Yesterday brought the release of Team Ninja’s Ninja Gaiden 3, an event that for this podcaster that was an anticipated day. I set aside Street Fighter X Tekken and Mass Effect 3 for a night to break out what I had hopes for being the next great iteration of one of my favorite modern-day franchises. Knowing that Team Ninja and Koei were intentionally changing the direction of the series, I tried to walk into the experience with the most open mind that I possibly could, and what I was met with were a series of confusing design decisions.
Gameplay. I had consumed from various sources that this iteration on the Normal difficulty felt considerably more like button-mashing than previous incarnations, so I decided to start the game on the Hard difficulty. Upon meeting my death in the first encounter of the game, I realized that maybe Team Ninja had catered more to series fans than I the impressions I had originally been given. After getting accustomed to some of the new techniques at Ryu Hayabusa’s disposal, I found myself slashing and hacking my way through that same encounter with relative ease. It required the some of the same strategic decisions that the originals required: singling particularly troublesome enemies first, recognizing the use of varying enemy-dependent combos and effective identification of proper times to block and dodge. I was relieved. Even though the play felt remarkably different than the earlier titles, there was a promise of a similar dissection of a refreshed combat system.
Every encounter is encapsulated in NG3. Much like NG2, you are afforded the ability to automatically regain a portion of lost health at the end of a successful encounter. New to NG3 however, the amount of life recoverable is determined by the left-over amount of “Ki” you’ve gained during the fight, which empties when the fight is resolved. Every slash, hack, combo, ultimate technique and finisher used helps to fill this meter. The Ki meter when filled, also can be drained to use a Ninpo (or ninja magic) attack, which immediately gives you a large amount of health and eliminates everything on the screen. The Ultimate Technique now follows a different formula as well. Occasionally, with no real indication or explanation of how or why it happens, Ryu’s dragon sword glows red and the player is allowed the ability to automatically kill 3 or 4 enemies selected in what appears to be random selection among the hordes of foes attacking you. Outside of these techniques, the slightly varied dragon sword, the familiar shuriken and now auto-targeting bow, you have no other options for eliminating foes.
After understanding these concepts a bit better, I started noticing other little helpful tidbits. While in the animation of a finisher, a move performed by attacking a limping and/or dismembered foe, or while in a “Sword in Bone” attack, a really obscure and distracting quick time event that occasionally interrupts a combo, you simply can’t be hit. Other specific combos started to feel safe as well, most notably the Izuna drop, which has become a series staple. I realized, that relying on these safer techniques and using Ryu’s Ultimate Technique, I could build my Ki meter fairly quickly, and then launch into a screen-clearing life-restoring Ninpo. It started to feel like an interesting rhythm, and even though it was a departure from titles of old, it initially seemed interesting. Then I did it again. And again. And again. And again.
Pacing. They didn’t do a particularly good job of designing enemies in Ninja Gaiden 3. There’s some variability, as some need to be attacked with hard breaking attacks before you can get in with your lighter attack strings, but on an individual basis they’re not real intelligent and don’t really pose any sort of real threat. The answer to that issue that Team Ninja came up with was to just include a staggering amount of them in every encounter possible. At the end of Day 2 (of 7 total, according to my best guess), I read via the in-game statistics that I had slaughtered a grand total of over 530 foes. To put that in perspective, Ninja Gaiden Sigma Plus, which I’m currently playing alongside my other gaming endeavors includes optional rooms, or “Fiend Challenges,” that net you incremental bonuses to Ryu’s health/power through the course of the storyline. These totally-optional challenges have 60 enemies each, and Ryu will only face down 10 of them if he elects to do them all.
I also learned that I had done the Izuna Drop nearly 170 times. I abused that move because it was mostly safe. I found myself casting Ninpo 3-5 times in every arena-style battle, because after every enemy-clearing cast to remove the 12 guys surrounding me, there were 12 more that were ready to fill in. To try to vary the encounters, several of them suggest you break away from the melee attackers to lob arrows at the rocket-propelled-grenade launching villains perched around an arena’s periphery. I found myself ignoring their on-screen suggestion more often then not, considering filling my Ki gauge would accomplish the same thing even easier. As neatly as every fight is encapsulated with the health mechanics, something I don’t inherently have a problem with, they’ve also designed them all to feel the same. Each one follows the same formula, and each one drags on entirely too long.
Repetition is a staple of every character action game, once you get the game’s rhythm, you tend to follow it, doing the same thing time and time again. Other games in the genre do this by allowing you variability in weapons, new technique unlocks, collectibles and upgrades. It keeps it fresh, and allows for you to have a good reason to move forward as well as extending the gameplay through additional options. From what I’ve seen of NG3, there is absolutely none of any of those. They even had a throwback to the Muramasa theme, which was played during the shopkeeper scenes earlier in the series, played from a jukebox. My heart swelled at the thought of seeing what future options were in store for me, and as I approached the jukebox, I was met with yet another encounter. The times that they do break up the action, they do so with minimal and obvious platforming and terribly predictable quick time event ambushes. The quick time events in and of themselves could largely be ignored, if there weren’t so many of them and they didn’t have superbly obnoxious cues on screen. It’s also apparent that Team Ninja believes the player to have absolutely no memory as they constantly remind you that you need to alternate L1 and R1 to scale a wall every time you need to do it, or that L2 will aim your bow during a fight that includes any perched ranged opponents.
Control. Even still, I believe all of these shortcomings could be ignored if Ryu was still entertaining to play, but unfortunately, the number one place that was absolutely vital for Team Ninja to hit to still call this a proper Ninja Gaiden is a drastic miss. Controlling Ryu feels sloppy in the way that a lag-filled online fighting game feels sloppy. There are times when inputs seem to have been dropped or a frame rate stutter will cause you to lose your place in an attack string. His auto-targeting and path finding to enemies will switch between enemies without rhyme or reason, and often times it feels like you’re pressing buttons to see just what that wacky Ryu will do this next time. The leniency in how an attack will skate you towards an enemy is distracting and disconnecting, and further adds to the out-of-control feeling.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is a slew of contradicting designs: requiring precision in combat but offering loose controls, giving more than enough enemies to kill but not offering enough variety to do it, and trying to create difficulty through the least inventive way the series has ever seen. From the perspective of a dedicated fan of the series, it’s a sincere disappointment. From the perspective of a standalone action game, it’s average at best. My stubbornness and love for the series will not allow this game to go unbeaten, but as of the time of writing this article, it ranks up there as the worst 3D Ninja Gaiden yet.