In today’s increasingly risky console market, publishers have found that sticking to what’s tried and tested works best. Thus, annual sequels that recycle the same gameplay concepts and mechanics with minimal possible enhancements abound, and they all sell by the millions every year.
Some publishers and developers, however, choose to actually try new things every now and then, often within the confines of an existing IP. It is a dangerous gamble, as not only might the new market not be receptive to the the game at all, but the publishers risk losing or alienating their existing fanbase as well. It is therefore a move that should be lauded, more so if it is pulled off well.
Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden 3, the third installment in the visceral action series that rebooted on the Xbox nearly a year ago, falls into this category of new directions. Unfortunately, it fails in the execution, and we are left with a game that alienates its existing fanbase, and fails to make any new ones thanks to its generally all round implementation of its new mechanics and direction.
Ninja Gaiden 3 attempts to humanize series badass Ryu, by trying to tell a story that chronicles his moral tribulations and his struggles as he kills countless of people on his odyssey. The entire attempt, while admirable, comes off as a bit forced, especially since the game, by its very nature, requires you to kill waves upon waves of enemies, often immediately following a sequence where the player is asked to question the morality of Ryu’s actions by some character or the other in the game (whom you then also promptly kill). While it is admirable that the game tries this direction, there is nothing to be said for it, because it is a theme that many other games have also (almost equally poorly) addressed in the past, and, owing to this game’s poor execution, one that brings nothing to the table, not for this game, not for the genre, not for the series, and nothing for games in general.
The story by itself shall raise a fair few eyebrows among series fans, mostly because of its controversial decision to ‘unmask’ Ryu in its quest to find the man behind the ninja. Whereas overall, it makes no difference to the gameplay itself, the legend and myth might be deteriorated by this move, as the unmasked Ryu might not necessarily live up to whatever ideal players had developed of him over the years; a bit like Metroid: Other M and its controversial handling of Samus Aran, actually, a game which, incidentally, Team Ninja also developed.
On the whole though, while the unmasking of Ryu can come off as jarring, and a bit of a misnomer to long time series fan (going as far back as the NES games; I doubt there is any fan who is going to be particularly happy with the move), on the whole, it makes no difference to the gameplay, which is about killing. Lots of killing.
Speaking of killing, predictably, you’ll be doing a lot of it in this game. Only, players who have honed their visceral action and combo chaining skills with the past two entries of these games, or any of their numerous remakes, might as well just either sit this one out, or prepare to relearn everything. Ninja Gaiden 3 dumbs down the complex and often elegant combos and chains that the previous two games used, to the extent that you can pretty much get through the entire game just by spamming the X or the Y button. In fact, there are multiple ‘combo’ attacks that are unleashed simply by pressing the X or Y buttons repeatedly, which kind of defeats the point of ‘combos.’ While it is true that there are multiple ‘real’ combos also on offer, on the whole, the player is given no incentive to use them, since just by spamming one button, it is possible to make your way through the game.
Other changes to the formula abound. For instance, Ninja Gaiden 3 incorporates Quick Time Events. But, in what is becoming a theme for this review, and for this game by extension, they are very poorly implemented. The game literally gives you many seconds to respond to each button prompt, to the extent that it often feels like you could have waited for as long as you liked before you pressed the button. Given the purpose of QTE’s- building tension- this seems like a pointless addition that fluffs up an already weak gameplay system.
Other additions, such as wall climbing and stealth killing, are all equally pointless, and generally disappoint. What also disappoints is how existing elements, such as the Ninpo system, have been entirely held back, and the fact that there is only one weapon with no leveling up. Seriously, the game is a disappointing affront on almost all levels, and more so to series fans than anyone else, who have demanded and come to expect a hardcore experience delivered with every entry.
What will disappoint players more than anything else, however, is probably the fact that the game removes all dismemberment and gore, with its new ‘blade on bone’ approach. Again, series fans used to the thrill and satisfaction that comes from pulling off a particularly bloody and violent kill in a spectacular fashion by a long series of button presses are likely to find themselves underwhelmed, and ultimately disappointed.
Is there anything, then, that Ninja Gaiden 3 does right? The story is well meant, but poor in execution. The gameplay changes attempt to make what has traditionally been a rather esoteric franchise accessible to everybody, but ultimately fail entirely due to being incredibly shallow. There are some moments of visual brilliance, but the graphics are overall bland, Ninja Gaiden 3 is nowhere the technical masterpiece that the Xbox original, or even Ninja Gaiden 2, were. There is a multiplayer mode, that’s fun for probably the first ten minutes.
It is a game that attempts a lot of things, and fails at everything it tries. In its bid to make new fans, the game alienates existing fans, and fails to make any new ones to compensate. While not a horrible game, Ninja Gaiden 3 is an incredible disappointment, and one that I cannot in good conscience recommend. Maybe when the price has dropped, you can check it out. I suspect many OCD collectors will need to own it, just to complete the series set. On the other hand, I can very well imagine series fans saying years from now ‘Ninja Gaiden 3? What Ninja Gaiden 3? There were only two Ninja Gaiden games, and both of them were awesome…
This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360
The button mashing gameplay can be fun; the game attempts a new direction
Dumbed down gameplay, controversial story, bland graphics, removal of blood and gore, absence of combos and dumbing down of Ninpo, failed attempt at introducing morality, QTEs that fail at doing anything, an overall underwhelming disappointment