Evolution or De-Evolution?
When a series has been around as long as Ninja Gaiden has, it can become quite a challenge to keep things fresh. A series needs to evolve and grow in order to keep discriminating gamers and fans interested. Yet, sometimes change is bad, especially when you begin to forget things that made a game great. Ninja Gaiden 3 is the third entry in the modern Ninja Gaiden series that debuted on the original Xbox back in 2004. Ninja Gaiden (2004) was a critical hit and was praised for it's slick visuals and challenging difficulty. In 2008 Ninja Gaiden received a sequel that continued with the story of serial protagonist Ryu Hayabusa. Ninja Gaiden 2's gameplay was centered around completely over the top violence and gore which drew the ire of some censors and with its awkward camera and nonsensical story yawns from some critics. Which brings us to 2012 and Ninja Gaiden 3 the latest entry in the series and the first to use the PlayStation 3's Move motion controller. The biggest difference between then and now is that lead designer Tomonobu Itagaki is no longer with Team Ninja having left just after the release of Ninja Gaiden 2. Until now, I had no idea that he had taken all of the fiends, weapons, and challenge with him.
Suspension of Disbelief
Ninja Gaiden has always had a story that requires the player to have a certain suspension of disbelief, not just because you're fighting ancient demons and fiends but because of some of the fantastical things that super ninja Ryu Hayabusa can accomplish. Now while I may have bought that Hayabusa can slice and dice thousands of enemies like julienne fries and reflect machine gun fire with nothing but his Dragon Sword I have to draw the line somewhere. That point comes on Day 3 in Ninja Gaiden 3 when Hayabusa jumps out of a cargo plane without a parachute, skydives while dogging anti-aircraft fire, and lands right on top of one of the aforementioned flak cannons only slice it in half. He then makes his way through the jungle fighting literal “ninja dogs”, German Shepherds that do flips and everything and to top it all off, does battle with a genetically engineered metallic Tyrannosaurs Rex. Nobody would ever say that the Ninja Gaiden series is routed in reality but come on. The last two games at least had some form mysticism to them. Ninja Gaiden 3 tries to explain everything with junk science and futuristic technology. I can say that I enjoyed the game's plot on a purely ironic level. I was having fun with all the ridiculous feats of fancy but I have a hard time describing the story as any kind of good. I'm still trying to wrap my head around why a ninja like Ryu Hayabusa would go and work for the government simply because they asked him to.
Sex and Violence
Ninja Gaiden 3 is pretty different from the previous games in the series. First of all, Ninja Gaiden 3 introduces compatibility with the PlayStation 3's Move motion controller. However, this functionality is only available by playing on “Heroic” (Easy) difficulty. Being a fan of the challenge normally found in the series I stayed far away from the Heroic setting. Playing on normal was okay but nowhere near as difficult or as satisfying as it has been in the previous games. Finishing Ninja Gaiden (2004) is one of my proudest achievements in gaming, Ninja Gaiden 3 provides me with no bragging rights what so ever. Sure, it was no cake walk but I never had to spend 3 months on a single boss with this game. Another thing that was sorely missed, in my opinion, were other weapons. There were three different swords at my disposal throughout the game but all of them pretty much felt the same. I was hoping for some claws like in Ninja Gaiden 2 or the return of nunchucku, but sadly anything other than a sword comes only in the form of DLC. One change I did appreciate is that the female characters actually wear practical clothes in this game. If you're familiar with the way women are typically dressed in Ninja Gaiden games then you know what I’m talking about. Finally, at least one designer at Team Ninja realized that skimpy leather thongs are not ideal for battle.
While I doubt that quick time events are new to the series there is quite a lot of them in Ninja Gaiden 3. I actually enjoyed them for the most part. In truth I found them to be a good replacement for some of the more difficult jumping puzzles that have plagued me in previous games. Again, to their credit, the QTEs are executed well both inside and outside of combat. While I never really found any of the enemies to be particularly difficult except for the Alchemist who is as skilled with a sword as Hayabusa, I did find it very annoying that almost every enemy has an unblock-able throw attack which can devastate your health as you watch helplessly. At first they didn't use it much but as you get further into the game the enemy A.I. relies on this strategy far too often. There were also times where I found the controls themselves to be unresponsive. I'm not sure if this is an input problem or an animation problem but I found it difficult to switch techniques easily so had to stick with the basic attack combo of quick quick strong to be effective against most enemies.
Ninjas Need Not Apply
Just once I’d like to be a ninja in a videogame. Unfortunately, despite it's title Ninja Gaiden 3 is not that game but they almost tricked me in to thinking it was. During the first level I was introduced to “surprise kills” which led me to believe that this game might actually let me be stealthy like a ninja but no dice. There is almost zero stealth required in Ninja Gaiden 3 most of the enemies not only see you coming but a few actually ambush you. How on earth do you surprise a ninja and get a knife to his throat, especially one as highly trained as Hayabusa. To be fair the Ninja Gaiden series has never been about stealth or the art of ninjitsu but I was hoping that at some point during this series Team Ninja might change it up and actually let me be a ninja in Ninja Gaiden but unfortunately that is not the case nor do I feel it ever will be. Three games of kicking down doors and explosions has now taught me that if I want to be anything close to a ninja I should just play Batman: Arkham City or Assassin's Creed.
Ninja Gaiden (2004) was probably my favorite game on the original Xbox. Eight years later I think it's time to give this series a rest. So little of what made the game great is left that I hardly recognized it as being in the same series. The weapons that made the game fun, the mysticism that allowed the world to make sense, the challenging encounters that were as satisfying as they were difficult, and the combo meter that made me feel like a bad ass are all gone. What remains is a series that has completely forgotten it's roots and what made it successful all those years ago. I don't know how much of that was Itagaki's influence but if it was, I think Team Ninja should apologize and get him back if they ever want people to care about Ryu Hayabusa or Ninja Gaiden in the future.