws, scythes, each of them with their own unique play styles, combos and upgrades. There is no more of that. It's the same story with Ninpo which has been replaced by a rage meter, which when filled will unleash a dragon that will eat all the characters on screen giving health to Ryu. If you don't use your rage, you'll be given some health after a fight, so when things get tough, you either have to somehow survive or die and start again. There are also no healing items, once again reinforcing the poor design element of be good or don't progress.
The karma system has also gone. Before Ryu would absorb the souls of the deceased as karma, and when his health was getting low blue heath that could keep him sustained. There was also a combo meter which gave some bonuses. That has also been given the axe, further taking this game away from the essence that made the series a fun videogam, and changing it into some dreary exercise in repetition. The only thing that has been added are context sensitive buttons, or quick time events, take off a guys arm or leg and you have the ability to fatally wound him. Instead of killing him the first time Ryu has to do it twice which gets annoying.
Previously you had the ability to do a Izuna drop, a move where Ryu launches his opponent into the air, cuts him to pieces, then grabs him and slams him head first into the pavement, causing his face to explode and him to die. Now when you do it, you have to follow it up with a fatality finisher, all the keep with the theme of Ryu getting close and personal with his victims. It really makes the game drag on and makes it feel like a real grind.
Which brings me to boss fights, or the most heinous of designed battles in the entire game. The largest problem is they are not designed well, with one mysterious character who you must fight 4 or 5 times through the entire story, he is given an array of invincibility frames, attacks that will do 1/3 - 1/2 of your health which are unblockable, and the ability to perform the same move over and over again without interruption. It takes all the challenge away and when combined with a camera that doesn't know where to focus at times, it becomes incredibly infuriating even on the lowest of difficulties.
It's not all bad though, at times the combat can be quite enjoyable, like fighting alongside one of Ryu's former trainee's Momiji from the Nintendo DS spinoff, and trying to reach Ryu's father while fighting off the Spider Ninja clan. This fast paced trek of death and danger is one of the few highlights of the game and it is finished off wonderfully with fighting a giant Spider Deity in the sky which for a boss fight was quite enjoyable.
Unfortunately these moments are fleeting and rare. To re-iterate there is far too much repetition and nowhere near enough variety to keep the player interested. Fighting against the games poor design and sloppy mechanics is too irritating to be taken as enjoyment, and with regular combat being overly chaotic and not structured well makes the entirety of the Ninja Gaiden 3 campaign a major disappointment. In the spirit of keeping a very serious tone and keeping it somewhat sensible (at least by NG standards) all the elements that have been removed really expose how weak the campaign really is.
There is one new feature similar to the missions from NGII, where you start off as a ninja with the most basic of move sets and must meet a series of different challenges, like using shurikans on an enemy, then finishing them off with a steel on bone technique (arm removal) to get points. These points are then used to get new moves for your weapon and to unlock additional clothing options for your ninja. In this mode, the point system has been reinstated, and the combo meter has returned. Although the combat has the same issues as the main story, the fact that these elements made the game at all is a wonderous sight and is perplexing why they weren't included in the main story mode. These missions can also be completed online via co-op, along with a big ol brawl against other opponents online. While it's an okay feature, the amount of effort put into it could have been spent on making the main story a more fulfilling experience.
I don't know how they managed to do it, but Team Ninja have really done some amazing trickery with the aging hardware of the 360 and PS3 and have come up trumps with some really beautiful in engine cinematics and smooth frame rates. Characters are wonderfully detailed, the animations are simply beautiful and the muted graphic tone is quite impressive. It's one of the few things that really can't be faulted in this game are the visual styling's. The audio is also very well executed, voice work is handles quite exceptionally in both English and Japanese, the constant slashing, blood squirting, yelling all syncs together really well and the music gives a great backdrop to the whole escapade.
Once I finished the game I sat there feeling very confused. On the one hand the story was quite enjoyable, we finally get to see a side of Ryu that until now has been shrouded quite heavily and with some great cut scenes thrown in it kept me playing on and on. However, the gameplay has taken such a dramatic shift in the wrong direction, introducing far too many QTE's and removing too much exploration and variation in gameplay. In the end it plays like a game that is far too incomplete, far too limited in scope and with nowhere near enough variation to keep the player interested.
As it stands Ninja Gaiden Black and Ninja Gaiden II on the 360 are the best versions of the series, they are hard, fun rewarding games with much to do. Ninja Gaiden 3 has too much of its core removed and with the promise of weapons and challenge missions as DLC, it's going to be an expensive exercise to buy the final vision of the game which SHOULD BE ON THE DISC IN THE FIRST PLACE! It really plays like a poor imitation of its previous self.
Fans of the series will probably want to try it to see the story through, but for those looking for the challenging game we've come to expect from the franchise, you'll have to look elsewhere. Rent it.