Ninja Gaiden 3 review: Less brutal, less sadistic - and better for it
19th Mar 2012 | 12:18
Finishing a Ninja Gaiden game was a sadistic test of prowess. Notoriously unforgiving and unwelcoming, previous iterations were happy to kick you to the floor right at the start and continue pounding away until you gave up crying like a baby, or, after a torrid few weeks, completed them almost out of spite or bloody-minded perseverance. Until now.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is all about accessibility. It isn't necessarily about dumbing down; it's about choosing how you want to play. The game no longer wants to kick your ass - horror of horrors - it wants you to enjoy the ride. Accessibility runs through everything, from the action (which now features more emphasis on one-button kill moves), to the plot (good, old fashioned world-domination nonsense) to the characters (Ryuremoves his mask, revealing himself to be human after all). It's fair to say long-time fans - and the famously outspoken NG creator Tomonobu Itagaki - will be spitting chips, but the reality is that Ninja Gaiden needs to broaden its appeal or it will die in obscurity.
The story is glorious nonsense, every cut-scene loaded with overblown acting and giant plot-holes. It exists purely to give context to the imagination of the developers. Game Designer X says: "We've built this genetic-mutant boss that can grow new limbs as Ryu chops them off. How do we explain that away?" Game Writer Y says: "No problem, we'll just have Ryu stumble into a bio-engineering lab." Game Designer X replies: "Brilliant! That way I can put in the fight with that dinosaur I've been planning too..." And so on.
SLICE OF LIFE
It's unlikely you'll care much about Ryu's single-handed scrap with a global criminal organisation called The Lords OfAnarchy, but it frames the butchery well. There are even ridiculous, completely unexplained scenes mid-game that let Team Ninja dine out on past Ninja Gaiden glories; contrived tips of the hat to long-time fans that will offend as much as they delight.
The action has changed more than anything, though. On the surface most familiar moves are there - wall-run, flying swallow, Izuna drop - but the combat system around it has changed dramatically. Much as shooters have ditched health packs, so Ninja Gaiden has dropped all items completely. Health refills fully after each fight, and you build up Ninpo (a devastating magical attack) as you land hits.
Rather than being a smart addition to your tactical arsenal, Ninpo is now a get out of jail free card as it wipes out all enemies and refills your health. Obliteration moves are as simple as tapping light/strong attack on a wounded enemy, and the new 'steel on bone' moves are no more than quick-time finishers. Hammer RT/R2 to execute a horrific kill move. Limb removal is out, but brutal slashes from your sword always produce generous spouts of blood. On paper it sounds like Team Ninja have clumsily cut into the game and removed all that made it great, just leaving the stuff that superficially dazzles, but hands-on it feels... right.
Ninja Gaiden 3's new fighting style has subtly tipped the focus from defence and simply staying alive, to aggression and adventure. Enemies will tear you apart if you sit back and block - it's far better to get stuck in and try to chain together steel on bone moves. Devastating a whole group of grunts or fiends with one long combo move makes you feel unnaturally powerful; the most lethal ninja in the world. You're no longer the plaything of a sadistic development team, you're now the puppet-master in a horrifically violent - if poorly acted - play.
MASK OF SORROW
Once you realise that, it's easy to overlook some of the game's more irritating shortcomings. Level design is extremely old-fashioned. Every stage is simply a series of circular arenas linked together by quick-time events. Fight, win, press buttons, watch the incredible cut-scene, fight some more. Bosses can be infuriating, but they're mostly creative and well designed, so hitting restart afew times while scrapping them isn't a chore.
The downside is that the ending, despite featuring a massive boss fight that's strolled straight out of Bayonetta into downtown Tokyo, feels like an anti-climax. When the button-hammering is done, there's no momentum left in the story. Gaiden 3 is meant to focus on the humanisation of Ryu - he's being judged/punished for the thousands of lives he's taken. But aside from his demasking, and a series of increasingly weak scenes where the action turns slow-motion and you have to wrestle the camera through virtual treacle to fight, there's little or no pay-off. In fact, it seems mildly ridiculous that, in order to atone for the lives he's taken, Ryu has to massacre another few thousand people.
When it's over, all that's left is the prospect of a higher difficulty, a quick blast on the Ninja Trails mode (co-op, good) or the woefully misjudged online (er, woefully misjudged). Sure, you'll sink 8-10 hours into the main campaign to finish it, but you'll desperately hanker after more variety as you play. New game buyers will get fresh weapons on the day of release - scythe and talons - and we're certain alternate characters will appear as DLC in a few months - but is that enough? It seems mean-spirited to only feature three weapons, less than half the toys we killed with in Ninja Gaiden 2.
The addition of a proper online deathmatch mode, along with co-op and the regular single-player, shows Ninja Gaidenhas aspirations to become a major player in its genre. It wants to be all things to all people, to offer accessibility beyond its hardcore roots. Results are mixed. Some aspects (like the simpler combat and improved difficulty options) work well, while others (like the online play and semi-serious story) fall flat. The question is, dothe pros outweigh the cons?
The hardcore, who previously gritted teeth and suffered through the punishment are unlikely to forgive the myriad concessions to the wider audience. This is undoubtedly an easier, less tactical game. Everyone else, though, is advised to take advantage of Ninja Gaiden's new found friendliness and show up to butcher some bad guys...