Ninja Gaiden was always a series for gamers. The series sported one of the most complex yet satisfying combat engines of all time, in addition to its punishingly brutal level of difficulty. Completing Ninja Gaiden Black on the original Xbox, even on the normal difficulty setting, was considered a badge of honor you had to really earn. How times have changed. Ninja Gaiden 2 was released on consoles back in 2008, just after the announced departure of Team Ninja's leader and Ninja Gaiden designer Tomonobu Itagaki. Although it ultimately sold quite well, the classic difficulty and gameplay design came married to a number of show stopping bugs and design flaws that led one to believe NG2 was rushed out the door in light of its creator's imminent departure. The remaining members of Team Ninja cleaned up the title with the PS3's Ninja Gaiden 2 Sigma version, and have now brought us Ninja Gaiden 3 a few years later. If nothing else, this latest installment will prove to the world just exactly how important Itagaki was to the franchise.
It's easy to speculate how it all went wrong. Team Ninja began pre-production on Ninja Gaiden 3, using NG Black and NG Sigma 2 as a starting point. A point is made at a meeting that games do not use "health packs" anymore, and that Ninja Gaiden 3 should follow suit and do away with the health orbs in favor of the current trend of "regenerating health in cover". This one idea acts as a catalyst and brings down the whole house of cards, one feature at a time. Health orbs were removed, leaving the currency, health and ninpo systems totally pointless (no need to collect yellow orbs to buy health packs and upgrades, blue orbs for "in the field" health and red orbs for ninpo regeneration). Facing this fact leads to the decision to drop all upgrades altogether. The developers then leave one weapon and one ninpo spell to choose from, so the fans will have something they recognize, and have UTs and ninpo charge up their tricks based on the number of kills the player commits. This idea now forces the player to face hordes upon hordes of enemies that are not particularly difficult to beat, and cannot be since the weapon system has been culled down to just the "most popular moves" from previous games. Just jumping around and mashing buttons is likely to afford a player an easy coast through the campaign, which is the saddest casualty of Ninja Gaiden 3; the complete decimation of one of the most deep and satisfying combat engines in game history.
The list goes on. Suffice it to say that Ninja Gaiden 3 is not half the ninja it used to be and now plays and feels more like what you would give to a child in order to train them for Ninja Gaiden Black. The challenge, strategy and fun have simply been removed surgically and replaced with frenetic action and QTE cutscenes that bore you at best, and, at worst, antagonize you into throwing the disc into the garbage. The only way this misery could possibly be understood is if Team Ninja were worried that their former leader was going to put them through a long and painful lawsuit if they stuck to the conventions he had designed in previous titles. Since this is most likely NOT the case, how such a misstep could have gotten designed and released remains a mystery... they've created a game for people who are neither fans nor gamers.
The series trademark visuals are here, and they are just as gorgeous as one would hope. The music and sound effects are all the classic NG flavors of sounds and melodies, varying between mellow and overly-dramatic in all the right places. In these regards, Team Ninja got it right. However, for all the years that fans were waiting for Ryu to take off his mask, the moment occurs unceremoniously in the first thirty seconds the game is running on your television. Seems like another missed opportunity for something a little... deeper.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is also the first title in the series with significant multiplayer. When you read the word significant in the last sentence, realize that it actually means "pointless, shallow and an utter waste of time." You can take on other players inside various arenas, or team up to defeat waves of enemies in a symbiotic slashing session of co-op mediocrity. Some of the arenas feel just too darned small to pull this off very well, and on more than one occasion gameplay sessions simply dropped out before they were finished. Empty and possibly broken is the multiplayer experience, so if you have bought this game it is time to start hoping for major patches.
Perhaps Team Ninja will take that route... save this title with a major update patch that brings back all of the Ninja Gaiden goodness the fans were wishing for before this half-assed God Of War/Dynasty Warriors wannabe hit the streets. While it may be too late for Ninja Gaiden 3 to be salvaged, perhaps Team Ninja and Tecmo should consider a "fire-sale" approach and try to sell the rights to all further titles to Itagaki over at Valhalla and see if he can salvage the legacy.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of Ninja Gaiden 3 provided by Tecmo Koei.