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.
In-between bloody combat moments, Ryu displays a few new skills, like the ability to climb walls (slowly) with a pair of daggers and glide graciously through the air from great heights, stabbing foes as he lands. Ninja Gaiden 3 also flirts with stealth kills, easily performed behind-the-back stabs that don't transform this entry into a frustrating game of ninja hide-and-seek.
And gone in NG3 are the collectible orbs that Ryu previously absorbed from dead foes, the energy that we once used to upgrade ninja weapons and restore his life force.
"Game design has changed so much and so quickly," Hayashi said of the change, a mechanic he speaks of as if it were an artifact from 2004. "For Ninja Gaiden 3, we want to immerse players in the world, so having little yellow orbs come out of enemies didn't really seem appropriate for a modern game. That's why we took them out: to try to increase the sense of immersion."
Even without orbs and their upgrades, Ryu won't be limited to using his Dragon Sword in Ninja Gaiden 3, Hayashi says, with weapons doled out to him over the course of the story. That too, he argues, will adhere to the immersive experience, with new weapons further exploring the concept of face-to-face killing.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is largely a bloody, lightning fast action game. While playing, I fought dozens of anonymous terrorists by cutting them down with Ryu's Dragon Sword, performing flashy combos, pulling off Izuna Drops and unleashing a raging fury when Ryu's arm glowed blood red. I fought a quadruped mechanized beast, slicing off its legs with furious button taps and careful dodges. It was thrilling, action-packed stuff. Just as Ninja Gaiden II felt different from the original, so too does its sequel have a distinct feel.
I enjoyed the speedy, reflex-challenging thrills of Ninja Gaiden 3. I don't worry about its quick time event moments, though I did worry slightly about its overuse of Ryu's bloody arm-powered super attacks, which made the demo feel too easy, even on "hard" difficulty.
It may be Ninja Gaiden 3's online multiplayer mode that has me most interested in what Team Ninja can do. Hayashi wouldn't provide specifics on the networked aspects of his game, saying that the developer is "still working on the specs... still playing with a few ideas."
"We don't see many online action games that have turned out well," he says. "We've played a lot. We want to make sure the online play that we have for Ninja Gaiden 3 works as a Ninja Gaiden game—that it's worthy of a Ninja Gaiden game.
We'll have to wait a bit longer. Team Ninja and Tecmo plan to bring Ninja Gaiden 3 to the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in early 2012. A Wii U version is in the works as well.