E3 2011 – Ninja Gaiden 3 Hands-On

Many Ninja Gaiden fans were likely skeptical about the third installment due to the recent departure of the former head of Team Ninja, Tomonobu Itagaki. Make no mistake though, from my own personal hands-on time with the game at E3, this is still the Ninja Gaiden you know and love, just with a few substantial adjustments to how the game is played.

The E3 demo started off with Ryu perched on a gargoyle overlooking a squad of enemy soldiers. After dropping down to the street level in a cool looking ninja dive, the familiar Ninja Gaiden style of fast paced and twitch reflex heavy action began.

I noticed a couple of things as I slew my first two enemies. First, the executions from Ninja Gaiden 2 are back. So if you’re able to damage an enemy to the point where they are stunned or gravely injured, Ryu could use a flashy execution maneuver that would finish them off and also usually restore a little bit of health.

The second thing was a lack of essence, which are the yellow, blue and red orbs that have been in every iteration of the modern Ninja Gaiden games since its days on the Xbox. This is a pretty huge change, because as most Ninja Gaiden fans know, one of the most important techniques in Ninja Gaiden is the ability to quickly charge up your ultimate attacks by absorbing essences, which would then allow you to easily defeat strong enemies that would otherwise take forever to kill.

“We wanted to show the game in a more realistic way, so that’s why we removed those elements from the game,” said Fumihiko Yasuda, the leader of Team Ninja’s software business division and lead developer of Ninja Gaiden 3.

Instead of using essence to charge his ultimate attacks, this time around Ryu will utilize his demonically empowered right arm. By killing enemies in quick succession, Ryu will begin to charge up power in his arm. Once its fully charged and starts glowing, the player can hold “Y” or triangle for a quick second and then release to execute a devastating series of attacks that will deal heavy damage to about three or four enemies in the area.

As far as the actual combat goes, Ryu’s main sword combos all felt pretty much the same as they did in Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2. The trademark Izuna Drop combo is accounted for and is just as satisfying as ever and all of the other combos are appropriately flashy and deadly.

One thing that didn’t carry over from Ninja Gaiden 2 was the dismemberment system, which is a bit disappointing. This is likely because one of the focuses of the swordplay is to give the player a feel for what it’s really like to cut through someone. Frequently the camera will zoom in on Ryu has he lodges his sword in the enemy’s shoulder and another press of the X button will cause Ryu to put a little more “oompf” into his finishing blow and completely cut the enemy in half.

It’s pretty cool to feel like you’re using a real sword rather than a lightsaber that looks like a sword, but I wonder if Ninja Gaiden is really the kind of game that needs to strive for realism at all.

Speaking of realism, Team Ninja is also looking to make Ryu into a bit more of a real ninja this time around by introducing some stealth section. Yes that’s right, stealth sections in Ninja Gaiden. I know, right? It blew my mind too.

Yasuda said that the stealth segments were added as a way of focusing on what it means to be a ninja. Which is also the reason for adding in the diving mechanic use at the beginning of the demo, and a climbing segment that involved Ryu using two Kunai’s to make his way up a wall while the player alternates between shoulder button presses to make him move.

Unfortunately, the stealth shown in the E3 demo was pretty much a complete wash. The environment gets foggy, the player moves slowly, gets behind an enemy and executes them in a not-very-stealthy-at-all kind of method. There didn’t really seem to be any danger or tension throughout the segment, which is an absolute necessity in games with stealth. It was a decent way to break up some of the monotony of just moving from battle to battle, but I hope it doesn’t become a frequent aspect of later levels in the actual game, because the mechanic definitely feels like it could get old fast.

One question Ninja Gaiden fans likely have about the game is how hard the game is. The truth is that it’s hard to say of sure from the E3 demo because things felt like they might have been toned down to accommodate attendees new to the series. I obviously played on the hard setting for my playthrough and the game seemed a little easy due to me being able to rely on using the demon arm attack after every three or four kills or so.

What ended up being difficult however was a boss fight against a masked fencer that had very short windows of opportunities to hit him between his combos, used very quick dashing attacks from long distance and dealt a lot of damage with no way for me to actually recover my health. This battle took me several tries to beat, but once I did, I got that usual Ninja Gaiden satisfaction of knowing that I just overcame something really tough by skill and skill alone.

Yasuda also made mention of a planned eight player competitive multiplayer mode for the game, but wouldn’t go into much more detail beyond that. All that he said was that the mode would still feel like Ninja Gaiden.

Overall I walked into the Ninja Gaiden 3 demo skeptical due to the departure of Itagaki from Team Ninja and walked away fairly relieved with only a couple of concerns about the game. The combat is still as visceral as ever, even without the yellow essence super charging Ryu’s ultimate attacks, the controls felt exactly the same as the previous two games, there were no major camera issues that got in the way and the game was just fun.

My concerns lie with what’s beyond the E3 demo. Will we see any other weapons for Ryu other than the Dragon Sword? Will the stealth segments be a recurring feature throughout the game? Without the yellow essences, how will Ryu be able to upgrade his abilities? These were all questions that unfortunately I didn’t have time to get to during my interview, but fortunately there’s still plenty of time for Team Ninja to perfect the game before it releases on the 360, PS3 and Wii-U in early 2012.

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