Ninjas are cool, right? Take a look back at the great ninja craze of the 1980s and you’ll find the black-clad assassins in almost everything from cheesy flicks like American Ninja to the totally tubular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. While I generally agree with the sentiment that ninjas are cool — cooler than those dirty pirates, anyway — no one should take the majority of ’80s ninja films seriously. Those quick cash-ins delivered uninspired performances that serve as ill-fitting tributes to the source material despite good intentions. I adore TMNT to this day, and it’s in no way the worst offender, but American attempts at making movies about ninjas generally fall well short of acceptable entertainment — not to mention the fact that they have almost nothing to do with real ninjas, who were silent assassins.
The Ninja Gaiden series isn’t big on stealth, either, and that’s fine. But rather than try to expand on the series’ history of intense action, developer Team Ninja set on a different approach for the third chapter in the series, one that cribs trends from contemporary blockbusters like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed. As a whole, Ninja Gaiden 3 appears to represent a Japanese developer’s attempt to add a Western touch to an established brand. This philosophy, while possibly sincere, presents a mash-up of ideas that often fumble the concepts they’re based on. I certainly don’t mean to rant against Japanese game design or mock their games here. Yet trying to look past the obvious inspirations behind Ninja Gaiden 3 is like trying to ignore the hidden arrow in the FedEx logo — once you see it, you can’t unsee it.
To be fair, the Uncharted connections in Ninja Gaiden present an amplified take on Naughty Dog’s active cinematic set pieces from Uncharted 2 — these are player-driven action scenes that place you in control of a character on-screen. Developer Team Ninja takes this concept, runs with it, and gives it a Ninja Gaiden touch. Here, hero Ryu Hayabusa can jump off the wing of an enemy plane or slide underneath an oncoming truck that’s barreling towards him. The implementation is slightly different, but the core idea is the same: Make the player feel involved in the action by having them initiate the adrenaline-pumping sequences themselves. Its more effective than a cut-scene and makes the big action scenes memorable.
Sadly, in NG3′s case, this approach falls more in line with a quick-time event structure, and while the action always looks good, the sequences just don’t hold the same weight. This happens a lot over the course of NG3′s campaign. You’ll alternate between button presses to scale up a building using two kunais or slide out of the way of an incoming hazard or obstacle. While these sequences involve the player, the constant prompts in NG3 gradually become irritating over time. Hitting a button in a scripted scene is more involving than passively watching, but its constant reuse doesn’t make me feel any closer to the on-screen action.
Other video game trends that find expression in NG3 include a mandatory turret sequence; regenerating health; Metroid: Other M-like scenes where movement is restricted to convey that Hayabusa is suffering from a lot of pain; and a surprisingly tender scene where you escort someone to escape a ruined laboratory. These work in the game, but at the same time they feel out of place. I play Ninja Gaiden for the skill-based combat and weapon depth — and some of that is still here, albeit scaled back — not for the constant barrage of game clichés.
As jarring as some of this feels, NG3′s primary goal is to make the player look cool, and in that regard it mostly succeeds. Core combat still moves quickly, balancing nuance and depth with deadly combos and obliteration techniques. Enemies remain nimble and act in distinct attack patterns and tells, but their variety and scale feel limited compared to those in previous Ninja Gaiden games. In fact, NG3 says goodbye to item pickups, energy orbs, and a large stable of sharp weapons to present a streamlined experience that’s light on features. The end result is a game that moves the way you expect it to but doesn’t push any existing gameplay boundaries for the series.
Presently, NG3 only features one weapon type — the katana — as opposed to the eight in Ninja Gaiden 2. The only new combat addition comes in the form of the aforementioned slide move, which causes enemies to go barreling over you so you can set up combos. Your repertoire of moves grow as Hayabusa progresses through the campaign and upgrades to different katanas; but even though it flows well enough, combat feels a little scaled back here.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is not a disaster, merely a game that’s been scaled down a little too much in order to be more appealing to a larger audience. Maybe that’s why the ninja films of the ’80s felt so cheesy and misguided. They tried to cash in on a cool idea for a big audience without trying to figure out why that concept was so appealing in the first place. NG3 suffers from this exact problem and feels like an average product compared to the stellar pedigree the series is known for.
Note: Ninja Gaiden includes various multiplayer modes that we were unable to try out at the time of this review. Read this hands-on preview, and check back later for a blog entry that details how much fun the game is when played with others.