Few console franchises have offered as much humbling adversity as Ninja Gaiden. From a trio of taxing NES cartridges to Tomonobu Itagaki’s 2004 grueling reboot and strenuously difficult sequel, Ryu Hayabusa’s exploits have forced players to acclimate to an elevated level of difficulty. Long before achievements and trophies became the badge of honor for perseverance and mastery, the completion of a Ninja Gaiden title represented the consummate conquest. However, for those without the tenacity to surmount the franchise’s requirement for pedantic precision and razor-sharp reflexes, games could culminate in a controller-snapping climax, as birds or rocket-launcher wielding soldiers stirred players into a frenzy.
Following Itagaki’s much-publicized exodus from Team Ninja, Yosuke Hayashi has served as the studio’s director, gradually ushering in a generation of gentler ninjutsu. In the wake of easier difficulty settings for both Ninja Gaiden Sigma and its successor, the culmination of Hayashi’s push for a more approachable game can be found in Ninja Gaiden 3. For fervent fans, the alteration is certain to be contentious, as the first half of the title can be completed without analyzing any of the divulging animations of enemy attacks.
Whereas previous disk-based franchise entries compelled gamers to fastidiously block, dodge, and attack with unerring exactitude, Ninja Gaiden 3 doesn’t demand the same punishing level of perfection. Although combinations of quick and strong attacks are still used to crack open opponents like roasted chestnuts, the intelligence of adversaries has plummeted, resulting in circles of foes taking halfhearted pot-shots at players. Worse, Gaiden 3’s battle pacing seems convoluted, with waves of enemies pouring into locales, seemingly to lengthen the title’s playtime. Woefully, upping the difficulty level does little to remedy these faults, merely changing the amount of damage foes filch and substituting tougher opponents for conventional blade fodder.
Other small changes significantly affect the flow of battle. Although Ryu utilizes several swords throughout his excursion, they all feel woefully similar, lacking the diversity and tactical opportunities found in his previous arsenal. Revising the health management system found in Gaiden 2, the game forgoes the elixir-quaffing requirement of previous iterations. Now, success in combat allows players to rejuvenate, or alternatively use ninpo to summon an area-clearing dragon- which also refreshes the health bar. For better or worse, Ninja Gaiden 3 has excised the upgrade systems for Ryu, weapons, and the ninja systems, keeping the game’s focus squarely on the action.
Fortunately, a few glimmers of glory shine during battle. Multi-staged boss fights deliver a delightful sense of spectacle, recalling some of the series more memorable brawls. Gaiden 3’s wide-ranging backdrops recall the jet-setting expedition of the original NES game, offering glimpses of picturesque and varied locales across its seven hour campaign. The game’s camera is especially well-coded, exhibiting cinematic close-ups of grisly combat and a pleasing perspective as quick-time events send Ryu scampering up walls. Overall, the game’s visuals are remarkably detailed considering their unwavering sixty frame-per-second delivery and succinct load times.
Although Gaiden 3’s single-player mode is a bit of a mixed bag, the title’s multiplayer components are surprisingly inspired. After entering in a pass code to access Shadows of the World, players have access to both cooperative and competitive elements. The former tasks duos (or even an individual) with annihilating waves of enemies, sporadically offering special challenges in the corner of the screen. Meanwhile, Clan Battles function as four on four deathmatches, serving as a rancorous playground for virtual assassins. Both modes pay out Karma- Gaiden’s motivational currency, allowing players to customize and augment their ninjas. Although the PS3 version of the game features Move support, there’s a reason why it’s relegated to the lower difficulty levels; using the peripheral is an interesting novelty that lacks the precision of a standard controller.
There’s an early scene in Ninja Gaiden 3 where the protagonist confronts a disarmed soldier, who is pleading for his life. For players accustomed to the moral dilemmas posed by many contemporary games, the moment may prompt a moment of reflection. Yet, Ninja Gaiden 3 doesn’t capitalize on this predicament- brutality is the only recourse. In many ways, this reflects Team Ninja’s principal approach with Gaiden 3. Beyond the servings of visceral violence, much of the nuance that players have come to expect is missing.