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Ninja Gaiden 3

Ninja Gaiden

There’s little way to skirt the issue, Ninja Gaiden 3 is a disappointing, misguided step backwards for the vaunted action series. Once synonymous with the term hardcore, Ryu’s third modern adventure has gone soft in a myriad of ways, leaving little more than the shell of the Ninja Gaiden we’ve grown to love and/or hate over the last decade.

In this third iteration, a Tomonobu Itagaki-less Team Ninja clearly wanted to bring Ryu Hayabusa to the masses. To that end, they decided that Ryu needed to be humanized and the gameplay had to be approachable (read: simplified). But, Ninja Gaiden has never really been about Ryu. He was always a means to an end: a badass, largely emotionless avatar the player wielded to bloodthirsty results. He was good simply because we knew the Black Spider Clan and demons that fell by his blade were evil. We never questioned Ryu’s motivations, or his humanity, because he was never designed to have one; that is, until now.

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In Ninja Gaiden 3, we’re introduced to a kinder, gentler, but still largely murderous Ryu Hayabusa. Rather than write a story that illustrates the anguish Ryu must bear, Team Ninja ham fistedly attempts to portray Ryu as the tragic hero. Subtlety has never been Team Ninja’s forte, and literally cursing their protagonist to carry the burden of every life the Dragon Sword has taken is perhaps too heavy for a series that celebrates eviscerating people. Even though we know Ryu to be the hero, Team Ninja repeatedly subjects players to clichéd relationships and shoehorned moments of supposed guilt.

Following its two bloody, brutal predecessors, Ninja Gaiden 3’s gameplay concessions are even harder to stomach than its sentimental new narrative direction. Even dating back to its NES roots, the franchise has always been difficult, requiring precision in all aspects of gameplay; Ninja Gaiden 3 for the most part ditches that pedigree, preferring to let players of any skill level feel empowered. In previous iterations, survival from one fight to the next was a major victory in itself because each and every encounter could quickly end in death. By comparison, Ninja Gaiden 3 is a veritable cakewalk, requiring some of the dexterity of its forebear and absolutely none of the strategy.

Team Ninja’s revised idea of difficulty is swarming the player with enemies, over and over again. And other than occasionally alternating between light and heavy attacks to finish off armored opponents, the game will largely play itself assuming you’re railing on the attack buttons. The only real strategy that comes into play is deciding when to use your Ultimate Attack or Ninpo magic, both of which charge over time with kills and clear the area of enemies upon use. And honestly, that is all that combat essentially boils down to: a never ending cycle of kill, kill, kill, followed by a screen clearing technique; rinse, repeat, win.

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Ninja Gaiden 3’s single biggest issue is an overall lack of variety. Previous games had different weapons for Ryu to wield, and though they didn’t completely change the gameplay, they offered slight tweaks to the formula by altering your attack range and speed. With only the single weapon at Ryu’s disposal, plus the limited number of enemy types, most of the fights feel no different from the last. Scenery may change slightly, but the small beastiary of enemies feels more restricted than it probably is, thanks to the formulaic nature of the level design, which dumps you in one combat arena followed by another.

Surprisingly, multiplayer, both competitive and cooperative, is the best way to enjoy Ninja Gaiden 3. ‘Shadows of the World’, as it’s dubbed, lets players create nameless ninja and customize them using a fairly straightforward XP based progression system. Characters can be used in both the cooperative Ninja Trials as well as the competitive Clan Battle. Both modes accumulate experience towards the same ninja, unlocking new skills, weapons and other options to customize your warrior.

The Ninja Trials play out largely like any other wave-based online mode, requiring players to survive an onslaught of enemies. It’s generally thought that most games are better with a second player and the Ninja Trials prove the theory true once again, as your teammate provides one thing the campaign sorely misses: resource management. Your teammate is the resource, and they’re essential because their death eventually spells your own death. That simple dichotomy creates more tension than nearly the entire singleplayer game can muster.

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However, the standout of the entire title is the 4v4 Clan Battles. Though woefully unbalanced thanks to the progression system, Clan Battle has provided some of the most manic, breathtaking multiplayer games I’ve played in recent memory. Matches only last a few minutes and Contracts are offered throughout every round, rewarding players with XP for certain types of kills. The result is an addicting mix of deathmatch and questing, which shrewdly encourages players to use all of their skills rather than run into combat headfirst and mash buttons – though that is also a popular, workable strategy.

Kill streaks play a huge role in Clan Battle, much like they do in the main game. Chained kills mean access to Ultimate Attacks and Ninpo, which of course means more kills. Chaining together kills of several enemies in a row, mixed with Ultimates and Ninpo, is an extremely satisfying, badass feeling. The frenetic pace of matches makes it easy to get lost in the chaos, enjoying it for what it is rather than what it isn’t. Still, there are strategies to be discovered, as techniques can be spammed to reasonable success, but seasoned players will begin to see Ninpo is just as good a defensive maneuver as it is an offensive one.

As fun as Clan Battles are, the mode is definitively underdeveloped. Only three maps were available at launch (though a fourth has been since released as free DLC) and none of their designs truly encourage alternate combat approaches. It’s hard to imagine players sticking it out past the initial shenanigans. Additionally, though Clan Battle does incorporate a few scrolling objectives, team deathmatch is effectively the only true game type to be played.

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Regarded on its own merits, Ninja Gaiden 3 might be a perfectly fine third-person action game. However, by carrying the Ninja Gaiden moniker, the game has exposed itself to all sorts of expectations it never attempts to address. The franchise to this point has been both slick and punishing, providing a variety of ways to hone Ryu’s ninja craft; Ninja Gaiden 3’s new direction simply doesn’t cut it – especially when played alone.

5 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2008. Get in touch on Twitter @_seankelley.

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