Ninja Gaiden 3 is the latest installment in the franchise that fans have been waiting years for. Published by Tecmo Koei and developed by Team Ninja under Yosuke Hayashi’s direction, has the Dragon Sword dulled its blade or has it remained as sharp as ever?
Fans of the NES trilogy will be thrilled to hear that the original writer of that series has returned to pen Ninja Gaiden 3’s script. It’s apparent as well from the second you start the game, the title of the game will slowly fade in-and-out of the center of the black screen before seeing anything. NES Ninja Gaiden fans will pick up on that little notion immediately and kind of grin at a nostalgic element as small as that. Unlike Itagaki’s poor attempts at piecing together a story for Ninja Gaiden 1 & 2, this one actually makes sense and gives you a reason to continue the game for its narrative.
Hayabusa is met from the Japanese Self-Defense Force and asked by them and the Ministry of External Affairs to help take care of the terrorists attacks in London. The reason they approach Hayabusa is because he’s being demanded by the terrorists to confront them. However, it turns out that the alchemist known as the “Regent of the Mask” is the one demanding to confront Hayabusa for his own needs. After battling the alchemist, he casts a curse on Hayabusa known as the “Grip of Murder,” in which the Dragon Sword gets absorbed into Ryu’s arm and effects him due to the amount of people he has killed with that blade. Over time, the Grip of Murder will take over his whole body and kill him but as the story progresses, you’ll find out what exactly the whole purpose this curse holds. Hayabusa will travel the world trying to aid the JSDF and put an end to the Regent of the Mask, hoping to cure his curse in the process. The story is quite well done and actually adds a great amount of characterization to Hayabusa, more so than the previous installments in the series.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is certainly a different direction for the franchise. Gone are the essence orbs, items, decapitations, multiple weapons (for now), multiple ninpo and multiple projectile weapons. However, to be completely honest, none of these omissions affected my overall gameplay experience. This time around, the game goes for a more cinematic approach, adding close-up camera effects when initiating some “steel on bone” action or pulling off a QTE (Quick-Time Events, a series first). While many gamers aren’t crazy about QTE’s, I found them to be quite engaging in NG3 as they’re used for some pretty cool scenes.
The current Ninja Gaiden franchise has been best known for its visceral combat and brutal difficulty. The difficulty was a turn off for many gamers in previous iterations and Team Ninja wanted to grab a broader audience this time around with the new “Hero” mode. Essentially, this mode allows newcomers to the series to finally get a hold at the gameplay without feeling left out by allowing for aided blocking and less powerful enemies. For the fans of the series, obviously Hero mode is not intended for you so don’t bother with that. Instead, Normal and Hard modes are available from the get-go based on what type of NG player you are. Playing through Normal mode, the game still holds a decent challenge, in particular with the boss fights. It might not be as demanding as Normal mode was for the previous iterations, but it is still by no means a walk in the park. The game will start off without hitting you with too steep of a challenge, but rather scales up as you progress through the 7-8 hour campaign. Hard mode is certainly only for the more experienced as it’s pretty damn challenging and would not recommend it unless you’ve at least beaten hard mode on NG 1 & 2. Even then, the game will not hold back and will push you to the limits you’ve come to expect in the series.
Hayabusa may not have the extra weapons (yet) from his previous journeys but he will still wield three different swords throughout the campaign. Essentially, each sword that you obtain will unlock more moves in his combo set (which consists of over 220 moves) and can be accessed by pressing Select (PS3) or Back (360). What’s handy about this list is that it will track which combo you’re in the middle of pulling off so that you know how the combo branches out. Also, you can lock a combo onto the screen so that you can try and master it. Beginners can essentially button mash their way across but the fun lies in trying to learn new combos that work best for you. The combat system may not be as diverse due to the lack of weapons from previous iterations (for now), but it’s still pretty deep.
The main new hook to the combat system this time around is the “steel on bone” action I mentioned earlier. While slashing away at enemies, you’ll notice they get really bloodied up. The bloodier they are, the more prone you are to initiating a “steel on bone” action in which the camera will zoom in and you’ll have to press an action button to cut through your enemy. This particular new combat mechanic further pushes the visceral element. Hayabusa’s “flying swallow” attack is even incorporated into the new mechanic in which he’ll flip over the enemy, stick the sword through their back and pull them down into it. It just looks incredibly slick and painful. Even after clocking in over 20 hours with the game, the “steel on bone” just felt brutal and never got old to witness. If it wasn’t enough to brutalize your enemy, you can “obliterate” them even further by showing no mercy and finishing them off when they’re crawling on the ground. You still have ninpo in this title but works entirely different than previous iterations. As you keep killing enemies, your Ki gauge will fill up and once it’s maxed, you can release your ninpo. Hayabusa’s ninpo will allow him to summon a dragon that circles around the area, grabs all the enemies with it’s mouth and shuts them in, which then refills your health bar. The more enemies it obtains, the more health you recover. Since there are no health items to collect in the game, building up your Ki meter is essential if you want to stand a chance in some of the tougher fights.
New in this installment is Ryu’s ability to Kunai Climb. Here, you will scale up walls by alternating the L1&R1/LB&RB buttons in a rhythmic style. It feels a bit strange at first but after doing it a few times, it’s pretty intuitive and becomes second nature. This also goes into effect when traversing via rope climbing. Also new is the fact that Ryu slides when dodging and can add further combat mechanics when sliding into enemies. Team Ninja also incorporated more cinematic elements in which the camera will zoom in over Ryu’s shoulder and you’ll walk toward your destination. It’s very similar to the mechanic they utilized in Metroid: Other M and works quite well here. There are even moments where you’ll actually sprint away from danger that heighten the intensity of the game (one particular situation towards the end of Day 3). Team Ninja didn’t just take away elements from previous games and completely scale it back. Instead, they experimented with a different, more cinematic approach that certainly works.
No Ninja Gaiden game would be complete without boss fights and this installment provides for some truly intense and memorable battles. Each boss battle (except for one particular character that you face multiple times) is completely varied and will require different strategies. Whether you’re facing the Regent of the Mask, a Helicopter on top of a skyscraper or a Gigantosaurus (yeah, there’s a dinosaur boss and it’s intense), these will all provide jaw-dropping moments and heart-stopping intensity.
When accessing Shadows of the World (multiplayer), you will have the option of playing Ninja Trials or Clan Battle. Ninja Trials are essentially the coop setup that players experienced in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2, with a number of missions to complete varying by difficulty. Clan Battle is your competitive mode, a first for the Ninja Gaiden series. To be honest, I really wasn’t too thrilled about it when it was announced. Thankfully, I can say that it’s not as tacky as I expected it to be. You’ll be able to customize your own ninja with specific weapons (mainly when the DLC releases), different colors, headbands, gear and Kanji symbols to distinguish your character. You unlock more customization items the more you level up. A really neat element is that the XP is shared from playing both Ninja Trials and Clan Battle. When commencing a 4-on-4 Clan Battle, you’ll be pitted in certain levels from the campaign and have to just hunt the other players and cut them down. However, while it’s basically everyone running into the middle of the map to kill each other, there are more strategic approaches. Utilizing rooftops to snipe with your bow and walking to have your ninja cloak within the environment and prep an instant stealth kill are just a few examples. As you level up, more abilities and combos will be unlocked, so don’t expect to jump into your first match pulling off Izuna Drops and shooting out ninpo. Thankfully, the XP system allows for quick leveling up so that you can get back into your mojo within the first 30 minutes of playing the multiplayer. The most satisfying aspect is when you pull off the “steel on bone” mechanic on an online opponent, but there’s a reason for a deeper satisfaction. When initiated, you and your opponent must both rapidly press the attack buttons to fight for either you finishing them off or them repelling the finisher, giving them a chance to get revived from a teammate. Succeeding in this rapid button affair for your life is pretty intense and will ensure you remain prepared for it at any time. The multiplayer may be nothing groundbreaking, but it’s surprisingly addictive and a great change of pace from the typical other multiplayer offerings out on the market.
Now, there are a few problems I have with the game. First off, battles can occasionally drag on a bit much. You’ll be in a room fighting waves and waves of enemies that sometimes seem never ending and can’t help but wonder, “when can I move on?” Then, when you can finally advance, five seconds later you’ll be facing waves and waves of more enemies. I don’t mind fighting numerous enemies but at times, it was borderline excessive. This is not at every action scene, but it happens a decent amount that’ll make it noticeable. Luckily, each chapter introduced new enemy types to change up the combat a bit. To be fair however, Hard mode is when this issue is most noticeable as Normal mode is more properly paced. During boss battles, there’s no health bar for them, never giving you an idea of how close you are to defeating them. It’s a strange omission and one that I never really came to terms with as I played through the story. Another issue at times is the camera. During some of the fights, it was hard to even keep track of what was happening and where I even was. Granted, Ninja Gaiden has never had the most friendly camera to work with but I was hoping this would be slightly fixed by the third installment. Another odd feature is that the game continues to randomly remind people what the combat controls are throughout random fights of the campaign. Obviously, displaying the controls at the beginning of the game makes sense as NG2/NGS2 did it. By the end of the game though, I don’t think I need to be reminded what the combat buttons are. This can be turned off in the options but then it turns off the QTE buttons as well, which then makes those scenes a random guessing game. Also, platforming sections have been really dumbed down which is shame as there are only a few times to utilize the wall run compared to the previous installments. The first two games had you linking together a few wall runs in a single platforming section. This installment only has you do a simple wall run and jump across, never really testing your platforming skills. My other biggest gripe was the lack of a chapter select, especially when Ninja Gaiden 2/Sigma 2 had this feature. Instead, if you want to replay certain chapters/days, you’ll have to save on separate files at the start of each level. This isn’t exactly a technical problem, just more of a personal issue with the game since I’d love to replay chapters without having multiple saves.
As I played through the PS3 version of the game, I tested out the PS Move controls. For a game like Ninja Gaiden, I always thought about how sweet it would be to pull off some of Hayabusa’s moves with a motion controller. Unfortunately, the PS Move controls are the most tacked on feature of the game. You pull off light attacks by lightly swinging the Move controller and strong attacks with more emphasized swings. All QTE’s are done by swinging the Move controller in essentially any direction you want, making it feel more detached than immersive. There’s not even a certain motion to do when pulling off your ninpo as it still consists of pressing two specific buttons at once. The whole PS Move concept was a great idea in theory but just lazily programmed and executed.
All complaints aside, this was still a Ninja Gaiden game at heart with a different approach. Granted, I listed a good amount of cons that affected the gameplay score a bit, but by the end of the day, there was no denying that I had a great time playing the game. I was really hooked into its overall gameplay and found the experience to be engaging throughout the entire playthrough. The overall gameplay is not perfect, but it’s far from mediocre. I still find myself coming back for more between tackling the harder difficulties, completing the Ninja Trials and cutting through online opponents in Clan Battles.
Team Ninja has always boasted some impressive visuals in their titles and Ninja Gaiden 3 is no different. Hayabusa’s character model is incredibly detailed, being able to see every cloth line on his scarf, every glimmering shine on his sword and top-notch, fluid animations. As Hayabusa cuts down his enemies, their blood stains on his body and the more you kill, the more bloodied up Ryu gets. It’s definitely a great little detail that further adds to the immersion. Enemies all have a distinguished look to them and have a good amount of detail as well. The environment detail can occasionally be a mixed bag however. Certain areas look pretty nice while at other times, just looks more on the bland side. The game still runs at a solid 60 fps (which is a necessity for an action game like this) and only had a few instances of slow down, but nothing major.
Ninja Gaiden 3’s overall sound design is incredibly well done. The sound effects of cutting through enemies is very powerful and gruesome to hear, perfectly accompanying the visceral combat. The outstanding soundtrack also conveys the action in a way that engages you into the gameplay even further and will stick with you even after playing the game. Hayabusa’s voice actor, Troy Baker, provides the character’s best voiceover in the franchise’s history and also provides an incredibly badass battle cry while in combat. Voice acting for all the other characters are pretty good, but nothing stellar that we’ve come to witness throughout this generation. The only thing that can get irritating is hearing the enemies shouting the same lines over and over during combat. Luckily, the sound effects usually overpower their voices, drowning them out.
Overall Score: 15/20 = 7.5 out of 10
Ninja Gaiden 3 may not be the installment many fans were hoping for, but it’s not exactly a complete misstep either. It’s still a great game nonetheless and provides an incredibly intense experience. Go into the game with a little bit of an open mind and you’ll appreciate the elements Team Ninja has incorporated here. If you keep your mentality fixated on the Itagaki era, then evidently you may not be pleased.
+ “Steel on Bone” is visceral and brutal
+ Awesome sound design and soundtrack
+ NES Ninja Gaiden references
+ Engaging combat system
+ Plenty of memorable moments
– Repetitive waves of enemies (more evident on Hard mode)
– Some bland environments
– Lack of Chapter Select
– Lazy PS Move Controls
– Camera still finicky
The Dragon Ninja, Ryu Hayabusa is back in Ninja Gaiden 3 doing what he does best…slicing up bad guys who are in his way! In this latest installment, Ryu Hayabusa faces a new enemy, Regent of the Mask, a very powerful alchemist that curses the Dragon Ninja with the “Grip of Murder.” Ryu is set out after the alchemist to put a stop to his plans and hopefully lift the curse that was put on him. Known for its intense combat and savage difficulty, Ninja Gaiden 3 does go off in a different direction from the the first two. However, I must say it has more of a story than Ninja Gaiden 1 & 2. Personally, I can actually say I can follow the story without just jumping in the game and killing a bunch of bad guys. The story was very well done and throughout the game, I definitely felt the “steel on bone” action.
A lot was taken out in Ninja Gaiden 3 from previous installments, such as multiple weapons (for now), ninpos, projectiles and other items that were able to be picked up. Being able to upgrade your weapons is also missing but replaced by receiving better swords with more combos. To tell you the truth, it didn’t affect my gameplay experience. It was more of a test to see if i still had it in me, and I was still able to pull of my favorites combos like the good old Izuna Drop. However, NG3 offers a lot of new features. For instance, while Ryu is in combat, his arm pulsates from the curse and he must resort to slaying down his enemies while he’s in pain. Another new feature is the “Falcon Dive,” where Ryu free falls from a helicopter or off the roof of a skyscraper towards an enemy for an instant kill.
As anticipated, I expected nothing less from NG3. Being a fan of the franchise, I enjoyed playing as Ryu once again, battling it out with numerous enemies, cutting through waves of enemies before going head-to-head in a boss fight at the end of the level. As always, the boss fights are as epic as they can be, no matter how challenging they are. Ninja Gaiden 3 is going to be memorable game due to the references in previous installments and also just being a badass ninja game. It will definitely be one of my favorites.
Second Opinion Score: 8.0 out of 10