Ninja Gaiden 3 Review

A Ninja Gaiden game has only one job: be punitively difficult.

That’s really it. They don’t have to ‘tell a compelling story’, because the series has never been one for plots that make sense, they don’t need a complex mythology because series protagonist Ryu Hayabusa has never really existed as anything more than a plot device excuse for killing enemies. They’ve never really even had stealth mechanics, making the titular Ninja more of a masked warrior than a sneaky assassin. But good lord, were they ever difficult, requiring a combination of infinite patience and tactical brilliance that could drive gamers crazy, were it not for the thrill of actually managing to succeed.

Unfortunately, the same is not true for Ninja Gaiden 3. As it turns out, fears that the departure of Tomonobu Itagaki (along with the majority of his team) from Team Ninja would cripple the series were completely founded. Tecmo has not only discarded Ninja Gaiden’s central appeal – horrendous difficulty – they’ve also turned in a travesty of a game that, in its best moments, is a mere shell of the series’ former glory.

Ninja Gaiden 3: Playstation 3, Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Tecmo
Released: March 22, 2012
MSRP: $59.99

Story

Fans of previous Ninja Gaiden games may feel tempted to describe Ninja Gaiden 3 as dumbed down. Resist that temptation; dumbed down doesn’t begin to describe the low estimation this game has for its players. The gameplay is bad enough – more on that shortly – but it is the story, a disjointed mess, where things collapse most majestically. Beginning as a Splinter Cell ripoff, it quickly transitions into an amalgam of Call of Duty and Street Fighter, finally ending somewhere in between Uncharted and Assassin’s creed. Except in splitting these differences it captures nothing of what makes them great.

Apparently, Tecmo’s aim was to focus more on Ryu as a character, which they felt was best achieved by putting him in nontraditionally ninjafied situations. Unfortunately, they forgot that one actually needs to create a character in order to pull this off. Ryu’s only noticeable quality is his stoicism and ability to deliver death. Worse, Team Ninja, seemingly afraid that the average player has the short term memory of a goldfish, have characters constantly referring to Ryu by his full name as if to ensure one never forgets who they’re playing. Be warned: The words ‘RYU HAYABUSA’ will be burned into your brain after 20 minutes of play.

The problem here is that Ryu isn’t someone the audience particularly identifies with even under the best creator; he is, after all, a ninja killing machine. But even with that conceit in mind, Ninja Gaiden 3 is a hackneyed mess. At no point do things ever make sense, the story consisting mainly of themed episodes barely connected by a story that is never fully developed. Ryu only interacts meaningfully with the game’s take on the faceless female remote operator that has become a standard cliche of lazy game design (see also Bodycount), and with various interchangeable villains. Everyone else you see (with one or two exceptions) is literally sword fodder.

The thing is, this needn’t be a bad thing. Last Year’s Mortal Kombat proved that by embracing a genre’s cliches without shame, a game could transcend its inner stupidity and end up approaching dumb brilliance. Ninja Gaiden 3, which seems ever unaware of how badly structured and badly written it is, ends up simply dumb.

Gameplay

Of course, the Ninja Gaiden series has never aimed higher than a high quality Jean-Claude Van Damme movie; had it been fun to play, the problems with 3′s ridiculous story would have been quickly forgiven. But alas, Ninja Gaiden 3 is as bad a gameplay experience as it is a story. The combat is botched (and boring). Platforming is simple and lacks any real challenge. Levels are comically linear, and poorly disguised as expansive and sandboxy. Most importantly, changes to core elements fail utterly.

Ninja Gaiden 3′s visuals are, at best, incomplete. Even taking into account the fact that we should be constantly amazed by the detail and depth even the most half-assed game is capable of in the current generation, graphics fall constantly short. The game’s geometry is so apparent at all times that you almost feel every line careening into the vanishing point to the detriment of what is actually happening on screen. NPCs and Ryu himself don’t appear to inhabit their scenes, rather they float in them, appearing more like puppets than actors. And levels, though designed to appear vast and explorable, are in fact quite linear, with characters essentially forced obviously along a certain path into room after room of indistinguishable enemies.

Combat is worse. For a game in which you play a ninja assassin, Team Ninja seems to have gone out of their way to design a game that makes the art of ninjitsu as boring and interaction-free as possible. Combat is a matter of simple, unsubtle hack ‘n slash and jumping, with a single button for low power attacks, another for high power attacks, with the high power attack button also pulling double duty as the special attack button. Worse, the game relies heavily on cutscenes as a substitute for action. You’ll notice, as you pound away at enemies with boring, one-button attacks, that when you deal cool looking moves, you’re not actually creating combos, you’ve simply activated an animation which does everything for you. This extends to the game’s new “stealth” mechanic, which only involves sneaking slowly up to someone who lacks peripheral vision, then clicking a prompted button to activate the assassination animation. That’s really all there is to it.

This problem even continues to the special attacks you can unlock, like the awesome-sounding Grip of the Murder. As you attack enemies, you’ll accumulate a power reserve displayed in a meter below your health. When your power up meter is full, or in the case of the Grip of the Murder, your right arm glows red, you tap the heavy attack button to unleash… a powerful cutscene of doom. Just sit back and watch all the action! This would be bad enough, but the game’s dirtiest trick, hinted at by the weak assassination and cutscene over-reliance, is that it relies very heavily on frequent quick time events to substitute for actual participation. These events manifest whenever it is time to deliver a killing blow to a boss and often in the midst of boring combat with regular goons.

This of course relates to the game’s core problem, the fact that it is excessively easy. At no point will the player experience anything like the frustrating challenge of previous games. Success in Ninja Gaiden 3 is instead a matter of fighting off wave after wave of indiscernable enemies, followed by bosses who are functionally identical, and constantly finding the game doing things for you. What makes this especially frustrating is that even scenes that begin to appear difficult are instead nothing more than a matter of not understanding what your objective is. Dying once or twice is more than enough to realize what you need to do to wear a boss down sufficiently to trigger the quick time event necessary to crucially damage them, then pull it off quickly. In previous installments, the player would need frequent breaks to keep cool in the face of seemingly insurmountable difficulty. Here, you’ll need them to deal with the boredom.

That boredom is perhaps Ninja Gaiden 3′s original sin. Everything feels low stakes. The poorly realized story, the terrible combat, the reliance on cutscenes and quick time events, the reduced difficulty, all coalesce brilliantly, if you could call it that, into the perfect, engagement-free experience. You never connect with the character, you never care what happens, and you grow bored delivering furious bloody carnage. It’s almost as if Ninja Gaiden 3 was never intended to be a current gen title but was instead dusted off from a PS2 demo and ported with only the slightest polish. Players are even forced to utilize a checkpoint system in which they can only save progress by reaching dedicated points in a level. It’s everything you hated about gaming in 2004 with none of the perks.

***

Ninja Gaiden 3 isn’t a complete wash. Certain additions – like the way enemies beg for mercy and cry out in pain, or the departure from the fantasy version of Feudal Japan – will hopefully be retained for future installments. But these few benefits are far and away overshadowed by its many flaws, and it’s obvious that without Tomonobu Itagaki, Tecmo should never have continued the series he helped revive. I can’t pretend to know why they decided to go ahead with such a deeply problematic game, but here’s hoping they don’t try again. Some things are better left to the imagination, even if they involve killer ninjas.

Pros:

* Some aspects could find better application in future Ninja Gaiden games.
* Departure from series setting isn’t a bad idea.

Cons:

* Generic levels
* Shoddy graphics
* Terrible story, dialogue
* Relies too heavily on cutscenes, quick time events
* Difficulty is a joke.

Final Score: 40/100

Are you playing it anyway? Then by all means, be sure to check out our walkthrough.

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2 Comments on Ninja Gaiden 3 Review

Evan

On March 27, 2012 at 5:16 am

seriously, this review is very harsh on this game. This game deserves a 79/100. Me and my fellow Ng fans loved the game. U guys dont want QTEs talk about the graphics and the story thn y do u keep playing the game?

Tiagonal

On March 27, 2012 at 8:04 am

I guess I’ll have to wait for Itagaki’s Devil’s Third.