Ninja Gaiden 3 nearly delivers an enjoyable experience. It almost pulls off the over-the-top action and zany boss fights the series is known for. The story isn’t that bad and the mechanics are only a little broken. In short, Ryu’s latest is almost good.
The story braids together threads of mythology, science fiction, B-movie ninja tropes, and mindless action-movie drama. The result is a mildly interesting convoluted mess. Themes include cloned and re-birthed gods, blood curses, global conspiracies, and a love interest that forms so quickly it borders on desperate. The story is anything but one-dimensional, but the doesn’t mean it’s deep.
Gameplay suffers from a lack of refinement. The extravagantly gory combos and finishers quickly become repetitive, and the button presses that trigger them are unreliable. Frantically mashing the attack and dodge buttons makes for the best strategy as waves of enemies flood the screen. The cycle will repeat itself countless times before finally reaching the end-stage boss.
The linear levels offer a small amount of platforming, however the repetitive wall-runs, jumps, and climbs won’t present anything in the way of puzzles. Employing a series of left-and-right shoulder button presses, the climbing segments are easily one of the worst parts of the game. At the most basic, the system is simply annoying. When dodging, clinging, and throwing attacks enter the mix, Ryu often plummets to his death due to poor button detection and timing. These climbing segments become more and more prevalent as the game progresses, effectively killing any momentum the story manages to build.
Poor pacing continues with random segments that bring Ryu’s speed to a grinding halt. Nimble acrobatics go out the window, and are replaced with all the style and grace of a paraplegic elephant. From the painfully slow stroll through Ryu’s village, to the many segments where the hero struggles with his curse, these portions of the game represent the very antithesis of ninja style. Used sparingly, they could have served a real narrative purpose. Instead, they only make the game’s stuttering pace much more jarring.
During combat, the camera cuts, crashes and zooms with all the vigor of a Crazy Eddie’s Discount Cars commercial. Ryu often gets lost in the crowd and it becomes difficult to see who is on the giving or receiving end of the violence. While these cuts add a sense of urgency and action to the combat, it makes planning or strategy nearly impossible and only reinforces a button-mashing approach.
Ample quick-time events pepper the game with big moments but do little for the gameplay itself. Tapping ‘X’ to drive your sword into a skull can give the act a grand cinematic feel, and free-falling through the air to slice through the cockpit of an attack helicopter is empowering the first few times. When these scenes repeat ten times over the course of the game, they lose their excitement and quickly become just another chore the player must complete.
You’ve experienced everything the nine-hour journey has to offer by the 45 minute mark. The story may keep you moving until the end, but the gameplay only gets in the way. The game comes very close to reaching its potential, but instead falls short in every way imaginable. Even the characters seemed to start asking, “Are we there yet?” The answer is a a resounding “No.”