If the E3 2011 demo is any indication, Ninja Gaiden 3 is tightening up the screws in its demanding combat system while experimenting with some new, barely connected mechanisms on the side. It's still a game of flitting between defense and assault, of knowing when to go all in and when to get out before enemies take advantage of your focused attention, but Ninja Gaiden 3 makes evasion even more useful. Ryu's dash now inflicts slight damage if it connects with an enemy, allowing you to barge through a weak link when you're surrounded and immediately launch into a combo or juggle (even culminating in what remains the best video game maneuver ever, the Izuna Drop).
With no other weapons or magic available at this stage of the game's development (pegged at 40 percent done), Ninja Gaiden 3's combat feels familiar and purely devoted to the franchise's most versatile and reliable weapon, the Dragon Sword. There's no trace of essence absorption either -- instead of collecting orbs from fallen foes, Ryu's bloodied right arm becomes enveloped in a swirl of red once you complete a sequence of executions, untouched. Most importantly, you'll then need to find a break in the action to charge up the devastating special attack. Gambling on that second of vulnerability and finding a deadly rhythm is still at the heart of Ninja Gaiden's electrifying combat.
Ryu's lethal limb-lopping finishers carry over from the previous game, but now they're inelegantly called for with a big button prompt across the screen. Is this part of Ninja Gaiden 3'
s bid to engage a wider audience, one that needs to be constantly reminded about the kill button? Equally clumsy are the new concepts explored outside of combat, encountered while Ryu makes his way through the dour streets of London in search of a terrorist group.
Ironically, one of the most overt and jarring additions is the element of stealth. While walking across a balcony, you have the opportunity to kill an inattentive guard from behind. There's no real agency before the animation kicks in -- you simply walk in a straight line and press a button when you get to the sap who's been conveniently positioned by the spiteful designer-god. The stealth kill is remarkable only because it's the quietest, most ninja-like thing Hayabusa has ever done in his career, which has seen him destroy tanks and helicopters singlehandedly.
Actually, hold on, that's not the most ninja-like thing he does. He flies off the balcony right afterward in a canned animation that concludes with another button prompt.
Ryu also spends some of his time climbing walls in London. Now, more interesting traversal sounds like a good fit for Ninja Gaiden
, but Team Ninja doesn't really place the emphasis on its hero's agility. Only specific walls allow themselves to be pierced by Ryu's kunai, and these can be climbed by rhythmically alternating between the left and right triggers. If there's a soldier waiting for you at the top, you tap out a single shuriken and that's it. There's nothing engaging or dynamic about the process.
In its current stage, Ninja Gaiden 3
feels like a lopsided entry in the series. Team Ninja seems to be treating the combat with distant reverence -- too afraid to touch, let alone expand it -- while it experiments with shallow, quarantined mechanisms elsewhere. The framerate needs a lot of attention before the game launches in 2012 (neither the Xbox 360 nor PlayStation 3 version came anywhere near 60 frames per second), but at least I can say that the fighting feels right. And I can only speculate how it will translate to four-on-four multiplayer, which Yasuda said would be revealed later.
All that should be enough for now, but it's hard to dissipate a vague sense of disappointment. It's like you can feel Tomonobu Itagaki sitting somewhere, arms folded, with a pair of sunglasses obscuring the look of a disappointed, departed parent.