The Ninja Gaiden franchise is known for its punishing difficulty and satisfying combos, and the amount of broken controllers left in its wake. Frontrunner Ryu Hayabusa has been out of action (at least when it comes to new games) for quite some time now, and the release of Ninja Gaiden 3 hearkens back to the good old days when the Hayabusa name was one to be feared and respected. Yet, this iteration feels decidedly different in many ways, as if the heart and soul was lifted straight from the storied ninja and transplanted elsewhere.
Hayabusa’s return finds him infiltrating cityscapes, strange facilities, and even desert locales, all orchestrated to a bizarre tale of body horror that serves as an intriguing vehicle to move things along. Ryu falls victim to a particularly foul curse, the catalyst of which I won’t spoil here, that causes his arm to become red, inflamed, and otherwise infected – known as the Grip of the Murder. From there, anything goes. You’ll rip through cybernetic dinosaurs, hordes of nameless drone soldiers who’d like nothing more than to tear you to shreds, and tear apart disturbing chimeras with chilling countenances, all with the aid of the game’s clingy, constant tutorial segments.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is keen to hold the player’s hand, reaching out even when it’s clear you’ve handled a sword before. Button-mash your way through a crowd of baddies, run to a wall, and let the game remind you for the umpteenth time how exactly you should go about climbing upward. Tutorial prompts may be turned off, but it’s clear that the developers meant to make a more accessible game this time around. The problem is, it turns out being much more of an insult to players already familiar with the series.
That’s not to say it doesn’t occasionally have its moments. It’s deliciously gory, and anyone with a penchant for slicing through men like a hot knife through butter should find plenty to love. You won’t get the over-the-top gore as seen in games like Dead Space 2 or even Resident Evil, but it’s still satisfying to see cinematic kills over and over, especially when Ryu launches his particularly dazzling special attacks. Stealth kills are equally stimulating. For spectators, the game’s an absolute dream. It’s thrilling to watch Ryu cut down waves of copy-pasted enemies, but it quickly becomes a slog when you’re actually playing. It’s clear the developers looked to the similarly tedious at times God of War for inspiration, what with the smattering of cut scenes (press ‘X’ NOW to avoid an untimely death) and theatrics that take precedence over strategy and exploration.
Linear pathways, frustratingly sluggish segments, and awkward character interactions seal the deal. Ryu is forced to creep along at a snail’s pace when communicating with HQ, and the pace is reduced by more than half in areas where Ryu clutches his arm in agony as you struggle to carve through an open space (often filled with enemies). The potential is there to have created some particularly memorable moments, but rather than using that time to create a connection it’s simply squandered, as are co-op and multiplayer endeavors, both of which can often feel much more like a spectator sport than this type of action game should.
Despite its faults, Ninja Gaiden 3 is quite playable, and at times breathtaking. It’s unfortunate that so much of the challenge was removed in favor of catering to a much wider audience, as that’s what gave the franchise its cult status in the first place. There’s still plenty of standout moments truly worth witnessing, but too often the majority of the game meanders quite far into “forgettable” territory, and because of that Ninja Gaiden 3 will likely end up the redheaded stepchild of the series. This is one to grab only if you foam at the mouth for anything related to the Hayabusa lineage. Entry-level action fans can find a better foothold.