I admit it: I may well be the world's worst ninja. My sense of timing is less than exemplary, my coordination is not always great, and sometimes I just plain lose track of what's going on.
If Ninja Gaiden 3 had needed me to learn any actual skills or to provide any creative input into its battles, my deficiencies in the art of being a ninja would have been a severe impediment. But it also would then have been an interesting game that demanded skill, patience, or at least experiments with trial and error to complete. Perhaps it would not have been a great game for me, but it would still have been a game that challenged its players and left them feeling a sense of accomplishment at the end.
Unfortunately, Ninja Gaiden 3 is not that game.
In real estate, they say that what matters is size, cost, and location, and that you can get any two. In business, they say that you get any two out of good, quick, and cheap. In games, it seems, we often get any two out of three in the areas of good writing, good graphics, and good mechanical design. I have loved many a game that looked gorgeous even while being incoherent; I've loved games with great stories and bland mechanics, and I've enjoyed games that were smooth to play and looked pretty while having abysmal writing. It's a fool's errand to demand perfection from a game, and I've enjoyed many games that excelled in one area while failing miserably in others.
The basic premise is this: you are Ryu Hayabusa, legendary video game ninja extraordinaire, and you're on a mission to save the world from some guys in masks with a doomsday plan. You have seven days to chase them down and figure them out, because Biblically the world was created in seven days and that's how these guys plan to re-create it. Along the way you'll be variously betrayed by your allies and supported by your enemies, most of whom (on both sides) switch back and forth more than once.
The story doesn't matter much, and it doesn't necessarily have to. Ryu Hayabusa is a ninja! We're not here for some namby-pamby about the state of the world; we're here to kill things! With a sword! And to do other really cool stuff, with other really cool weapons, and to level up skills and learn combos and become a stealthy, stylish badass!
Only Ninja Gaiden 3 doesn't provide any of those things. Hayabusa has one sword and one bow, for shooting jetpack-mounted gunmen and the occasional helicopter out of the sky. There are no skills to level, no items to find or collect. There are no spiffy combos to learn, and there is no sense of accomplishment or reward for completing a fight. Each wave of generic henchmen leads to another wave of generic henchmen, with little to differentiate or motivate them.
In fact, the only henchman who does differentiate himself begs for his life. He cries out that he's a father, that he was just taking the job to support his kids, that he doesn't want to die (as seen here). And the player has no choice but to run him through, in slow motion. The act is referenced a number of times throughout the game, as Hayabusa faces repeated accusations that he's a cold-hearted murderer, but nothing ever actually comes of it. The closest the game gets to delivering a moral message is in the very end, when Hayabusa is told: "You are NOT a murderer. But you're not exactly a hero either. Guess that's what it means to be a ninja."
Generic levels, generic henchmen, and a generic story could all be forgiven if the fighting mechanics were tight and fun. But they're not. Granted, I played on the easiest mode available but even so the game asked virtually nothing of me in terms of technique. Damningly, I realized just under two hours into the game that combat got markedly smoother, easier, and more successful, and that I took fewer hits and less damage, when I stopped trying to target enemies or move on my own, and instead just started spamming the light and heavy attack buttons indiscriminately. In a very small handful of fights, striking a defensive pose from time to time came in handy, but in most waves of nameless enemies, I was better off not thinking at all.
In many ways, the mechanics of the game actively work against themselves. Rules change seemingly at random to suit the tension of a scene. For example, generally Hayabusa cannot climb a wall if there are enemies nearby; they'll pull him down and combat continues. In one specific scene, however, taking out a wave of enemies before climbing the available wall guarantees certain death. The only way out of that area is to leap onto the wall while surrounded, at which point the enemies and floor fall away. This is never communicated in any way to the player; one simply needs to guess or to discover it through failure.
Quick time events are also inconsistently applied, some appearing with regularity right when you would expect and others hanging on so long that I briefly worried that the game might have crashed. Eventually I began to tally my frustrations in my running notes. Looking back, I find a useful look at Ninja Gaiden 3 by the numbers.
- Number of times I got stuck in the geometry in the center of a room, within view of a save point I couldn't reach, and had to force-quit: 2
- Number of times I died in the middle of one specific chase scene because of a camera perspective switch: 20+
- Number of times I died in battle due to failing a quick time event even though I pushed the button on time: 3
- Number of times I did not receive any prompt indicating what buttons to press to continue what turned out to be a quick time event: 5
- Number of times the camera pathed into a wall during a fight: 15+
- Number of very rude swear words I exclaimed (per hour): 20+
Despite knowing, going into this game, that I would likely be a terrible ninja, I was looking forward to trying. I have been told by many fans of the series how demanding the combat is, and what immense satisfaction they feel on completing fights. I thought if it was hard, well, at least I could try to learn. But there's nothing here for me to learn except boredom, which is far more deadly than difficulty. I ran or walked as the game allowed; I followed strictly linear paths from cut-scene to cut-scene; I engaged in repetitious waves of combat that were nearly all identical and that all went on about 30% too long and then walked (or ran, as the game allowed) down the hall to the next enemy spawn point. I never once had to make an actual choice, not even about which enemy in a wave to stab at first.
No part of it is good enough to make other shortcomings worth overlooking and, in fact, no part of it is by itself very good at all. It's a hodge-podge of the worst elements of many others reassembled into a shambling hulk. The pretension of the Metal Gear Solid series appears, without the deep character writing or responsive gameplay to back it up. The worst of the Uncharted series' scripted chases shows up, without the lush environments or quippy humor. It's got God of War's mindless waves of slaughter, without the interesting skills, and Ninja Gaiden's ninjas, without the effort.
At one point, a character mentions offhandedly, "You'd better watch it; the ends don't justify the means." I think that was meant to be the moral of the story, but Ninja Gaiden 3 is afraid to give itself wholly to the moral or to the story. In the end, for all its talk of consequence and self-important posturing about what it means to be a killer, it refuses to examine the questions it raises either through the story or through player control.
It's not hard, and it's not challenging. It's tedious and dull. This is a game that doesn't know what it's saying, and it doesn't know to whom it's saying it. Long-time fans of the franchise will be driven away by the drastic change in mechanics and tone, and newcomers to the series have nothing here on which to anchor themselves, nothing special to pull them in. Without a message, without meaning, without engaging combat, and without a target audience, Ninja Gaiden 3 has nothing to give and no one to give it to.
Update: The Multiplayer Experience
Ninja Gaiden 3 has two multiplayer modes: one, Ninja Trials, is a co-op experience; the other, Clan Battle, is a 4-on-4 competitive mode. Both are actually kind of entertaining.
Ninja Trials can be played solo or with a partner. The play echoes the game's story mode, starting the player out in London, but rather than providing an incoherent narrative, it provides clear goal prompts and pop-up hit/score counters that provide a sense of accomplishment.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of partners, I found myself fairly quickly overwhelmed in all my attempts. I tried at four different points, all between 3:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. Eastern time on both Saturday and Sunday, to join quick matches. Three times, the game's matching system couldn't find any lobbies or partners for me at all and, after spinning on the idea for several minutes, pushed me in solo. The fourth, the partner found for me either quit the game or lost connection within three minutes, and I was again a solo ninja.
I had better luck with the Clan Battle mode; only one out of four attempts came up with zero lobbies to join. The other three times, however, I only ever saw two or three battles available. Still, I joined them and had a fairly good time, even when my team lost horribly. Perhaps due to insufficient players, there was no level matching to speak of so each bout I was in had a range of players from level 2 to level 39. Still, in an eight player melee bloodbath nearly anyone can make some kills so the level disparity isn't that big an issue.
Having human opponents, rather than wave after wave of AI enemies, makes what skills Ninja Gaiden 3 has to offer more dynamic and more exciting. Each round is just about the right length — neither so long it wears out its welcome nor so short there's no time to get into it — and the sense of teamwork and of competition keeps it interesting.
But that a multiplayer environment would be a complete ghost town not even two weeks after the game's release, during prime time on a weekend, speaks poorly of its long-term viability. A couple of hours of single-player, story-mode play are required to unlock the multiplayer modes, and it seems many aren't making it that far. It's possible that the scene is more robust for players on the Xbox 360 than my PlayStation 3 experience was, but ultimately the mildly entertaining melees aren't enough to save this game.