Early on in Ninja Gaiden 3, stoic ninja Ryu Hayabusa squares off against an enemy who wears a Guy Fawkes mask and wields a sword approximately the size of a kayak. Fans of the bombastic series, like roller-coaster riders cresting a steep incline, will brace themselves for the nonsensical loop-the-loop fun that’s about to ensue. But that fun never arrives. Ryu uses a ho-hum roll-dodge maneuver to get out of his opponent’s way, then takes a few cowardly sword-swipes at him from behind. This face-off is two things enemy encounters in previous Ninja Gaiden games have never been: pedestrian and predictable.
The ridiculous plot of the game involves Ryu’s trademark weapon, the Dragon Sword, being magically absorbed into his right arm, transforming it into a marginally more evil arm. The mask-wearing enemy, who manages to survive the opening encounter, has threatened to destroy the world in seven days unless every country bends to his will. It’s up to Ryu and his marginally more evil arm to save the world by taking on groups of increasingly more dangerous foes.
As in all Ninja Gaiden games, moving between enemies—dispensing a slash for one, a boot to the face for the next—leaves players feeling like the leads in a Broadway-musical dance number. Yet like a long-opened can of cola, Ninja Gaiden 3 has somehow lost its carbonation. Part of the problem is the lack of gore. A single swing of the sword in Ninja Gaiden II resulted in an unprecedented display of limb-separation. Arms, legs, and heads rained from the sky. Once the final enemy in a particular area had been defeated, in a moment of comic Grand Guignol, you could take a moment to survey your “work,” in the form of piles of severed limbs and twitching torsos. It was grim, but in a Kung Fu Theater way.
In Ninja Gaiden 3, enemies endure repeated swings from Ryu—sometimes half a dozen slashes to the midsection—only to inexplicably rise to their still-intact feet and fight on. Never knowing what a sword swing is worth leads to the existential conclusion that what Ninja Gaiden 3 asks—that players aimlessly pound a pair of buttons for hours—is no way to spend a life.
Other woes include the overly dramatic camera, which swoops about like an overcaffeinated vulture; the myriad quick-time events which are forever reducing gameplay to a button-press or two; and the game’s half-cooked online mode, which includes dull co-operative challenges and by-the-numbers deathmatches. But the game’s greatest affront is how uninspired the whole operation is. This is a series that once reveled in absurdity and violence, arguably to a greater degree than any other franchise in gaming history. Fans of the series will no doubt recall that Ryu once famously defeated a giant, fireball-hurling worm named “GigaDeath.” But when he faces his umpteenth attack helicopter in Ninja Gaiden 3, it’s clear how far this once-imaginative franchise has fallen.