The Ninja Gaiden series was rebooted on the console scene back in 2004 by Tecmo’s “Team Ninja,” who incorporated fighting-game mechanics into the game’s combat system to create one of the deepest titles in the action genre. Ninja Gaiden 3, demoed at Tecmo’s booth this E3, is the second sequel to the Xbox original: It introduces new gameplay mechanics and at the same time reinvigorates elements from previous Ninja Gaiden games. Unfortunately, the demo makes it clear that Ninja Gaiden is embracing scripted finishers and Quick-Time Events, and takes a step away from intuitive and precise combat.
Ninja Gaiden 3 introduces Quick-Time Events (QTEs) to the series, with mixed results. Previous Ninja Gaiden games encouraged precision and responsiveness, which this new system moves away from. Initiated randomly during a combo, Ryu will hack into his enemy and require an additional button input to cleave-through them. The button required during these visceral “Steel-on-Bone” QTE’s is always the button the player pressed to initiate the attack. These sequences become more natural as the demo progresses; and this is especially so when the intrusive button-prompt stops showing up on-screen.
The problem with these steel-on-bone sequences is that they are initiated randomly, which completely throws the rhythm of combat out the window. Whatever combo players were working towards comes to a screeching halt whenever the game decides to give you a steel-on-bone QTE; players will not be given control of Ryu until the sequence is completed. Worse still is that, due to the random nature of steel-on-bone, players have no sure-fire way to avoid initiating these finishers. While the sequences are thankfully short (and as mentioned above, become more natural as the demo progresses), the fact of the matter is that they are an intrusive and awkward addition to the combat system.
Ninja Gaiden 2 incorporated “Obliteration Techniques,” scripted finishers Ryu would use against handicapped enemies. The game featured a dismemberment system, which allowed players to randomly hack-off an enemy’s limb, crippling it. Enemies generally adopted a kamikaze mentality when crippled, going so far as killing themselves to deal extra damage to Ryu, so it made sense to allow for special finishers against these foes. There is an inherent lack of interactivity that comes with scripted attacks such as Obliterations: it removes players from the action. Rather than fighting toe-to-toe against enemies, players would be forced to sit and watch during an Obliteration Technique while Ryu executes a flashy auto-combo/finisher.
Obliteration Techniques make their return in Ninja Gaiden 3, and they are flashier, lengthier and more brutal then ever. While there was copious amounts of blood in the demo, dismemberment was notably absent. In Ninja Gaiden 3, there is a chance that an enemy Ryu kills will enter a mortally wounded state (stabbing seems to do the trick most often). Mortally wounded enemies will stagger and crawl about the stage until dead, or until Ryu attacks them again. Attacking them in this state triggers the Obliteration Technique. Since the enemies are essentially dead, Obliteration Techniques are little more than flashy, non-interactive wastes of time in Ninja Gaiden 3. The only useful aspect of these attacks seems to be that they will hit any other enemy in the way, and that Ryu is invincible while he executes them.
The Ninja Gaiden games are notorious for their difficulty; players who do not learn and master the nuances of gameplay will find the higher difficulty levels impossible to complete. The reason for this stems from the fact that Ninja Gaiden incorporates fighting-game mechanics into its combat. Ryu’s attacks all have different effects on enemies (launches, knockdowns, knock-backs, stuns, guard-breaks, etc,) and properly utilizing these effects is the key to controlling enemies and conquering the game. Mid-way through the Ninja Gaiden 3 demo, Ryu encounters terrorist enemies in riot gear who are extremely adept at avoiding and blocking his attacks. Only by using heavy or guard-breaking attacks can players force an opening and attack. This emphasis on different attack effects is what made the original title so impressive, the lack of which is why this writer felt that Ninja Gaiden 2 was shallower by comparison. While the demo was not difficult (on either Normal or Hard), this return to more methodical combat is certainly a good thing.
Ryu’s “Ultimate Technique” has undergone some changes as well, though changes seem for the better. When Ryu defeats a certain number of enemies, his arm will glow red, allowing him to use the technique. By charging a heavy attack, Ryu will explode with energy, teleport to the nearest enemy, and deal massive damage with a single blow before moving on to the next enemy. Up to three enemies could be attacked with a single UT in the demo. This system differs from previous Ninja Gaiden games, which allowed Ryu to charge his Ultimate Technique at any point in combat. This made the UT absurdly overpowered and became a crutch when playing the higher difficulties, which boiled down to UT spamming throughout encounters. It seems that the system in Ninja Gaiden 3 will ensure that players earn their UT.
As a Ninja Gaiden fan, Ninja Gaiden 3 seems confused and even a bit shallow. In some respects, it could be said that Ninja Gaiden 3 is the logical “next step” after the introduction of the scripted Obliterations Techniques in Ninja Gaiden 2. However, Obliterations were never forced on players in the same way that these scripted “Steel-on-Bone” kills are. The complex combat the series is known for feels hidden away and neglected in favor of flashy, non-interactive quick-time kills and auto-combo finishers.
Ninja Gaiden 3 felt… a little disappointing at this stage.