To accept a life that walks in the path of a ninja is to accept death itself. Bloodshed flows like a river through the fingers tightly grasped to the hilt of his blade. Burdened with carrying the weight of the thousands of lives he’s taken, always knowing that payment for his sins will come in due time. In Ninja Gaiden III, series protagonist Ryu Hayabusa's past sins will cost him more than he ever imagined.
Going into the 2010 holiday season, Team Ninja unleashed Metroid: Other M upon the world under the direction of its new leader, Yosuke Hayashi. Samus' streamlined adventure focused on deep narratives and straightforward cinematic action, while still retaining the basic Metroid experience, unsurprisingly leading to a widely mixed reception across the board from critics. Not to be undone, Hayashi has audaciously taken this formula and infused it into Team Ninja’s hardcore action series, Ninja Gaiden. But, while Metroid: Other M retained the essence of a series that's been enjoyed for well over a decade, many of the basic elements that meld Ninja Gaiden into the hardcore action perfection that fans have come to expect have been intentionally left out, dulling Ryu's blade and significantly changing the feel of the overall gameplay. Those new to the series will likely find some enjoyment here, but for the fans who’ve revered the series’ since Tomonobu Itagaki revamped the franchise on the Xbox in 2004, simply put: this is not your Ninja Gaiden.
It’s a dark, dreary night in the streets of London when we find Ryu standing alone upon an outcrop, high above the city's cobbled streets. With superhuman powers he masterfully soars through the air, slowing his impact by viciously impaling an unsuspecting enemy through his midsection, before unleashing a full-scale assault on the remaining guards. From Ryu’s brutal entry and the opening hours thereafter, Ryu sprays the blood of thousands across the screen with the blazing speed and grace that we’ve come to expect. Crippling a giant spider-mech one leg at a time before delivering a final explosive blow to its midsection; scaling up walls like a spider with the use of his kunai; pulling from his inner dragon to unleash a powerful ninpo (magic) attack to clear enemy waves, or mercilessly finishing off his adversaries with his slow-motion steel-on-bone finishing moves as they wail and scream in agony, the series' over-the-top cinematic flare is gorier than ever and staggering to behold.
Setting up each scenario, cinematic cutscenes feature outstanding visuals and character animations, as our hero is unmasked for the first time and brought to life on a personal level, much like Samus in Metroid: Other M. The handsome, soft-spoken Ryu is often gentle in these moments and we get to see an entirely different side of the man behind the mask, mostly thought of as a ruthless murderer out for revenge. A cultist sector known as the Lords of Alchemy is, of course, out to control the world and start out by placing a deadly curse, known as the Grip of the Murderer, upon Ryu as he’s the only person alive who can thwart their vile operations. Bringing the thousands slain by his own hands back to haunt him, and turning his arm into a horrid appendage, the curse is spreading ever deeper, threatening to end his life. As the story unfolds we watch Ryu battle with not only the assailants that currently pursue him, but also those that torment him within his own body. It’s a dark, brooding tale, and one that’s becoming for the series.
Like the mask that conceals a ninja from his opponents, all of the aforementioned elements shroud the underlining issues buried deep within the game, with an attractive coat of ultra-violent cinematics. Carving a few hours into the game, the broken gameplay threads start tearing away at the fabric that holds the entire suit together: the impressive air dive found at the game’s opening becomes standard fare; steel-to-bone quick-time events are saturated throughout and the kunai climbs that find you alternating the L and R buttons to progress up inclines are repeated so often that they become an annoyance, continually prompting on-screen tutorials. Speaking of tutorials, you’ll see them throughout the entire game over and again, but if you opt to turn them off you’ll lose the QTE prompts necessary to survive the majority of the in-game cinematics. It’s almost as if the developer felt it needed to hold your hand in case you forget which buttons need to be pressed to do what. While this might have been acceptable on the game’s Hero (easy) mode, they’re inexcusably forced upon players in the harder difficulties.
The most painful blow dealt to Ninja Gaiden III is the degradation of Ryu’s combat skills. From the initial dive into the streets of London, Ryu’s equipped Dragon Blade is the only melee weapon available in the game, and it starts out with a fully unlocked move set. While the basic attack manoeuvres are accounted for, only the very basic of these are feasible for use in the heat of battle. Where past titles found a few enemies with tremendous skills that made learning the intricacies of Ryu’s move set absolutely paramount to survival, here he’s swarmed with wave after wave of opponents and quick repetitions of the Square and Triangle attacks is all that's needed to slice your way out of these skirmishes. While pounding away at the attack buttons, Ryu’s infected arm will start to radiate a red glow and at this point a short press of the Triangle button finds him dashing around the screen in another cinematic gore fest of consecutive instant kills, toning down what was once his Ultimate Technique, and ninpo magic is also stripped down to a single spell that clears out an entire wave of the opposition.
Hand-to-hand combat is even further restrained by a compulsory auto-tracking feature that’s been added to Ryu’s movement abilities. Tapping an attack button in the vicinity of an opponent makes Ryu disappear in a blue aura and reappear in full attack. While this is supposed to keep the action constant, defensive manoeuvres are afflicted by this: many times Ryu unintentionally evades from one’s attack only to be auto-tracked into the direct line of attack from another opponent. Add this to the constant QTE melee attacks and a bow that auto-aims for you when projectiles need to be fired at distant threats, and it feels like the game has more control of Ryu than you do. This distances the action from the player and shatters the core foundation that Ninja Gaiden fans have flocked to the series for over the past eight years.
For those who don’t prefer hardcore action titles, but still desire to play the game, Hero mode offers a substantially easier way to play – not that the standard mode will offer a significant challenge to series veterans — with unlimited ninpo and auto blocking available when nearing death. PlayStation Move support is also featured to put Ryu’s blade in the grip of your hands, but poor implementation deems its use to little more than a curiosity, only here to draw in the casual Move owners desiring an action title.
Upon finishing the 7-8 hour single player campaign, the usual mix of multiplayer trials are available to overcome with a fellow ninja by your side, but for the first time ever, a competitive 4-on-4 Deathmatch Mode is available to put your skills to the ultimate test. Unlike the single player, only a small number of attacks are available from the start and playing through any of the online modes will gain experience to acquire a deeper move set, attire and ninpo attacks. While initially frustrating, as you climb to ranks to Master Ninja you’ll soon find yourself skilfully unleashing combo strings in one-on-one brawls, discharging powerful ninpo magic upon unsuspecting crowds or landing the famed Izuna Drop on those lesser-ninjas caught off-guard. Successfully landing one of the spectacular air dives from the single player campaign onto a live opponent is devilishly fun and bound to put a sly grin on the face of any long-time fan. With the limited options, the online multiplayer might only be a novelty, but it’s a satisfying aside that could assuage those damaged by the main game’s myriad of blunders.
It’s apparent that Hayashi’s Team Ninja aspired to create a Ninja Gaiden title that would appeal to the masses, and those not at grips with the series’ past could likely find a decent amount of enjoyment. Ninja Gaiden III’s overly cinematic action and dramatic storyline soon falls into abstruse repetition, but in pleasing those not accustomed to the series’ hardcore action roots, Team Ninja inadvertently ripped the spine out of the near perfection combat that the series’ gameplay structure was founded upon. Instead of feeling Ryu’s painful emotions as he fights the curse placed upon his body, series veterans will feel like the Grip of the Murderer curse was place upon them for being loyal fans instead.