Ninja Gaiden 3 is a blood-splatter simulator masquerading as an action video game. Team Ninja and Tecmo Koei’s notoriously difficult series has been neutered in its latest incarnation, with players no longer needing to learn any actual skills or intricate combos requiring persistence and a little bit of trial and error to master. Instead, the game’s six-to-eight hours of entertainment can be downright patronizing to longtime fans; players will feel little to no sense of accomplishment once they defeat the absurd, alchemy-worshiping terrorists in the game.
Games can be casual and contain plenty of fun; just look at the mobile-games industry for plenty of excellent examples. Lead Team Ninja designer Tomonobu Itagaki left Tecmo after the completion of Ninja Gaiden 2, due to a heated legal dispute, and his absence is felt here. Nobody enjoys frustrating difficulty levels, but Team Ninja gives us a laughable downgrade in both difficulty and playability. The game’s erratic camera system will make you queasy, and the plot and cut-scenes are nonsensical in a B-movie fashion. Ryu Hayabusa is only given his trusty ninja blade, some shurikens, a bow, explosive arrows, and one screen-clearing ninpo (a magical dragon that breathes fire over your enemies).
Hayabusa travels all over the globe—starting in London and ending in Tokyo—to try and quash a fiendish terrorist plot to take over the world in the same amount of time it was created in the Bible. Ninja Gaiden plots were never works of fiction, and the third installment doesn’t break that trend. In fact, it sinks to an interminable low. Dialogue between the main characters is stilted or recycled during boring combat sequences where you button-mash until the ground is soaked in blood. Anyone who’s played the Dynasty Warriors series will be familiar with this flat-lined gameplay. It’s as though Hayabusa travels to Antarctica during the course of the through line only so the game designers can pitch red paint all over a pristine white canvas.
Our protagonist may look the part, but the indispensable elements that make a good game aren’t present. The environments are shadowy and drab when the camera isn’t blasting you into the next carbon-copied villain or robotic boss creature. Treasure chests and collectables items are gone too. There’s no reason to explore these unattractive worlds, which makes their linear level designs even more like a chute toward a finish line greased up with human entrails. Hayabusa’s ability to collect souls after battles is gone as well, and the fact that there are no additional weapons is downright puzzling.
The thrill of actually being a ninja is sapped of all its badass nature when you have to proceed through countless enemy spawn points and from cut-scene to cut-scene. I never made an actual choice in the game, and on the lowest difficulty setting you can set down your controller and grab a sandwich while your character flips and dodges attacks for you. Ninjas were the James Bonds of feudal Japan, and yet Hayabusa feels like a nameless automaton that takes off his mask a few times to be all emo toward a girl that can’t speak after a tragic accident. This soul-deadening miscommunication could be a metaphor for Ninja Gaiden 3 itself.
There’s no method or finesse to these battles, and at every turn the game gives you maddening action prompts—even for moves learned during the first level. The game’s negligible redeeming factor is that it’s an unadulterated adrenaline rush. Cutting down waves of enemies is gratifying in a stress-relieving context, but exercising or punching your pillow can do the same thing for zero dollars. It’s a shame the delivery system is such a mess. The online co-op mode (Ninja Trials) adds a fairly robust combo meter (the single-player mode desperately needed this), but the Clan Battle is a rudimentary death-match mode for eight players. Fights are just as dizzying as the ones you’ll encounter in the story mode, and the novelty of leveling up is quickly extinguished.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is a dated and dull entry in a coveted series. Quick-time events, bad cameras, buggy gameplay, zero replayability, and a patronizing difficulty system will rankle most gamers. Ninjas should be fleet-footed and sure. Instead, Team Ninja’s Hayabusa is a specter with no direction or authority. There’s no sense of agency for him or the player. The story moralizes on the subject of murder with a heavy hand and yet its main character cuts through each nameless person on screen without raising any valid questions in the process. Such cowardice isn’t acceptable for heroes or ordinary men.