It's got the name and the speed of Ninja Gaiden, but this is definitely the "Phantom Menace" of the series thus far.
Ninja Gaiden 3 (NG3) is a lot different, and actually a lot worse, than what we have come to know and expect since Itagaki revived the franchise on the original Xbox almost ten years ago. The speed, precision, brutality, and difficulty of Itagaki's Ninja Gaiden became common knowledge in most gaming circles. This was the type of game that separated the casual from the hardcore, but like too many trends in gaming these days, it's all about mass appeal and netting the biggest audience you can. That's likely a reason why Team Ninja, sans Itagaki who left in 2008, took the easy route and made a far more accessible but ultimately way over-simplified and super repetitive experience for NG3. The end result is a game that franchise fans will struggle to like and newcomers will probably tire of within hours.
Here comes trouble.
Bear in mind that I really wanted to like this game. Despite a few shining moments, the overall package is a mess, especially when you consider the level of quality the series was at before this. Personally, my concerns started in the opening minutes, when you lead famous ninja Ryu Hayabasa on a brief quick-time event against a large boss character. This brief look gives players a glimpse about seven or eight hours ahead, in game-length terms. The story actually takes place across eight days, so after this opening sequence, cutscenes take us back to the beginning, where we find Ryu on the streets of London, battling against a para-military force.
Ryu agreed to leave his comfy Japanese village to come to London to see what this mysterious group, the Lords of Alchemy, want with him. After a blood-soaked encounter, the LoA's intentions are still unclear. Soon, they reveal that they have a powerful new weapon, and unless nations surrender unconditionally, the LoA are prepared to create a whole new world within seven days. Ryu teams up with a Japanese External Affairs group, including tech dude Cliff and tactician Mizuki and her young speechless daughter Canna. Trailing LoA and trying to halt their operation to build and unleash a mysterious technologically-infused organic super-weapon takes Ryu and crew all over the globe. Seriously, I don't think I have been on more parts of Earth in one game than in NG3. Locales include London, Japan, some islands near India, and Antarctica, yielding environments that include urban, jungle, snow, desert, and top-secret-lab.
But no matter where you are in the story, the level design never gets off the ground. All levels are incredibly linear, with only a single available path. Most of the time you are running down a hallway, street, or trail, only to spill out into a square or rectangular area where you predictably fight a bunch before going down the next hallway, street, etc. The pattern becomes clear early on and never deviates. If only the level design were the only repetitive element to NG3, but it's absolutely not. The most annoying part about NG3 was the most significant part of the game: the combat.
Ryu wields a few different swords during the course of the story, but you only ever have one at a time and they all control and feel exactly the same. Quick attack with Square, Strong attack with Triangle, slide attack with LS+L1. You have an infinite amount of shurikens, but they are nearly useless in combat because they are so weak. Ryu uses them more often to climb vertical walls, actually. You also obtain a bow early on which has unlimited arrows and an auto-lock ability. Surprisingly, Ryu's sword attacks are weak, despite having all of the speed and aggressive-look that you expect from the series. Unless you are in Ultimate Mode, expect each enemy to take between eight and twelve strikes, if not more, to bring down. This immediately felt really silly; I mean, here's a sword that slices through metal, yet even the most basic military dude enemy takes forever to slice up and kill. You literally have to hack and hack away at an enemy, all the while quickly side-stepping and blocking attacks from the other numerous droves of enemies the game piles on.
Needless to say, it gets repetitive, but allow me to cement that idea with some more information. Basically, each combat situation puts Ryu against anywhere from four to fifteen enemies at one time. Most of the time, you build up your Ninpo meter as you fight, and then you unleash it with Triangle + Circle, which goes through this five or so second animation which clears the room of enemies. You would think you're ready to move on, but, no. Especially for the last half of the game, if not all of it (I honestly can't recall), each area gets repeated about three times over. So you go into an area, fight fight fight, clear the room with your single, never-upgradeable Ninpo power, and whoop, guess what? Two seconds later a fresh wave or enemies drops in from the sky or hops over a nearby wall. Spend a few more minutes slashing and building up the Ninpo meter. Clear again. And usually you have to do this a third time before you can finally move on.
Given the weakness of your common attacks, this makes the fights long and tedious. The AI is cheap and highly disappointing, too. They attack in droves, because they have no intelligence whatsoever. Worse still, there is no enemy AI friendly fire. What does this mean? Well, expect rocket launcher soldiers and grenade throwing ninjas to spam you with explosive attacks. You can be two feet away from a rocket launcher guy and he'll blast you right in the face, but yet he has no reaction to the proximity of the blast. Many times, you might be surrounded by other enemies, but when another enemy drops or shoots an explosion into the group, only Ryu takes damage -- the other AI do not flinch or react at all. So you'll see all kinds of stupid crap like this that is a clear and blatant sign of lame AI.
What really could have made the combat of NG3 more meaningful (better) is less of it. Why do I need to fight three waves of enemies, totaling upwards of 60-70 slain, to advance (other than to pad the time to complete the game)? Why isn't my sword more powerful? These were two questions that I asked very early in the game and never got answered. Either give me less, more interesting and meaningful battles and enemies, or make my sword powerful enough that I don't have to keep slowly hacking away at the enemy, getting bored and frustrated with the repetition.
There are a few short sequences where you at least feel like you're not fighting alone.
Unfortunately, NG3 is devoid of any kind of upgrade system (except in multiplayer). There is no XP system for Ryu, his sword, or Ninpo. There is no inventory at all in fact; instead, players have regenerating health, assuming they either cast their lone Ninpo which gives you full health and clears out a room of enemies, or you clear an area, at which time your Ninpo gauge drains back to zero and fills up your health. Worst still, NG3 has no collectibles of any kind, that goes for completionist/Trophy hunters as well as collectibles that would actually enhance the story and the experience. As the level design suggests, this is a purely "go forward" game. No puzzles, keys, quests, or anything like that, just pure action, other than some platforming where you lead Ryu up a vertical wall or along a horizontal pipe.
There is a lot about NG3 that disappointed me, but there are some good things as well. For one, Ryu is one of my favorite video game characters and I thought that Team Ninja did a pretty good job with him in terms of his character traits and voiceovers. I also liked how boss fights are split up into segments, and that there are no death animations for Ryu at all. When you die, it's fast, and the game automatically loads the last checkpoint which is usually right about where you left off, especially on a boss. Given how unsatisfying the combat is in this game -- which is 95% of the experience -- I liked that Team Ninja at least tried to keep you going with those quick load times and tightly-packed together checkpoints. Furthermore, if you die three or more times in a single area, you can switch from Hard to Normal or to Hero mode. You can then switch back up at the next level.
When the final boss fell and the credits rolled, I was relieved and happy about it. I had about all of the repetition I could take. Maybe I would have enjoyed myself a bit more if I didn't play through the game in just three play sessions, and that's something (to take longer breaks) I have learned with the multiplayer mode, Shadows of the World. Team Ninja put some effort into the online component, although if had anything to do with the failure of the single player mode I wish they would have left it out altogether. Anyways, Shadows of the World requires an online pass and features a few different modes of play, including a co-op mode where you and a friend try to complete Trials, which is basically waves of enemies.
Unlike the Story mode, Shadows has an XP system (XP is known as Karma) to level up your character, taking him from a basic, unknown ninja to someone on par with Ryu. Leveling up nets you additional clothing and abilities to use online, including new colors and Kanji characters (you can select which one is printed on your back) for your appearance, as well as new head gear. This changes your appearance of course but also makes you a better ninja, which is the whole point of the Karma system. I'm nowhere near Ryu's level, but I can already see the progression and I like what I'm seeing, although to keep going I have to keep putting up with the monotony of the combat.
Karma is earned through clearing the Ninja Trials and using Ninpo or Ultimate attacks to defeat enemies. I liked that you can earn XP even if you fail a Trial, too. The Trials can be played solo (with leaderboard support) and also co-op. You can choose your location and equipment and dive into wave after wave of enemy. While fighting the waves, challenges known as contracts pop up in the lower right corner of the screen, encouraging you to stun an enemy with a Shuriken then kill him, or execute a blade-to-bone strike, and so on. These are generally easy to get and net you additional Karma, always a plus. The Trials get hard in a hurry though, and there are at least three levels of these Trials. I haven't had a lot of luck finding someone to play with online (although I haven't been searching everyday), but this definitely seems like a mode better played with friends.
Clan Battles support up to eight players for four on four deathmatch action. I have only played this mode a time or two and have also had some trouble finding and connecting to available sessions.
NG3's presentation isn't bad either in some ways. I thought the menu system was lacking, especially the menus used in multiplayer, which look amateurish and unfinished. In game graphics aren't bad, although the droves of enemies that look exactly the same gets old in a hurry. I also didn't like the look of most of every level, as they lacked detail and points of interest. Animations are fast at least, and the framerate never falters, the action stays very smooth. There are some brief camera issues from time to time, but overall I was impressed with the camera-work, given how fast and chaotic the combat is.
To the summary...