Tecmo Koei readies its latest Ninja Gaiden, but with a very different team at the helm, is it still an Xbox 360 game to look out for?
Published on Feb 3, 2012
Are games too easy? It’s a fascinating question, considering we have always had at least some level of control over what kind of gaming experiences we choose.
But as gaming has opened its doors to an ever-larger audience, we think it’s safe to say the concept of difficulty has been left by the wayside in favour of accessibility.
After all, no one likes to lose. This question is something that’s been on our minds for a few months now. Ever since first tasting From Software’s deliciously challenging Dark Souls and discovering the delights of enforced hard work, we’ve become hooked on the idea of really working for rewards.
Which, apparently, was something its team was well aware of during development, with its producer Kei Hirono attempting to explain the contradiction with a food analogy.
“We’ve made it spicy… it tastes good… when you put it in your mouth, it stings, but when you finish consuming it, you’re happy.” The argument that too many games pander to modern audiences was thrown into disarray with Dark Souls.
More than just offering gamers an arduous experience for the sake of it, From Software built its entire game around the rewards of intense hard work and intelligent puzzle solving.
Gamers loved them for it, and since its release we’ve been looking ahead to similar titles that might quench our thirst for more nourishing challenges.
More than the previous games, Ninja Gaiden 3 has occasional cinematic moments designed to create drama.
Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox is one of the few modern games that can challenge the dexterity of our fingers to the absolute extreme. Combining fierce action, Japanese intensity and a learning curve that sees many players hanging from its sheer sides, Ninja Gaiden has succeeded in creating a difficult, and yet fair, set of gameplay parameters.
It requires true skill and discipline. Even if its sequel fumbled with the combination somewhat, it was only ever the dedicated few that prevailed against its demons, ninjas and occasional mutants.
We rejoin Ninja Gaiden’s hero, Ryu Hayabusa, standing moodily above Big Ben as the rain lashes against his masked face. He’s decked out in his familiar suit, with his Dragon sword strapped to his back; he looks as badass as ever.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen him in such a dramatic pose, but it is the first time we’ve seen him in a recognisable Western setting. A well-armed terrorist group has stormed Number 10, taken a few hostages and asked for Ryu by name.
He doesn’t waste any time making his presence known. Leaping from London’s most iconic clock, we get our first proper chance to play around with Ninja Gaiden’s tweaked gameplay.
Ryu quicktimes his way to the nearest solider (with the most inexplicable British accent) and the long promised return to ninja vs soldier gameplay of the Xbox original reacquaints us with the deceptively complex controls.
Obviously, the original was itself a modern updating of an old classic that prided itself on making players truly earn every win. Combining strong and weak attacks while safeguarding any rebuttals with a block, Ninja Gaiden has always encouraged players to become a master of both attack and defence.
Gameplay is still as fast and violent as ever; it’s a just a little bit easier than it was before.
Its fiendish enemy AI know exactly what to do to any player stupid enough to think they can mindlessly mash their way to success.
It’s not long after laying into the first group of soldiers before we see a one-button QTE interrupt our flow. It offers a close-up flourish of Ryu having a good go at pushing his sword through the shoulder of an enemy.
It’s quick and relatively painless (for us that is, not the poor chap who has Ryu’s sword poking through his chest). Other uses of QTE emerge throughout the level, helping us to escape an exploding truck or a barrage of missiles.
There was always the danger that this third iteration was going to step further away from the sublime and balanced combat of the original but, from what we have already played, it seems like Ninja Gaiden 3 is attempting to please both hardcore fans and new fresh-faced potentials, and succeeding.
The opening London levels were less of a challenge than we’d been expecting, though, considering Ninja Gaiden’s entirely justified reputation of impossibly adept enemies and super-hard boss battles.
Now it’s entirely possible that our gaming skills have improved since playing the first game, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that this third iteration is making a few concessions in the hope that new players will be enticed to play.
After battling a huge spider-robot (which we killed without dying), Ryu faces off against the masked terrorist who had orchestrated the attack.
It’s a one-on-one affair that we’re more used to having with a foot soldier, and after a few close up QTEs to heighten the story, Ryu finds himself holding a shattered Dragon sword and an infection spreading throughout his right arm.
Don’t worry, though you can’t chop off an enemies’ arm (you big sicko) you can still see plenty of their blood spray out.
It’s not clear if this mutation will eventually kill Ryu as, in gameplay terms, it forms an additional special move. In the levels we saw, it replaced the familiar Ki, which in London had provided us with a flaming dragon attack that destroyed everyone it came into contact with.
After tracking the terrorists to Saudi Arabia, Ryu finds himself in possession of a new sword and an advanced bow that handily locks on to nearby targets.
It’s among the dusty outskirts of a huge construction site that we finally get a taste of the old Ninja Gaiden, too. Soldiers astride small hover bikes prove slightly trickier to deal with, but it’s only when some more advanced troopers arrive that it begins to feel like the Ninja Gaiden of old and less like a ninja-inspired hack and slash.
These guys don’t mess about either; instead of carrying guns or shields, like the base level troopers we’ve been fighting, they wield some sort of projectile-based magic.
Huge pixilated cubes block our normal attacks like some sort of retro game superpower and the ferocity of this challenge took us by surprise. Catch one in a heavy attack, though, and the path is clear for a barrage of additional hits.
The cat-and-mouse tactics return and Ryu’s infected arm also soon comes into play. Score enough bloody hits and, for some reason, it will begin to glow.
Quickly mash Y and B together, hold them for a second and Ryu will zip to as many nearby targets as he can, delivering each a few uncontested hits. It’s a bit of cheap way to even the odds and feels like yet another concession, but at least it looks cool.
Should games like Ninja Gaiden become accessible, or is that entirely missing the point?
The evidence that Ninja Gaiden 3 is attempting to please two sets of audiences is, unfortunately, littered throughout these early levels. The notable absence of dismembering, which was a clear hallmark of the last game, belies the actual violence Ryu can inflict.
It seems at odds to show soldiers pleading for their lives, with an unrepentant Ryu approaching in an interactive cinematic fashion before delivering the final blow, if you’re then hiding the fact that his massive sword will actually chop off arms and legs quite easily.
There’s also a propensity for the familiar arena battles to find themselves punctuated with cinematic moments that jar the pace.
Hiding from snipers in a slowly dissipating fog, tracking their laser sights and sneaking up on them so Ryu can achieve a simple one-hit stealth kill, is an interesting change of pace.
Usually, Ninja Gaiden would change its pace by throwing another wave of enemies at you, only this time making them even harder to hit than before.
It shows an ambition to give players a more cinematic journey than before, but some fans might see this as tampering with a formula that was already perfect.
The questions surrounding difficulty are left, rather irritatingly, unanswered by the time we finished with Ninja Gaiden 3. There seems to be much more of a learning curve for players to become accustomed to its style, though as of yet, it’s unclear if this approach will work, or eventually blunt what has previously been a razor sharp edge.