I have hardly finished off what I think is the last soldier wearing a red barret when a rocket explodes next to me. I turn around and sure enough there is one lone straggler on top of a building equipped with a massive rocket launcher. Nothing that concerns the coolest ninja ever to appear in a video game, but he still needs to be defeated. With a quick tap on L2 Ryu pulls out his bow and automatically locks onto the enemy who's dispatched with an explosive arrow.
There are a lot that is different about Ninja Gaiden 3, and perhaps not very surprising as Team Ninja has undergone major changes since the release of Ninja Gaiden II, with Tomonobu Itagaki leaving and taking some of the talent with him to Valhalla Games. Ninja Gaiden 3 has been designed with a new core philosophy in place.
Ninja Gaiden on Xbox holds a special place in my gamer heart, as it was a visually breathtaking and extremely challenging experience. I studied enemy patterns and when you conquered a boss it was down to dedication and skill. Everything ran at a rock solid 60 frames per second, and I was disappointed with preview codes of Ninja Gaiden 3 as it had noticeable framerate issues. The challenge just didn't seem to be there and Quick Time Events (QTE's) took away some of the sense of being in total control.
I'm not really surprised. The new Team Ninja boss Yosuke Hayashi has taken the studio's games in a direction I'm not really pleased with. Ninja Gaiden Sigma had elements of motion control and other additions that took away from the "hardcore feel" of the title. The same goes for Sigma 2 that also did away with most of the blood and gore. Enter Ninja Gaiden 3 and there was talk of opening the game up for a wider audience, and it sounded like they completely left old fans high and dry. Naturally, I was very sceptical as I placed the review disc in my console.
But I'm willing to admit it when I'm wrong, and Ninja Gaiden 3 quickly proved me wrong. During the first level I feel uncomfortable with the constant interruption of quick time events. I'm not impressed by the lack of variation as far as enemies go, and the lack of challenge. The game is overly forgiving and my health bar is replenished after each encounter.
If I was to doubt for a second where to go next in the linear levels I only have to hold down the right analogue stick to point Mr. Hayabusa in the right direction. The checkpoints are frequent, and if you happen to die, you're quickly back in the action without any real penalty. There is ninja magic that is quickly recharged and both kills off enemies and heals Hayabusa, and a bow that let's you lock on to an enemy and down them with a simple press of L2. And you never run out of arrows.
You probably know where I'm going with this. The enemies are easy preys, there is no need to think, the adventure elements are gone, Quick Time Events are mixed in with tougher sequences, and the menus are simplified to a point where you can't even changed weapons in the normal mode of the game. Ninja Gaiden has gone casual and it eats at me, and it feels closer to Ninja Blade than the challenging predecessors.
It's just that... I actually enjoyed Ninja Blade. It's somewhere after I've managed to avoid the red laser sights in a compact mist, and taken the enemies out through brutal stealth killings, and just before I turned a spider-like boss into scrap metal that I realise that this game is really cool in its own way.
The camera is allowed to pan around and zoom in the particularly cool attacks, and I'm asked to perform insane ninja moves all of the time. And ninjas rock. It's nothing out of the ordinary to jump out of planes without a parachute and land while cutting some dude in half. Neither is slicing up giant helicopter and jumping on the pieces of wreckage on your way down.
It brings back the little kid in me, and I'm shredding my way forward with ruthless efficiency. I jump off roof tops, climb up buildings, arm walk across ropes while taking out enemies with well aimed kunais. I slide under obstacles, run on walls, perform stealthy assassination, and hitch a ride with passing vehicles by sticking a couple of knives through the metal. Add to this a number of massive boss fights where one big fellow is followed by an even bigger one. Without spoiling anything I would like to give a shout out to something you're faced with in a laboratory about halfway through the game.
The story is also something that shines in Ninja Gaiden 3. Unlike the rather strange story of the second game we're offered a more down to Earth (in Japanese terms) story about terrorists. The adventure takes us to a wide range of environments so there is no lack of variation here. You will chop your way through gothic cities, Uncharted inspired deserts, lush jungles, top secret laboratories, and much more.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is also a clear improvement in the visual department compared to Ninja Gaiden II. The environments feature better design, the lighting is more advanced, and Ryu Hayabusa is incredibly detailed. The visuals are delightfully crisp, and only the lack of anti-aliasing and the inconsistent framerate detracts from the graphics score.
Simply put, I enjoyed the new breed of Ninja Gaiden that Ninja Gaiden 3 is. It will never be what it was, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Just different. Everything isn't great however, and the problem with taking away the challenge is that the game grows a bit repetitive. I progress through the game simply by pressing the square button repeatedly, and any elevated enemies I quickly dispatch with my bow and arrow.
I'm never encouraged to mix it up, and even if enemies appear with new clothes and looks, I'm not forced to switch tactics. In similar fashion I can shoot down helicopters by just standing still, press L2 shoot, and repeat quickly. Even if I sometimes get hit with missiles, I have even managed to take down bosses this way.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is sure to annoy some of the old fans of the series, and to some degree needlessly so. Sure it's different, more casual and aimed at a western audience, but it's still highly enjoyable. A steady stream of massive action scenes, beautifully choreographed violence, means that you won't be willing to put your controller away until the game has been completed. A sure sign that it's still a joy to control Ryu Hayabusa.