Ninja Gaiden 3 is the video game equivalent of the movie Showgirls. It’s all flash and style, a non-stop barrage of eye candy that exists for one simple purpose: to draw your attention away from the total absence of depth. Like Showgirls‘ glut of female nudity and laughably lousy acting, there is literally nothing more to this game than a ninja-suited hero jumping around and relentlessly murdering every living being in sight. It’s fun for a time and it might even make you cackle with glee if you’re open to that sort of thing, but it does not deserve to bear the title Ninja Gaiden.
There’s definitely a story in Ninja Gaiden 3. People say things and do things. Sometimes they get really angry. You’ll have no trouble following it at the beginning. A terrorist group of some sort raises hell to make just one demand: they want Ryu Hayabusa, and they’re going to do horrible things in London if they don’t get him. That first mission ends with our hero ninja encountering a masked alchemist, who serves as a taunting antagonist through much of the game. As each of the seven days (plus a little more) in the game’s story unfolds, things start to make less sense.
At one point, you’ll find yourself fighting an angry, cloned T-Rex with a wired up head that gives it the appearance of having many glowing red eyes. And that’s before things get really bizarre.
The basic premise is strong in theory. Ninja Gaiden 3 explores Ryu’s dark side. The story brings him face-to-face with devoting his life to the act of killing. He’s hit with a curse early on that deprives him of his Dragon Sword and leaves his arm looking like the skin’s been turned inside out. In practical terms, this is little more than a gameplay gimmick. Sometimes the arm glows red and you can dispatch enemies more quickly. At other times the arm glows red and you cut them down much more slowly. There’s ostensibly a story conceit tied to all of this, but these moments come at random times and for reasons that are never clearly explained.
While Ninja Gaiden as a series has always delivered its most compelling content on the gameplay side of things, there’s always a story to be told as well. And really, the more incomprehensible elements in Ninja Gaiden 3‘s narrative actually work. You probably won’t know what’s going on by the end of the story, but it’s all so ridiculously, stupidly over-the-top that it still entertains on some level.
Do you really need to know why you’re fighting that T-Rex? Or why save points — which are redundant in this auto-save heavy game to begin with — are realized as gold-glowing hawks? Or why many of the later enemies appear in a flashy burst of pixel-like cubes? No, you sure don’t. But if you’re the sort of person who finds entertainment value in excessively flawed storytelling, Ninja Gaiden 3 delivers that.
The gameplay is considerably less open to interpretation. While Ninja Gaiden 3 manages to look the part of a franchise release, many of the underlying systems that fueled its deep combat mechanics have been either changed or done away with completely. Gone is any sense of customization. There are no essence orbs to collect of any kind, no additional weapons (though upcoming DLC promises to add a couple), nothing even remotely geared toward encouraging players to explore the various environments. You’ll just run through hallways from one arena to the next, slicing everything you encounter as you go.
Unfortunately, it’s the act of slicing where everything falls apart. The steep challenge that so effectively created tension in the previous games is gone in NG3. Ryu’s health bar refills after every combat encounter and there are no resources like healing elixirs to manage, so any sense of danger that you feel never extends beyond your current encounter. You can also refill your health mid-fight by performing a Ninpo attack when the associated meter fills up.
The biggest threat you’ll need to worry about is Ryu’s max health bar, which depletes at a slower rate than his current health as he takes damage. You’re fully healed after each fight, but the it’s limited by how small the total health bar has gotten. You can set that right though, either by saving any Ninpo juice you earn until a fight is over or by reaching one of the fixed save points with the glowing hawks.
Generally speaking, every combat encounter unfolds as follows: enemies spawn as you step into a combat arena and you slide around while slicing everything in sight. You’ll occasionally mash on buttons in a brief QTE meant to simulate the act of cutting a sword through bone. You can beat back occasionally overwhelming odds with Ninpo — you only ever get the one spell — or with an Ultimate Technique, which you can trigger when Ryu’s arm glows red. And that’s it.
Ryu’s still got his shuriken… for some reason. They’re not actually useful in the game since they do so little damage and since you’re not racking up hit combos anymore. It feels like they’re included simply to acknowledge to fans that yes, this is supposed to be a Ninja Gaiden game. You also get a bow early on in the story, with an unlimited supply of arrows, of course. It’s not terribly powerful either, but its ability to auto-target is necessary for taking out enemies in otherwise unreachable locations.
The impact that all of this has on your experience with the game is dramatic. The way combat flows is markedly different from what fans have come to expect; simply, this doesn’t feel like Ninja Gaiden at all. There isn’t a shred of actual challenge to be found that you can’t simply button-mash your way out of, except for a few of the bosses. Even those lean toward being blindingly simple, with attack patterns that are easily read and adapted to on the second or even first attempt.
Things don’t get much better outside of combat either. Ninja Gaiden 3 is filled with QTE-like actions that are probably meant to build on the feeling that you’re interacting with an actual world through your controller. Ryu will occasionally slow down while the camera moves to a more cinematic perspective. Or you’ll pull the left and right triggers rhythmically as you climb up a rock face or work your way across a hanging rope, hand-over-hand. These moments — particularly the more cinematic ones — intrude far too frequently and they pull you out of the action every time.
One final word on the presentation: the camera continues to aggressively work against you, same as it ever was for Ninja Gaiden. Not only is it easy to lose Ryu amidst a gathering of enemies, but you’ll also occasionally find your vision flat-out obscured when the camera pops itself behind a jet of flame or physical wall.
Finally, we come to the multiplayer, the so-called “Shadows of the World” mode, which you unlock after completing the game’s first level. Ninja Gaiden 3 is first in the series to offer online play, and it shows. For starters, it commits the most egregious of sins for a multiplayer game that includes persistent elements: newcomers are way outclassed by anyone who’s put in some time on leveling up. You can unlock the full range of tools and abilities that were bafflingly kept out of the single player mode, but there’s very little that’s fun about dueling with real people using the game’s so-so combat mechanics.
That’s really all there is to say here. You’ve got an assortment of co-op challenges and a basic deathmatch, but it’s all undone by the same basic litany of issues that plagues the rest of the game.
What we’re left with is something that looks like Ninja Gaiden and sounds like Ninja Gaiden but ends up playing like something else entirely. It holds up fine for the first few hours, delivering surface-level satisfaction in the same way that Showgirls does during its 128-minute runtime. Double that number and then double it again. Would you ever want to watch an eight-hour cut of Showgirls?
Ninja Gaiden 3 has all of the flash the a spectacle fiend could desire, but it flies off the rails so fast and so far that it’s not even accurate to call it a shadow of its former self.
Score: 5 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Tecmo Koei)