Back in March, I called Ninja Gaiden 3 the "Phantom Menace" of the series. Updated for the Wii U, NG3: Razor's Edge is like the Sigma releases for the other NG games -- it offers a variety of tweaks and balances and some significant new new content. Second time the charm?
Given that it's been a few months since I played Ninja Gaiden 3 on the PS3, I didn't immediately notice some of the differences that Razor's Edge brings. Indeed I had to go back to my original review, which supplements this review, and also poke around online to see what others were saying. For starters, I thought the story and level design felt identical, and well, they are. The story involves Ryu being pulled into a battle against a super powerful, mysterious faction known as the Lords of Alchemy that is determined to rule, or destroy, the world (sounds like Cobra, but not quite). Working with a Japanese defense agency, Ryu goes to a variety of locations around the world, battling waves upon waves of enemies. He's also been afflicted with a curse that has dissolved the Dragon Sword into his arm, which rears up from time to time to create an additional challenge.
Generally speaking, playing Razor's Edge feels more like playing the original than not, but there are several major improvements. First, a new character progression system that lets you spend Karma to learn new moves, upgrade weapons and ninpo, and increase your overall health are great reasons to keep playing when the going gets tough (and it will). This feature alone is a very positive addition to the original. Also, after completing the game, several new levels of play open up, where you get to play as Ayane, who has her own unique skills. She's also playable in co-op mode, something only available online unfortunately. I say unfortunately as in my experience, the online community for NG3RE is very small -- sometimes just a dozen or so players connected. This is likely to change after Christmas, or even as soon as the first of the month when Europe gets their Wii U launch. Nintendo says that more playable characters will be available for free download in the coming weeks, so that's something to look forward to.
Other changes include hidden areas called Test of Valor battles. To access these you have to find Crystal Skulls (snakes..why did it have to be snakes..). Each chapter includes a Test of Valor, and when you unlock it, you are whisked away to a challenge arena where several waves of enemies and re-vamped bosses await you. The one time I stumbled into one of these I got beatdown pretty bad, but it's at least fun trying to find the Skulls to get into the arenas, and series fans will appreciate the challenge.
Speaking of challenge, Ninja Gaiden 3 Razor's Edge has it in spades, and even adds more challenge with mortally wounded enemies continuing the fight. There's nothing more startling than seeing a dismembered foe tackle you and set a grenade off that kills himself and takes a good inch or more off of your lifeline. In that way, the foes you thought might be down for the count become the most dangerous. To be honest, I find it pretty aggravating that Ryu's attacks seem underpowered. You're faced with not only an overwhelming quantity of enemies, both melee attacking and distant range attackers, but also enemies that take numerous slashes to defeat. Challenging gameplay is a staple of the series, but the challenge from NG3 seems more 'cheap' than what I remember from the previous NG games (that is, starting with the Xbox version). The targeting system and cameras can go bonkers as well, making the fights on that much harder. As hard and annoying as the gameplay can be, it can also be a thing of beauty when a skilled player navigates a battle. Blocking and evading, casting the right Ninpo at the right time, switching weapons, the raw speed and brutality of NG3 is nigh incomparable.
But, while challenging and engaging (seriously, don't blink), the combat does get very repetitive, to the point that I struggle to play this game for more than a couple of hours at a time. Of course, playing with the Gamepad only affords around four hours of play on a charge anyway, but that's besides the point. The length of the battles, a symptom of both the number and HP of your enemies, combined with the length of the loading times, gets to be frustrating before long. NG3 walked a real fine line between 'being worth the trouble' and not -- Razor's Edge makes the decision a little easier thanks to the character progression and the reward of unlocking new chapters with Ayane. Razor's Edge also has the 'Hero' mode seen in the previous release that helps players out by automatically blocking all or nearly all attacks when health is low. The game offers you this option after dying just a few times on the same scene, and it's up to you to decide what to do. My pride normally gets in the way of what would probably be a more enjoyable experience, but it's nice that at least you don't have to start the entire game over just to switch the difficulty setting, and you can also switch it back once a particularly rough part is over. You do lose out on Karma points, though.
Online play is a decent diversion if the campaign is wearing you out. Again right now there aren't a lot of players out there, but there is a nice XP/leveling system and support for eight players. I have yet to be able to connect with eight players, but the one versus one matches I had were tense and pretty fun. I believe there are just four playable maps right now, but being able to test your ninja skills online and customize your appearance is nice, even more so when considering online ninja games are practically non-existent.
Gamepad integration is pretty basic and going forward I think I'll switch to using the Pro Controller. The Gamepad mimics the onscreen action and makes it easy to check button references for combos and you can change weapons and ninpo from here, but these are significant enough differences to warrant using the Gamepad over the Pro Con. In terms of presentation, expect a very fluid experience with good, but not outstanding graphics. The original NG3 offered a nice variety of environments but lacked ample detail. This is a game built for speed, though, so it's not surprising design of both the visuals and the level design to be more 'to the point' if you know what I mean.
Speaking of getting to the point, let's get to the summary...