First, let me get this out of the way - I've beaten every Ninja Gaiden game on Master Ninja difficulty. I've also visited Team Ninja in Japan four times. I have a huge amount of reverence for the franchise, and most importantly, for the team behind them. I've held a special place in my gaming heart for Ninja Gaiden since the days of the arcade version, the NES games, and even the handheld games. Bottom line - I'm a huge, huge, huge Ninja Gaiden fan.
But then there's Ninja Gaiden III...
Let's take a step back and look at some of the cool features introduced in the original Xbox reboot of the franchise that gamers (and I) fell in love with all those years ago. The first major feature was combat. Visceral, brutal and fast-paced, it rewarded skilled players with the ability to unleash a ballet of death and destruction upon their enemies that was almost poetic in its grace. Secondly, the challenge was legendary. Ninja Gaiden had always been a difficult franchise. The first Xbox game amped up that difficulty level and in doing so directly rewarded the player for skilled play, giving them a profound sense of accomplishment for beating tough enemies or simply making it through the game. Thirdly, the game provided the player with a surprising amount of combat freedom, namely in having different weapons to use, each with their own unique benefits and drawbacks. I could run through the game using only my sword, but if I wanted, I could bust out Vigoorian Flails or my War Hammer. Lastly, the visuals set a new bar for action games, not only on the Xbox, but for the entire video game industry as a whole.
Team Ninja did a respectable job taking those features and
parlaying them into a number of sequels and pseudo-sequels, namely Ninja Gaiden
II, Ninja Gaiden Sigma and Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2. Those games largely
succeeded, mainly because they stayed true to those core gameplay tenants
|There's so much sadness behind those eyes|
Ninja Gaiden III is perplexing and disappointing on a number of levels, largely because the majority of those awesome features I mentioned above have either been stripped down or altogether removed from the game. Gone are multiple weapons, replaced with only being able to use one sword that can't even be upgraded. Gone, too, are items to collect. Also missing are multiple Ninpo magic powers, replaced with a single Ninpo attack that irritatingly plays the same, unskippable animation every single time you use it. What do these omissions mean for the actual game? First, and most importantly, it means that the layer of depth and freedom with weapons and abilities you enjoyed in past Ninja Gaiden games is absolutely gone. Secondly, it shows that Team Ninja did what I consider the blasphemy - it dumbed down the game to appeal to a wider audience. This isn't inherently a bad thing in most cases, but for a franchise known for its hardcore edge, it's a move that's largely unforgivable.
And then there's the actual combat system, which has suffered just as much. With the removal of different weapons, you're relegated to using the same few Dragon Sword moves over and over again. And, since the sword can never be upgraded, you never gain the ability to really unlock additional moves. As a result, combat becomes something unthinkable for a Ninja Gaiden game - boring. Ryu, the main character, does tote around a bow and arrow, but even the system for using that has been simplified for idiots, complete with an auto-lock that makes every shot spot-on and removes any iota of skill or challenge when wielding it. And, what was once an ultra-responsive engine that relied heavily on button input recognition has somehow become one where some button presses go unrecognized, interrupting attack combos and effectively killing any sort of flow.
|This is the superior Ninja Gaiden III|
With combat so grossly affected by change, I was at least
hopeful that the rest of the game would somehow compensate...but I was sorely
disappointed again. The visuals are unimpressive, and most levels are linear
Point A to Point B corridors draped in drab textures and uninspired colors. The
voice acting, never a positive for the franchise, is somehow worse than usual,
with bored, exaggerated or just plain awful dialogue.
New to the series are tired and pointless quick-time events (spoiler alert: the very first thing even do in the game is a QTE), including an oft-repeated one where you use your kunai weapons to scale walls, complete with alternative presses of the left and right bumper buttons. Actual enemy encounters are an experiment in frustration and boredom, rarely becoming more than just fighting off wave after wave of the same bad guys before being shunted to the next area. Team Ninja does try something new with a new multiplayer mode, but when the actual core mechanics of the main game are so suspect, multiplayer suffers as a result.
Ninja Gaiden III is the most disappointing game I have played in a very, very long time, largely because of my expectations of what Team Ninja has accomplished in the past. They've shown marks of brilliance in past Ninja Gaiden games, which makes Ninja Gaiden III that much more frustrating. For everyday action game fans with no real knowledge of the franchise, Ninja Gaiden III could be a good time. But, for fans of the franchise who have been slicing and dicing bad guys since the beginning, it's a slap in the face.
The Official Verdict: 2 out of 5