The Ninja Gaiden series has been lauded by players and critics alike for its complex action combat and unforgiving difficulty. The latest iteration of the series, Ninja Gaiden 3, utilizes combat mechanics similar to those of the older titles, yet delivers an experience that is noticeably inferior to them. This article will explore Ninja Gaiden 3‘s strengths and shortcomings when compared to its predecessors, Ninja Gaiden and Ninja Gaiden 2.
Ninja Gaiden on the original Xbox stood out for its amazing level of polish, which was the result of a lengthy development period and subsequent expansions and gameplay tweaks. The game infused its combo system with advanced fighting-game mechanics, making the combat engine extremely robust, but satisfying to master. There is massive list of mechanics that players could utilize in Ninja Gaiden – from cancels and a variety of stun-states to instant-charge attacks and on-landing inputs, to instant-kills and context-sensitive attacks, Ryu was a technical powerhouse. Enemies operated under these same mechanics, making for a rich and challenging gameplay experience. With the release of the Hurricane Pack DLCs (which were completely free, by the way), Ninja Gaiden received more enemies, new weapons, and enhanced mechanics overall. Almost all of these additions were made available in Ninja Gaiden Black, resulting in one of the most polished and well-rounded action games released to date.
But Ninja Gaiden offered more than just combat. Platforming and exploration were crucial to progress, and every level in Ninja Gaiden broke combat encounters up with light platforming sections and key hunts. These sections were by no means difficult, but they did a great job of keeping the fighting from feeing tedious. Ninja Gaiden had great level design as well, with each area featuring varied and interesting environments. With levels such as a ninja fortress, a commandeered airship, a modern military complex, an ancient ruined aqueduct, frozen and magmatic caverns, a stone labyrinth, etc., no two areas were the same in Ninja Gaiden, and every area introduced new enemies and hazards. All of these elements combined made Ninja Gaiden the fantastic action game it is.
Ninja Gaiden 2 took all of the combat elements of the original Ninja Gaiden and sped the fighting up nearly two-fold. Combat was fast – the game often threw twice as many enemies at you then the original did, quickening and adding to Ryu’s already massive combo list, and adding all new weapons to the mix. Levels were nicely varied and visually impressive, though exploration and platforming were less pronounced, with levels playing out extremely linearly when compared to the original. Backtracking was kept to a minimum as there was only ever one way to go. There were less keys to hunt as well, and they were usually placed near the door they opened, making their existence a bit superfluous.
Steel on bone is a technique that completely undermines the combo system. At least in Ninja Gaiden 2 players were required to utilize the combo system to attack and dismember enemies individually.
The issue with this new mechanic, in my opinion, was that the underlying combat system was undermined by the random dismemberment and instant-kills. Learning how to effectively utilize a weapons’s attacks or how to capitalize on an enemy’s stun-state was generally less valuable than learning how to effectively dismember and obliterate enemies. The increased speed of the game also weakened the one-on-one complexity found in the original, since Ryu and enemies recover much too quickly from stronger stun-states to effectively act upon them (though you still could). Even though the enemies were just as competent in Ninja Gaiden 2 as they were in the original, the overall feel in Ninja Gaiden 2 was “Ryu vs. a mob” rather than the more personal combat of Ninja Gaiden.
Team Ninja embraced the changes made in Ninja Gaiden 2 rather than the original, designing Ninja Gaiden 3 entirely as a “Ryu vs. mob” action game. The underlying complexity that the series was known for still exists in Ninja Gaiden 3, but in a diminished state, as instant kills and the new “Steel-on-bone” mechanic are the bread-and-butter of combat this time around. The game’s focus is not fighting enemies, but rather killing them quickly, and Team Ninja designed tools to aid players towards that end.
Now, before we delve into the bad, let’s look at what Ninja Gaiden 3 does very well.
Dodging feels great. The evasive maneuver in Ninja Gaiden 3 is a slide, which replaces the basic dash from the previous title. The slide can be used aggressively, dealing light damage and briefly stunning enemies. Ryu can also attack directly out of a slide, making it a fantastic way to open-up a combo. Hopefully, sliding (or an evasive ability with the same properties) makes it in future titles.
The attack animations and blood effects are top-notch, as one would expect from a Ninja Gaiden game. Team Ninja actually redesigned combos in Ninja Gaiden 3 rather than recycling the familiar combos from the first two titles. Combo extensions make heavy use of charge commands (pressing and holding the heavy attack button), and the combo system feels fresh and interesting as a result. Likewise, rather than the over-the-top gore-fest of Ninja Gaiden 2, Ninja Gaiden 3 opts for a blood-bath instead. The blood effects look fantastic – the delicate ribbons of blood that Ryu’s attacks draw look great, and the fountains of blood that erupt from Ryu’s finishing attacks add sanguinary satisfaction to every kill.
Oh, and no damned ghost fish. Good riddance, says I, as those enemies sucked spectacularly. Yes, I know you could farm them for essence. No, they were never fun to fight.
Now, without further adieu let’s look at the combat in Ninja Gaiden 3.
As stated earlier, Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2 had a very complex combat system “under the hood,” so to speak – combos all had unique stun effects on enemies, Ryu had plenty of cancels and special techniques he could utilize to avoid damage, stay mobile or capitalize on vulnerable enemies, etc. Ninja Gaiden 3 guts or simplifies many of these elements, reducing the practicality of the combos or making them altogether useless. Knocking an enemy into the ground in previous games allowed Ryu to use a powerful special attack, which dealt massive damage or killed the enemy outright. Grounding enemies in Ninja Gaiden 3 does nothing, as you cannot attack them until the get back up. Knocking an enemy into something in earlier titles (like a wall or another enemy) did bonus damage to the enemy. Wall damage has been removed, and cleared enemies no longer damage other enemies (that I’m aware of) in Ninja Gaiden 3. You can’t even grab an enemy and throw them out of a crowd to deal with individually, since Ryu no longer has a functional grab move. What this means is that you will be utilizing the combo system primarily for damage-dealing, and for setting up Ninja Gaiden 3‘s new mechanic, the steel on bone finisher.
Steel on bone attacks, much like obliteration techniques in Ninja Gaiden 2, are what sets Ninja Gaiden 3 apart from previous titles. This technique allows players to instantly finish-off an enemy. The way this attack works is not explained at all in-game, but some practicing with the combo system has revealed what I believe to be the basic mechanics for the finisher.
Enemies in Ninja Gaiden 3 have a certain threshold of damage they can take before they become visibly bloodied. This blood signifies that they are weakened, and can be juggled, stunned, tripped or knocked-around without resistance. It also means that a steel on bone finisher can be initiated. Specific attacks in Ryu’s combo will initiate the SoB, though heavy attacks tend to initiate them more often than not. Tripping a bloodied enemy and attacking them with a heavy attack will always initiate a SoB.
Once the attack has been triggered, Ryu will lodge his sword into the enemy’s torso and require a second attack input to finish the attack. Once entered, Ryu will slice through the enemy and voilà – dead enemy. What is vitally important about the mechanic is also completely unstated in-game: steel on bone attacks can be chained from a weakened enemy to a non-weakened enemy, provided the enemies are close to Ryu, and you press the correct button. Hammering the light attack button after a successful SoB will have Ryu initiate another SoB on the nearest enemy. This can be repeated ad nauseum, allowing players to clear out entire waves of enemies by hammering the basic attack button. Pressing the heavy attack button during a SoB chain will actually break the kill chain, forcing Ryu to start over by weakening a new enemy and using the appropriate attack to initiate the SoB. Ninja Gaiden 3 will often prompt players to use the heavy attack to SoB stronger enemies. Don’t bother – the game lies. Hammering the light attack button works just as effectively as the heavy attack, and light attacks allow players to continue a SoB chain.
Steel on bone is a technique that completely undermines the combo system. At least in Ninja Gaiden 2 players were required to utilize the combo system to attack and dismember enemies individually. It is true that there is no guarantee a SoB chain will clear out a wave of enemies – some enemies may be out of range of Ryu’s attempt, and some enemies have higher priority attacks that can interrupt the chain. However, SoB chains are an absurdly easy way to remove several enemies from a fight, and the mechanic requires little skill to use; only a basic understanding of how to initiate the attack is required.
Older Ninja Gaiden mechanics have been reworked to allow for quick instant kills as well. In past games, Ryu has had access to ‘Ultimate techniques” and Ninpo attacks. Both of these mechanics have been retooled to focus more on killing rather than damage-dealing.
Ultimate techniques in older Ninja Gaiden games were the equivalent of a special/super in fighting games – they were high-powered auto-combos that dealt damage in a limited area. Each weapon had a unique ultimate technique, with specific targeting and damage properties. Some were better suited for single or few targets, while others were best used on groups or when Ryu was surrounded.
Ultimate techniques have been redesigned in Ninja Gaiden 3 as glorified, automatic steel on bone attacks. Ryu will auto-target three to five enemies (depending on how late in the game you are), and kill them with a flashy red SoB attack. The technique has been simplified to a basic “remove X enemies” trump, which feels a bit cheap. The Scythe DLC that was made available recently has rectified this somewhat, since it utilizes a linear shockwave UT, much like the one in Ninja Gaiden 2. However, the sword and claw UTs function on the “easy kill” mindset of Ninja Gaiden 3. On the plus side, players cannot spam UTs in Ninja Gaiden 3 as they could in earlier titles, as Ryu can only execute the technique after defeating a certain number of enemies.
Ninpo (the Ninja Gaiden equivalent of magic) has been reworked under this mass-kill mindset as well. In truth, Ninpo has always been a particular grievance of mine – they were trumps in previous games as well, dealing enormous amounts of damage to opponents, keeping Ryu invulnerable during the casting animation, and requiring little skill to use. Their only balancing element was how limited players were in casting them, as Ryu could only cast a maximum of five or six times before running out of Ki (unless you used items to restore this, of course). That, and you were graded based on how much Ki you had left at the end of a chapter, so it was best to abstain from Ninpo-cheesing if going for a higher rank.
Ninpo in Ninja Gaiden 3 is earned by fighting – as players connect blows and defeat enemies, they fill a gauge beneath their health bar. When full, Ryu can execute his ninpo attack. I happen to like this change, as it means players must earn the overpowered super attack before they can utilize it. Unfortunately Ninpo is even more powerful in Ninja Gaiden 3 than any game before it, as it can quite literally clear an entire room of its enemies. It has the added benefit of serving as Ryu’s heal (since there are no items in Ninja Gaiden 3), encouraging players to use it whenever the opportunity presents itself. Ultimate techniques and steel on bone attacks fill the Ninpo gauge at an alarmingly high rate to boot, so Ninpo isn’t particularly difficult to earn in normal and hard modes. Team Ninja reduced the rate at which ninpo builds on Master and Ultimate Ninja modes, but it doesn’t take away from how overpowered the attack is.
What this all means is that players will not be using the combo system to defeat enemies, but rather as a means to set up steel on bone attacks, ultimate techniques and ninpo.
But, lets suppose a player opts not to cheese the newly designed instant-kill techniques. Suppose a player wants to make the combo system the focus of their playstyle. After all, the creative combo system and tight controls are what make Ninja Gaiden titles great, right? Sadly, Ninja Gaiden 3 makes it very difficult to enjoy melee combat if the player forgoes SoB, UT and Ninpo attacks. There are quite a few reasons for this, though the core issues are:
- The combo system has lost much of its complexity (as stated earlier)
- Ryu maneuvers like a tank, rather than a ninja
- Even the most basic enemies have a lot of health, making not using instant-kills a time consuming and tedious affair
Ryu has some ridiculous recovery time after most attacks or combos in Ninja Gaiden 3. Ninja Gaiden has always had tight rules when it came to canceling and defense – if you committed to an attack, you could not cancel out of it. You had to know when to pull your punches and when to go all-out. However, Ryu’s recovery was excellent. One would never feel vulnerable after committing to an attack, since players could always throw out a block or dodge after the attack was over. Players could also use a shuriken to interrupt their own combo (or interrupt the attacking enemy).
Ninja Gaiden 3 gives Ryu notably longer recovery after combos and even basic attacks. This gives the combat a clunky and unresponsive feel, as some enemies and virtually all bosses can recover from Ryu’s attacks faster than Ryu can. What this means is that players will end up sticking to the shortest combos with the least amount of recovery in order to keep Ryu responsive and relatively safe. As one can imagine, this makes combat severely limiting, and it runs counter to the combat system in earlier titles, where every combo had some practical purpose.
Tied to the clunky recovery issue is Ninja Gaiden 3‘s odd attack buffering implementation. In earlier games, one could input certain commands during the animation of another attack, essentially allowing players to “combo” certain attacks into one another. Strong 360° heavy attacks could easily be tacked on mid-combo, for example. Because of the odd recovery of Ryu’s combos and attacks, this is no longer possible. At the same time, the game will buffer attacks that didn’t need buffering before – like aerial combos. Ryu has a terrible habit of continuing a failed aerial combo on the ground, with players unable to cancel out of the combo until he finishes his assault. This is particularly annoying when fighting strong enemies and boss fights, as they can fall out of air combos when not weakened. Ryu ends up landing and executing the failed aerial combo input on the ground, regardless of whether or not his attacks are connecting.
It is clear that Team Ninja set out to create a more accessible and cinematic Ninja Gaiden title with Ninja Gaiden 3. Unfortunately, in its attempt to do so, it sacrificed the depth that made their games stand out from others in the genre.
Enemy variety is lacking in Ninja Gaiden 3, and the bland, lifeless environments compound this issue even more noticeably. Players will engage four or five basic human enemy types for the majority of the game. That’s not to say that these are the only enemies in the game, but these basic human types will make up the bulk of Ryu’s combat encounters. These enemies will learn a new attack or two in later chapters, but engaging them is the same regardless of the chapter you encounter them in. Worse still, stages in Ninja Gaiden 3 are essentially large fighting arenas linked by hallways, with no interesting or dynamic features to differentiate the encounters. Fighting these enemies in a desert arena is no different than fighting them on an aircraft carrier arena, and this makes combat feel like a repetitive slog. The odd chapter that does introduce new enemies will throw waves of them at you, destroying any novelty the enemy type may have had. The final chapter is the only one in the game that offers anything resembling variety, and this is only because the chapter throws nearly every enemy type at you at one point or another. Yet even still, players will be forced to fight waves upon waves of fiend-type enemies during the tail-end of the chapter, dragging the gameplay back down to a monotonous chore.
It is clear that Team Ninja set out to create a more accessible and cinematic Ninja Gaiden title with Ninja Gaiden 3. Unfortunately, in its attempt to do so, it sacrificed the depth that made their games stand out from others in the genre. The combat looks excellent, sure, and the combo system still has some semblance of the Ninja Gaiden skeleton beneath the superficial flash, but the technical aspects feel criminally underdeveloped. Ninja Gaiden needs a combo system with depth, one that rewards players for mastering its many facets. It needs interesting enemies that operate under the same combat mechanics as Ryu. It needs levels with substance, where players feel like they’re making progress – not a collection of eight or ten themed rooms to fight in. These are all elements that Ninja Gaiden 3 lacks, and the game suffers for it.