Video games, unlike movies, are a medium where sequels are actually more often than not better than their predecessors. Given that story usually comes second to gameplay, a second game allows the developers to refine aspects of the game to offer an improved experience, and developments in technology can lead to better graphics and more complex interactions. Unfortunately, Ninja Gaiden 3 is one of those games that bucks this trend, and in fact finds itself severely inferior to its prequels.
Perhaps a bit of history is in order. Ninja Gaiden started out life in the 1980s as a side scrolling platform game known for being groundbreaking for its use of cut scenes to progress the story while also being an addictive and challenging game. 2 sequels followed before the series disappeared into the realms of memory. In the mid 1990s, when every company on the planet was churning out a 3D fighting game to cash in on Tekken and Virtua Fighter, Tecmo's Team Ninja, headed by the rather eccentric Mr. Itagaki, gave the world Dead Or Alive. DOA was essentially Virtua Fighter for dummies, its main talking point being the female characters oversized and over-animated breasts. What often got passed over was that one of the male cast was in fact Ninja Gaiden protagonist Ryu Hayabusa.
While the original wasn't that great, Dead or Alive did enough to warrant a sequel, which is where Team Ninja's efforts really bore fruit. Dead or Alive 2 was absolutely incredible in the visuals department, and also played a lot better than the first game. Itagaki and Team Ninja had arrived, and a few more sequels and spin-offs later he unleashed Hayabusa in his own adventure on the Xbox, re-starting the Ninja Gaiden series.
Quite bluntly, the first Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox is one of my favourite games ever. Renowned for its jaw dropping visuals and incredibly challenging gamplay, Ninja Gaiden pushed the play to their limit, really forcing you to immerse yourself of the combat system to get anywhere in the game. A sequel followed on the Xbox 360, and while it lacked the element of surprise over how outstanding it was, it was still an excellent game, one of the few I've ever pre-ordered.
However, at some point afterwards, Itagaki had a falling out with the Tecmo brass and he, and the majority of Team Ninja departed the company. Ninja Gaiden 3 would be the first game in any of Team Ninja's trademark series to be released without the original team, and its release seemed incredibly muted compared to the first 2 games. Quiet to the point it took me a few months to bother picking it up, and when I did, it was on sale in Asda. Not exactly promising signs, but on I persevered.
At its core, NG3 follows the same path as its predecessors. A third person 3D action game placing you squarely in control of Super Ninja Ryu Hayabusa as he uses his trademark sword, shurikens and bow & arrow to eviscerate all enemies that come into his path, all the while utilising his superhuman agility to manoeuvre through stages.
The plot takes a turn away from the first 2 games, which saw Ryu square off against a race of ancient demons known as Fiends. NG3 pits him against genetic terrorists the Lords of Alchemy as they declare war on the world using a combination of genetically engineered monsters and magic, which has drawn some criticism from fans, but it personally isn't one of the aspects that bothers me too much. I actually kind of enjoy the notion of letting us play as Ryu through other adventures, the same way he features in Dead Or Alive but doesn't have anything to do with the Fiends. On the flip-side, the story does bother me in that it simply isn't all that great. Now, neither of the first games may have had an overly gripping plot, but the one that was there made sense, entertained, and more importantly, lent the game some spectacular locales and enemies for Ryu to strut his stuff against. NG3 hops all over the globe, but the plot is almost an afterthought to explain why he's in the jungle one minute and the Antarctic the next. I mean really basic "oh they have another base at another generic videogame setting" stuff we're dealing with here. The first 2 games may not have been award winning for story, but they presented the opportunity to explore the lush fictional city of Vigoor, exploring its catacombs and churches. Here we have generic military base in the jungle, generic aircraft carrier, generic arctic military base and so on. It really deprives the game of any character.
Speaking of characters, this is an aspect NG3 really stumbles around. Ryu is portrayed essentially as he has been for the last 2 games, albeit with a new terribly clichéd 'inner struggle' with his conscience over his constant killing. At least that's what they were hinting at, it never really goes anywhere. We also see cameo's from other members of the Hayabusa ninja clan, including Joe Hayabusa and Momiji, a character from DS spin off Dragon Sword, basically just to say they were there. Likewise Dead Or Alive's Ayane shows up with a sword from Hayate which you only use for one level in one of the most utterly worthless cameos ever seen, topped only perhaps by Muramasa, who crops up for one cutscene near the end of the game. Potentially topping all of the returning case for worst cameo however is Genshin. Genshin was one of the main antagonists in Ninja Gaiden 2, the leader of the Black Spider Ninja clan, the mortal enemies of Ryu's Dragon Ninja clan. Killed at the end of the second game, he is first referenced as Ryu steals his sword from the ninja graveyard to use...and is later presented with the very same sword by Genshin's spirit. This cameo is not only pointless, but completely stupid. On the plus side, Ryu's sidekick from the original Ninja Gaiden II, Robert Sturgeon, makes a welcome little cameo, albeit a blink and you'll miss it one!
New characters include Ryu's obligatory sexy sidekick Mizuki McCloud, a pilot in the Japanese army. I'm sure this tough and sexy female solider thing is becoming quite a cliché in Japan, as I've seen 2 Godzilla movies with the exact same character in them, and she also has the obligatory innocent child who melts Ryu's heart in the form of her adopted daughter/actual niece Canna. She also has a geeky scientist brother in law type called Cliff helping her out. These aren't particularly badly written characters, but nothing about them stands out, and I managed to predict almost every plot development involving them within roughly 2 cutscenes of being introduced to them. New villains the Lords of Alchemy fare even worse. The main footsoldier enemy is known as The Regent of the Mask, a well spoke, English alchemist who places a curse on Ryu and is the LoA's main general on the field of battle. His design stands out in the game, in that it's almost decidedly un-Japanese, with a red robe and opera style mask, but realistically he looks like a standard enemy, and is fairly underwhelming as a boss compared to his predecessor, the aforementioned Genshin. The mastermind behind the LoA is revealed as a fairly standard mad-scientist who only really features for a single cutscene, giving him scant development for good or bad. Altogether, the LoA combine to form a completely odd group of villains with almost no real logic behind them. They want to destroy the world, have mastered magic, as their name alludes, yet are ALSO a genetic engineering menace. They breed dinosaurs, but this is only relevant for one level. Say what you want about some of the more outlandish fiend designs, at least there was a level of consistency in both design and purpose - this lot are almost as bad as the random baddies of NES games.
One of the game's main plot points, somewhat haphazardly tied in to an element of its gameplay is a cursed placed on Ryu leaving his arm looking a right nick and causing him intense pain. This affects the game in that occasionally, I think it's if you take too long to use one of the game's new Ultimate Technique's but I could be totally wrong there as it's never clear if it's caused by something you're doing on at predetermined points, Ryu starts moving in slow motion, the camera distorts and all you can do is lethargically swing your sword. This entire element of the game is a thoroughly odd mess. These slow motion segments are incredibly frustrating, especially if there are a few enemies to kill, but ultimately add nothing to the game in terms of challenge as I couldn't seem to die during them. What is really strange though, is that it also adds absolutely nothing to the plot except for a nonsensical way to have the game's final boss temporarily wield the Dragon Sword.
This odd slow-mo affliction is, in fact, one of the scant things added to the gameplay. The other is potentially even less exciting. The 'Kunai Climb' in which you scale walls by digging in your throwing knives and using the L and R triggers to alternatively scale your way up a surface. This is both incredibly time consuming and frustrating due to the fact the controls are set up in a way that almost purposefully prohibits doing it at any pace. Oddly, the designers were so delighted with this L-R-L-R movement system they also decided to apply it to climbing horizontal ropes, where it is every bit as frustrating. A variant on it also appears now in the process of swinging from horizontal poles, which now involves holding down both triggers, making what was, for 2 games, a fluid and instinctive system of movement a bogged down chore.
Those are just the tip of the iceberg though. Arguably NG3's biggest crime is that it doesn't even just rehash its predecessors...it actually takes genuine steps BACKWARDS. The combat system, involving only 2 buttons, X for light slash and Y for heavy, was famed throughout gamers for its depth; button bashing got you nowhere in Ninja Gaiden and its sequel, players had to learn the game's many combo attacks, master their timing and what would work on specific foes, and were rewarded with a feeling of genuine achievement as you cut a path through hordes of enemies. Ninja Gaiden 3 cuts down not only the number of attacks at your disposal, but also any manner of difficulty in pulling them off, rendering the game no more than an exercise in bashing buttons and hoping for the best, a tactic which works to a worrying degree.
Further limiting Ryu's arsenal of attacks, and in turn the player's variety, is the game's decision to omit the option to choose weapons. The first 2 games gave the player an arsenal of bladed devices to cut through your foes with, each one with different strengths and weaknesses. From Nunchuks to giant scythes, there was truly a weapon to suit every player's style and situation. In Ninja Gaiden 3 you have a sword. Well, technically Ryu wields 3 different swords throughout the game, but they all play identically, meaning the same 2 combos will in fact serve you all the way through the game.
It does have to be said that while I may have sounded completely negative, the game doesn't play bad as such, in fact, as dumbed down as the game is, as far as button mashing slash-fests go it is still quite playable and a decent way to waste some time, in particular a boss battle pitting a Ninja against a Tyrannosaurus Rex really cannot be anything but loved, but when you find a game which manages to find itself a more shallow and hollow experience than its original series entry, released on the previous generation of consoles, it really is hard not to feel exceptionally disappointed. The game is probably about on par with the derivative Ninja Blade game, which I enjoyed more mainly due to the fact it wasn't burdened by the expectations of having 2 incredibly prequels before it.
The aesthetics of the game are good without ever pushing the boundaries. The game looks slick enough, and while it doesn't quite have the 'OOMPH' visuals that Team Ninja became famous for, I find that slightly more forgivable given that absolutely nobody pushed the boundaries graphics wise quite like Itagaki. The sound is likewise passable, with everyone featuring a suitable voice actor and no particularly offensive dialog. The music could perhaps have done with a bit more work, not that it ever seemed out of place, but it didn't ever really strike me for its quality either.
When all is said and done, the best way I can possibly sum up Ninja Gaiden 3 is as follows; imagine an incredible movie, led by an eccentric but brilliant director who goes to painstaking lengths to ensure his movie features dreamy special effects, a sweeping score and incredible action set pieces. Give the film a charismatic star, a beautiful leading lady and an array of nefarious monstrous villains. Then give it a sequel with all of the above, but with the technical aspects upped again. Then imagine another sequel. The director is gone, in his place a hack doing his best to imitate, but with none of the imagination. The star is still there, but he's phoning it in, the female lead is a page 3 girl, and it's release goes Direct to DVD. That is effectively what Ninja Gaiden 3 is, a Direct-to-Video sequel. Bloodsport 2, Robocop 3 - an inferior, soulless continuation of a series that possibly should have went out on top. It isn't a terrible game, but how far it has fallen from its predecessor can, at times make it seem like one. Fans of the series will probably want to at least play it through, but I'd recommend doing so with extremely low expectations. Casual players might be put off by the excessive gore, but if that doesn't bother you it isn't the worst slash 'em up you'll ever play, but you could probably get your hands on the far superior second game for less cost.