On day one of Ninja Gaiden III's release, I beat the first half of Stage 1 with a single thumb on a single hand (only using the analog stick and other buttons when required to maneuver to the next fight set piece). I watched with my mouth agape, for 15 minutes, as Ryu Hayabusa slaughtered his foes like a living blender with hardly any input from me whatsoever, until I'd finally had enough, put down the controller, and buried my head in my hands.
Tecmo Koei appears to have patched that out, so I can't play this game one-handed anymore. This is a good thing; otherwise, I would have had to end the review one paragraph ago. Some action games, like Bayonetta, are landmarks of the genre; others, like NeverDead, are hilarious in how badly executed and non-functional they are. Ninja Gaiden III, due to what amounts to an identity crisis, ends up being the action equivalent of Salisbury steak. Never will an action game make you feel so little via so much spectacle.
The story — if one can call it such — is that a curse has been cast on Ryu Hayabusa and his Dragon Sword, causing it to transfer the pain and suffering of everyone Ryu kills directly into himself. (This has the hilarious upshot of Ryu borrowing swords from people from all over Ninja Gaiden canon over the course of the game.) Ninja Gaiden III really wants you, as a player, to "feel Ryu's pain," so it will repeatedly slow down the game, sometimes complete with zoom and blur, to show people begging for their lives while you are "forced" to mercilessly cut them down or watch Ryu's blood-curse taking over.
This isn't the story's only offense, mind you. There are constant incomprehensible story "twists" involving cybernetics, gods, goddesses and terrorists; allies switch sides at the drop of a hat, and at one time, the game attempts to even further humanize Ryu by forcing on to him a child and, thus, sudden surrogate fatherhood. The entire nonsense tone of this premise is straight out of Metroid: Other M, developed by the same team not too long ago. Did you pay the price of admission because you thought you were going to have some fun fighting as a ninja badass of almost two decades running? Well, too bad — in Ninja Gaiden III, fun carries a price.
As alluded to previously, the production values for this game are off the charts. The game throws high-resolution graphics, impressive in-engine cut scenes, huge set pieces, quick-zoom camera angles, huge explosions and buckets of blood at you. It's a never-ending light show that's backed up by a bumping soundtrack that wouldn't be out of place in a Hollywood blockbuster — where Hayabusa's sword manages to cut through all that modern technology has to offer. However, all of the money on the screen appears to have come at a cost; around the halfway point, you will have seen every danger and hazard the game has to offer, and blatant enemy recycling occurs, even up to the bosses.
It's a shame that nearly all of the game's biggest and most breathtaking moments have Quick Time Events (QTEs) attached, dethroning previous title holder, Ninja Blade, for having the most barely interactive cut scenes in what is supposed to be an action game. However, once the QTEs were over, at least Ninja Blade contained combat with some meat to it. The older Ninja Gaiden games prided themselves on genuine challenge and a blend of strategy and reflex action. The older Ninja Gaiden games also give the players myriad tools to effectively fight the enemy and inject some variety in the proceedings. Before the game was patched, all you had was the sword throughout the entire game as a main weapon; now, at least you get claws to go with them. The bow also makes an appearance with a slow-motion auto-targeting system that feels genuinely great to use; it's balanced out by a frustrating hand-over-hand wall-climbing system ripped straight from Call of Duty, yet abused to extremes even that game knew not to approach.
However, all of the above is inconsequential as Ninja Gaiden III is a game expressly designed to be finished. Ryu's movements are given so many assists, and so many extra motions are made compared to the amount of buttons pushed, that you will constantly wonder whether you're playing the game or if it's playing itself. There is a Hard Mode, but it's an unsatisfying slog as all of the enemies have been mathematically enhanced in terms of endurance and number, killing any semblance of flow the campaign once had because the core mechanics aren't addressed. The game is given some very short legs with a mission mode and an online mode, both of which amount to cutting up things as much as possible (a la Horde mode) while supplying some secondary objectives and restricting some of your deadlier attacks to play-experience unlocks. As it stands, it's all a shallow diversion (especially compared to the Master Ninja Tournaments of old), yet Tecmo Koei deems it worthy of an Online Pass.
There have been theories as to whether or not Ninja Gaiden III was developed expressly to "appeal to Western audiences," and if they are true, that's an utter shame. Say whatever you want about the Call of Duty crowd, but Western gamers like tried-and-true gaming with some meat, just like anybody else. When compared to its predecessors, Ninja Gaiden III is an insulting mess. Taken on its own merits, it is neither great nor terrible. There are worse games, but there are also far better, and there is nothing that this game does to distinguish itself from any other. With Ninja Gaiden III, the series — and likely Team Ninja — has lost its way, and the result is an overdose of style with far too little substance to accompany it.
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