Ninjas are cool. If you have doubts about that, maybe you should see the trailers to “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”. Better yet, watch the cult classic “Return of the Ninja” which starred Sho Kosugi as a heroic ninja warrior (with a really bad haircut). Either way, you’ll get a general idea of why ninjas are so awesome.That’s part of the reason why I’ve always liked the “Ninja Gaiden” series. For me, it’s always been a thrill to take control of Ryu Hayabusa, the protagonist of the ongoing series. Whether it is on the original NES trilogy or the XBOX sequels, the series has always been known for its hard challenges and strategic combat. The latest title, “Ninja Gaiden 3”, is the third installment of a modern revival which began in 2004. Video game designer Tomonobu Itagaki had re-launched the series 8 years ago as an XBOX exclusive. His sequel, “Ninja Gaiden II” was released for the XBOX 360 in ’08. But on the eve of its launch, Itagaki sued the game’s company and left for good. “Ninja Gaiden 3” comes from the same development team of the first two games (Team Ninja) but under the leadership of Itagaki’s protege, Yosuke Hayashi.
Unfortuantely, Hayashi’s new direction is a step back for the series. I’m sure he was under pressure from his superiors to develop a more accessible game. But in the process, he has gutted the series from the inside out. Simply put, Hayashi has streamlined the game to its very basics to appeal to the newcomer. This may be great news for a newbie, but die-hard fans will certainly be disappointed. I played the game in its entirety and while I enjoyed it, I can certainly empathize with the fanboy backlash. “Ninja Gaiden 3” is disappointing due to its uninspired level design, limited enemy types and overall repetitive nature. It’s not the worst sequel ever made, but it could’ve been so much better.
The game’s biggest change of direction is its focus on the character of Ryu. The two previous entries had paper-thin plots that played out in quick cutscenes. But NG 3 has a more personal story to tell. Hayashi breaks the mold of the series by unmasking the heroic ninja on several occassions. By doing so, he reveals the face of a killer, and the game is a partial examination of Ryu’s morally questionable actions. He is a cold-blooded murderer and the story touches upon his nature. It may not be a deep psychological study that would make Freud proud, but it does help the game feel more intimate. The plot itself involves Ryu’s attempts to stop a group of scientists (led by a red-cloaked figure) from achieving world domination through their DNA-mutated creations.
Gameplay-wise, “Ninja Gaiden” has always involved full-out assaults as oppose to slow and silent kills. In that sense, the character of Ryu is the “Rambo” of ninjas. Players enable him to hack n’ slash through a variety of stages with a plethora of weapons. However, part 3 only gives Ryu access to only one major type, the katana. The game’s 8 levels are extremely linear and easy to navigate through. But the environments are bland and the game recycles enemy and boss encounters all too often. For instance, Ryu will clear out a room full of bad guys (which requires extensive button mashing) only to face the same challenge minutes later. Quick-time events are also repeated throughout. As a result, the game never quite reaches its potential. It feels like a rushed product at times. And that’s a shame because some of the new concepts are quite good. For instance, I liked the cinematic “Steel on Bone” moments which zoom in on Ryu as he slices up an enemy. And the new ability to zig-zag around opponents (courtesy of a slide move) is quite nifty. Players can also play “Ninja Gaiden 3” online to either survive a horde of enemies (Ninja Trials) or fight off an opposing team. (Clan Battles). As the players progress, they’ll gain additional weapons, abilities and costumes.
Overall, I had mixed reactions after completing “Ninja Gaiden 3”. The game is inferior to its predecessors in almost every way. It lacks the depth, variety and challenge of previous games. Yet, it still offers plenty of high-octane action that is distinctive amongst its contemporaries (“Devil May Cry”, “God of War”, “Heavenly Sword”, etc.). “Ninja Gaiden 3” may not be a masterpiece, but I think casual action fans will get a kick out of it. After all, you do get to kill a robotic dinosaur, a mech and a fighter jet (several times) in the span of a few hours. And we all know that ninjas are popular for those sorts of things…kind of.
“Ninja Gaiden 3” scores a 7 out of 10.