Team Ninja is under a lot of pressure. Developing a Ninja Gaiden game without Tomonobu Itagaki, appealing to a demanding hardcore fanbase, and facing stiff competition from the likes of God of War and Devil May Cry, it's fair to say that the studio has a lot on its plate and there's an intense need to deliver.
"It's a good pressure," insists producer Yosuke Hayashi, when asked whether his team is coping with the strain. "We know about those other games, we've played them. Our goal is to be the best action game available."
Whether Ninja Gaiden 3 achieves that goal remains to be seen, but one thing's for sure -- this is going to be the most divisive game in the series.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is a darker look at series protagonist Ryu Hayabusa, and deals with the theme of taking human life. Over the course of the Ninja Gaiden series, Ryu has killed a lot of people -- I'd say roughly half the population of China -- and this game sees Ryu face that fact and deal with the consequences.
Part of this theme is in the game's lack of over-the-top gore. According to Hyashi, Ninha Gaiden 3 wants you to "feel what it's like to actually cut somebody with a sword." With this in mind, Ryu doesn't just lop off random limbs. Instead, bodies are left covered in gaping wounds and gashes as they stagger around in their death throes. Despite the lack of silly gore, it can be said that the enemies still die in significantly painful and grisly ways.
Also in keeping with the game's central premise is Ryu's new arm. The genocidal protagonist has been cursed with an arm that channels the energy of all the souls he's killed. In gameplay terms, this allows you to fill a meter that unleashes a devastating attack on multiple enemies once you hold down and charge the Strong Attack button. It's all very flashy and there's plenty of blood, although it does lead to one watching the action, rather than interacting with it. Hopefully this arm plays a larger gameplay role than a simple attack. I'd be interested to see if they can tie in a risk/reward situation where Ryu has to pay for using his new powers. It would make sense if that power is generated by people he's killed.
At first, Ninja Gaiden 3 looks set to be taking a leaf out of Ninja Blade's book, featuring a ton of Quick-Time-Events. It was explained that the demo stage also acts as a tutorial and that what looks like QTEs are actually button instructions. Over the course of the game, the prompts will disappear and players should naturally know what to do. That's what Team Ninja insists at this stage, anyway, and they have promised that the title won't be the QTE-fest that some have feared after experiencing the demo.
The demo takes place in London and starts with Ryu leaping from Big Ben and into a crowd of enemies. Pressing a shoulder button allows him to quickly take one enemy out, but the rest of the foes are fought in a traditional slice 'em up fashion. Although I am sure the full game features deeper fights, I have to say that on Normal difficulty, I got through a lot of the presented combat with button mashing. For a regular action game, this isn't necessarily a bad thing, but fans will definitely be put off by what I feel is a lowered challenge and less of a focus on blocking and countering.
There is still an opportunity for skillful martial prowess, and later enemies in the demo did require a deft use of the block button, but most enemies were dispatched -- and in a visually impressive fashion -- without me having to care much about what I was doing. Hayashi says he doesn't want to alienate hardcore fans, but that he also wants to find a way to bring all types of players to the series without so much relying on the concept of "Easy" and "Hard" difficulty levels. I have absolutely no idea how Team Ninja is going to pull that off, but more power to them!
Ryu has all the tools needed to succeed, as usual. His sword skills are as flash as ever, and within moments you'll be stabbing people in the guts, juggling them into the air, and dashing back and forth to slice into several foes multiple times. Ryu can also slide kick, which is used to both dodge attacks and knock enemies over. Of course, he can also throw his trusty knives to keep enemies staggered.
Several sections involved Ryu hooking into a wall with both hands and scaling it with timely shoulder button presses. Pressing the movement stick left or right allows Ryu to dodge projectiles tossed down by enemies, and he can also lob a knife up at his attackers to send them tumbling down past him. It takes a little while to get used to these sections, but I found them oddly amusing once I had a handle on it.
In many ways, it feels that Ninja Gaiden has simplified itself somewhat to become more of a hack n' slash title than it previously was, and as a fan of hack n' slash games in general, I can't say I had a bad time. It was pretty fun, but I feel those more purist than I in their love for Ninja Gaiden may be left wanting more. If you just want to kill a bunch of guys, however, then this will definitely sort you out. An amusing irony, since this game is about Ryu suffering for killing a bunch of guys.
The demo featured an interesting little stealth section. Ryu can sneak behind enemies and murder them with a single button press, and part of the opening level takes place in a dense fog that Ryu can silently walk through. Should he run, or engage in full combat, he gives his position away to a group of rocket troopers who will send missiles to his location. It was a neat little section, although the rockets were suitably irritating.
Two boss fights also featured. One was a fairly standard encounter against a spider-like mech that directed machine gun fire at the ground and periodically sent out an electified shockwave. To take it down, Ryu had to hack at its legs to shatter the armor, then slice the limbs off individually with some button mashing. The second and final fight was a lot more like a true Ninja Gaiden encounter, as dodging, blocking and countering attacks were necessary in order to fight off an extravagant masked Englishman. This fight, was far more satisfying than anything else in the demo, and is hopefully a good indicator of where the full game is going.
Ninja Gaiden 3 is going to generate a lot of discussion when it's finally finished. I think a lot of fans will hate it just because they're fans, and I think a lot of them will love it for the same reason. As a more casual appreciator of Ninja Gaiden, I can say that the demo was certainly enjoyable for what it was, but I can understand why some wouldn't be so keen on it.
The jury is very much still out on this one. I will keep my fingers crossed and hope for very good things.