Game Review: Ninja Gaiden 3: The Razor’s Edge

The long-running Ninja Gaiden series dates back to the eight-bit era, but the franchise’s 3D reboot began in 2004. All three titles in the modern series have been released for both Microsoft and Sony’s platforms, while this most recent title is also available on the WiiU.

I picked up Sigma, the PS3 port of the critically-acclaimed Ninja Gaiden, a number of years ago. Along with the excellent production values, the game brought a number of new innovations to the hack-and-slash genre, and was widely praised for its depth and even its difficulty, forcing the player to really master the controls rather than sleepwalking through the game as in some button-mashers. I remember pushing stubbornly onward, ignoring the game’s helpful queries as to whether, after one more embarrassing defeat, I wouldn’t perhaps like to switch to easy mode.

This latest release was made without the input of director Tomonobu Itagaki, who was behind the previous two titles. The story does follow closely on previous events however, and has much the same feel of the previous games, including defaulting to the kind of difficulty normally reserved for a hard or super-hard mode on a comparable game.

Combat is based on a combination of light and strong attacks, with certain combinations resulting in special moves. There are at least 50 combos for each and every weapon available, some requiring strings of close to a dozen successful button presses. The player can also guard, jump, and dash out of harm’s way.

Carried over from Ninja Gaiden 2 is a dismemberment mechanic. No, it’s not like the zandatsu technique found in Metal Gear Rising.  Here, you just wail on an enemy and eventually a limb randomly falls off. At this point the enemy is near death, which means two things: a) you can kill with either a few more hits or an instant kill execution technique, and b) if you fail to do so, they’ll make a crazed suicide attack on you that does heavy damage.

The story involves an end-of-the-world plot and at least one fairly iconic villain that is a highlight of the game for me. The whole game is pretty over-the-top. The story deals with a futuristic world wherein ninja and magicians co-exist uneasily with military and intelligence organizations.  Here, Master Ryu finds himself on black-op missions, slicing through armoured helicopters and wizards and cloned tyrannosaurs with his magic sword.

Technology and mysticism are both accepted at face value, in a universe that reminds me of another Japanese game franchise, Strider, as much as the classic American animated television series, Gargoyles. I kinda like this world. I like that a villain can appear from nowhere slinging Slavic curses and investigating the genetics of dead gods. In this reality, it would be rather surprising if the odd nut-job didn’t manage to become a supervillain.

In fact, I have no issues with the story, whatever. It is fun even when it’s forgettable. But this is a 100-percent action game, with the levels being so linear they’re practically on rails, and nothing to do but fight through wave after wave of enemies. And the practically unvaried gameplay quickly grows tedious.

Bosses provide a welcome break in the routine, with unique battle patterns that tend to require near-perfect executions to outmatch them, but it’s easy to lose patience. Defeating the T-Rex requires the player dodge and attack, dodge and attack, for what feels like 50 repetitions without a mistake. Cheap deaths from a damage box that doesn’t quite match up properly is the icing on the cake.

I managed to make it about halfway through the game before switching to easy mode simply for the sake of getting it over with.

To be fair, I didn’t spend any time practicing the enormous list of specialized combo attacks, partly because so many can’t be executed without an average enemy dying or blocking before they’re complete, and partly because there’s no in-game pressure or assistance to do so. Maybe if I’d gone out of my way to better engage with some of the more advanced attacks, I would have found the gameplay more interesting. But with the combat already feeling clunky, repetitive, and outdated, I suspect few players will be inclined to play around with 13-step combos.

Additionally, I would have liked to see Team Ninja acknowledge some of the innovations made in the genre over the last 10 years. Consider the Metal Gear Solid and Devil May Cry series, the latter for its fluid battle-mechanics and combo system, and the former for its stealth action (Tenchu: Stealth Assassins might make an even better point of comparison). Ninja Gaiden 3 actually does introduce stealth kills, in the very first level, then abandons it, almost never letting the player do it again.

The rapid-fire button combinations used for customized actions during boss fights, utilized heavily in God of War and borrowed by everybody else since (including Metal Gear Rising),  are fitted in here.  However, they’re done in such a pointless and half-assed way I again wonder at the point. It rarely goes beyond rapidly tapping the square button for two seconds.

Ryu can wall-climb and ninja jump up narrow crevices. This is a cursory exercise of pressing the jump button a few times. Platforming is out; free-roaming environments are out. I think of the fact that we have an actual ninja running through cities and leaping from building to building and how it’s no different than pressing X to open a door and it seems like a huge missed opportunity.

Have the developers never heard of Mirror’s Edge? Or Prince of Persia? They give Ryu a wall run ability, but it’s pointless since the level design isn’t there to make it needed. The odd impossible-to-screw-up jump seems like lip-service to the platforming other games have done so well, and it basically amounts to a tease. Add it to the list of half-implemented ideas done better elsewhere.

Team Ninja’s error is not Icarus’ — they have not reached too high only to plummet. Quite the opposite, this game suggests a profound lack of ambition. The result is a decent weekend distraction and nothing more.

Article first published as PlayStation 3 Review: Ninja Gaiden 3: The Razor’s Edge on Blogcritics.

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