I've never killed a man. Team Ninja leader Yosuke Hayashi says he's never killed anyone either. Despite that inexperience, he is confident that his next game, Ninja Gaiden 3, accurately explores what it means to stick a Japanese sword into another man's body and extinguish his life force.
"For us, we're Japanese developers, we know about cutting people with katanas," Hayashi told me. "You would feel the bones crunching, the muscles contracting. We know what would happen." He says the team developing the next Ninja Gaiden drew its violent influences from Japanese samurai dramas (jidaigeki), that the team is "steeped in that kind of entertainment and imagery."
I played Ninja Gaiden 3 at E3 2011 last week, once on the PlayStation 3, once on the Xbox 360. Both versions felt identical. They felt good to control. I felt like I was doing real damage, even if it took a long time to get there by slashing and slashing and slashing through virtual meat and bone. If there's something that doesn't make me feel like an assassin, it's the resilience of bad guys to being stabbed in the torso.
But I enjoyed playing Ninja Gaiden 3, even if I wasn't unsettle by taking a digital life. Meaty and boney though the game may be, I still felt like I was playing an exciting video game, not committing a crime. I did, however, feel a strong sense of connection to the controller, particularly when Ryu forced his sword through steel onscreen as I rapidly attacked buttons with my thumb.
Ninja Gaiden 3 has a different vibe than Team Ninja's previous efforts. The original Ninja Gaiden for Xbox and PlayStation 3 was about rethinking action games, Hayashi says. The much bloodier second was about dismemberment and decapitation. Ninja Gaiden 3 is about a "Japanese dark hero," Hayashi says, the ninja Ryu Hayabusa.
"When we started thinking about the Japanese dark hero, we wanted to make him less of a killing machine, more of a person," Hayashi told me via his translator. "Behind that ninja is a person, and we wanted to explore what it meant to kill a person up close. It's not that you would feel nothing—in previous games, there's no consequence to those actions—you're going to have some kind of emotion when you actually kill someone."
Ninja Gaiden fans may have an emotional reaction to some of Team Ninja's other changes. Ryu's dodge roll, instrumental in the game's brand of fast-paced hand-to-hand combat, has been updated with a kicking slide. It gets the same job done, more or less, and it knocks Ryu's foes into the air for a potential juggling attack. It just takes some time to adjust.
Players will use Ryu's sliding kick during some cinematic "quick time event" moments. You may have seen some of these during gameplay video from E3 2011. Hayashi assures me those moments are not common, that some of the on-screen button prompts are simply early tutorials and that they'll decrease in frequency over time.