Ryu Hayabusa has been around for a long time now. When not beating up his friends in the Dead or Alive series he’s trotting all over the world on his own adventures which started back in 1988 on the NES. Now he’s back in a game that has already been released twice; once in the form of the simply titled Ninja Gaiden 3 and again recently when the Wii U got the “Razor’s Edge” edition. That port has now been once again ported back to the Xbox with all the trimmings intact, including new chapters, weapons and overall enhancements made to the gameplay. Ninja Gaiden (2004) was seen as one of the greatest action games of the generation, its sequel while still applauded, had its issues and Ninja Gaiden 3 is the first game not to have Tomonobu Itagaki in the director’s chair. So which direction is the series going in?
Japan’s Self Defense Force elicit the help of Ryu Hayabusa when a terrorist group takes over the area surrounding Downing Street. On his journey, Ryu losses his famed Dragon Sword which is somehow fused with his right arm and is slowly starting to corrupt him, getting stronger with each kill. Ryu must contend with the curse while hunting down the terrorists responsible and also making new friends along the way.
As ever with a Ninja Gaiden game, the story adds little to the overall experience, though there almost seems to be a conscious effort to make the tale as generic as possible by also introducing walking stereotypes in the form of a quirky British scientist, a little girl in need of protecting (I’m sure she’ll never be kidnapped) and the gruff, no-nonsense boss. It’s by the numbers stuff, except when it isn’t; the occasional double cross borders on the idiotic, but enough drama is infused in the second half to see you through to the end, barely. If you decide to play a second time, you’ll most likely skip the cutscenes though. The real shame is that the air of style and class that was in Ninja Gaiden (2004) is nowhere to be seen, instead replaced by a story and characters that we’ve seen a hundred times over. There is a feel of silliness though and a distinct impression that even those behind the game aren’t taking the story seriously and are even having some fun, the theatrical bad guy is quite camp and funny at times, though again nothing occurs that isn’t unskippable. One more note, there is an added scene involving Ayane that almost exactly resembles a scene from the Dead or Alive movie but is quite frankly handled horribly. Some might say “It’s so bad it’s funny” but I was too busy hiding my head in my hands.
The combat, thankfully, remains largely intact. As responsive and energetic as ever. While Ryu has developed a habit off pulling off a combo in the wrong direction, it’s still mostly the combat you remember. It’s just a shame that you don’t have worthy enemies to use it against. Whereas in previous games there was rarely a shortage of new enemies to fight that test your skill, this time 80% of the game has you fighting the same foot-soldiers who barely stand a chance against you. Even when the ninjas show up they barely put up a fight. The second half of the game provides a bit more variation, but they can still all be vanquished by using the exact same tactics over and over. Some enemies have longer health bars than you’d think in early parts of the game, making the “Tough but fair” banner slide somewhat; you’ll learn to hate those damn magic guys.
Once you learn the Izuna Drop, it can kill most soldiers instantly, there’s little reason to use any other combo. Another common tactic is to jump away from your enemies a couple of times, charge a heavy attack and unleash a unblockable combo which can kill up to two enemies at once. While it can feel like cheating, it’s your only real choice as enemies are likely to block or dodge your other melee attacks quite easily. While there is some degree of timing and intricacy that you need to learn, you’ll most likely resort to the charge attack quite often.
Boss fights can be somewhat of a mixed bags; while there are a couple near the end that feel tough but fair, they are a little too repetitive. I hope you enjoy the very first boss fight you encounter because you’ll have to fight him FOUR times throughout the entire game, twice in the same location. While some are satisfying to defeat, it’s more to do with perseverance than anything else and you’ll most likely deploy the “Charge attack” tactic for most bosses too.
Level design barely exists here. There’s no option to explore, find hidden chests, weapons, collectables, (other than the occasional scarab which only increases your score) and no puzzles to solve, instead you’re forced along narrow corridors until it opens up to a battlefield, then forced along the corridor again. If you’re worried about getting lost along this one-way route, don’t worry, pushing the right thumbstick will tell you which way to go. The only variation introduced is in the multiple weapons. It can be fun to switch weapons around and experiment with different combos, though many are still likely to pick their favourite and stick with it throughout the game.
The game simply isn’t brimming with a lot of confidence and there’s nothing good in here that wasn’t in previous entries. Of the new elements there are QTEs, most of which occur at the end of boss battles or when Ryu’s climbing a wall, a simple stealth mechanic which is explained through a tutorial, used a few times in the opening level, then is never really seen again and some annoying segments in which Ryu’s curse overcomes him and he is forced to battle enemies in a ghostly arena while his health depletes. With the exception of the first level, this shows up during every single chapter of the game and gets old fast.
One of the worst design choices however, is how some of the fights are actually handled. You’ll enter an area and get attacked, though just when you think you’ve taken care of everyone another wave will arrive. Sometimes a “mini boss” will even come after that in the form of mages or fiends. It’s a poor, frustrating addition to a game that has enough mindless combat as it is. Making the combat of Ninja Gaiden become dull is quite the disappointing feat.
I’m unsure whether it has something to do with this game technically being a port from the Wii U or if the original release was like this, but this is one hell of an unattractive game. Ninja Gaiden was released almost 9 years ago now and even that game looks better. I’m not even talking about the dull, monotonous color scheme on offer or how the environments are repetitive, there’s just such a drab, muddy quality to the whole thing, even the sleek sci-fi environments look dull.
Most, if not all, of the enemies and character models found in the game are simply byproducts of previous games, yet somehow look worse here. The fiends found in the first game show up but look incredibly lifeless and plastic. Halfway through the game, Ryu is forced to revisit areas from the previous two games and even the environments somehow look worse. Something has clearly gone wrong here.
The music is hardly memorable but never got in the way, though there is a moment when you see something that looks a lot like the shop where you upgrade your weapons in the first game. While in this area some familiar music kicks in, it’s very subtle but nice addition that may just make you wish you were playing that game instead. The voice acting does it’s job too, I immediately recognised one of the voices as Ali Hillis, Liara T’Soni from the Mass Effect series, other than that it barely factors.
One new thing to the series however is multiplayer, something which many fans have been wanting for a long time now. It was always going to be tricky to pull off but they’ve done an admiral job at it. With only a team deathmatch mode available though, it’s hard to see people playing for very long as it can get a little too chaotic. I found that the fewer the players in a game, the better. I could only play one game of coop due to lack of players but that seems rather fun too. A coop throughout the whole game though? That would be very special.
This may seem like an overwhelmingly negative review and to a certain extent it is, but this is hardly the worst game ever created. The combat and controls still work fine. It’s just a rather unworthy sequel as it provides nothing new, removes mechanics from previous games that worked and manages to turn Ninja Gaiden into one of the most run of the mill, mindless and average fighters in gaming. There is still somewhat of a challenge in some of the boss fights and occasional moments of fun, but it only lasts for eight chapters (plus two levels where you play as Ayane) and the multiplayer isn’t good enough to keep you interested for more than half an hour. This is the perfect game to pick up on a rental, or better yet just pick up one of the previous games.