Ninja Gaiden 3 review: To be blunt

Ninja Gaiden 3 is all murder and no execution. It places utmost importance on the periphery, neglecting the mechanisms of combat while splashing blood across the screen and desperately sniffing the air for just a hint of remorse from its protagonist. The franchise has never been more accessible as a result, and never more disposable.

Ninja Gaiden's internal clockwork is still in there somewhere, albeit stripped of intricacy. The speed and fluidity of movement abolishes the perceived distance between thought and on-screen reaction, and there's a pleasant cadence of killing injured foes, one by one, after you've hobbled them with a barrage of sword slashes. And the Izuna Drop, which lifts a dance partner into the air before spinning them headfirst into the earth, remains one of the best (and safest) moves in any action game. If you're supposed to feel bad about all the unrestrained killing, as Ryu is meant to after a curse turns his arm into a veiny vector for his victims, maybe it shouldn't be quite as much fun.%Gallery-144412% Some of the simplification in Ninja Gaiden 3 makes sense -- goodbye, distracting collectibles! -- but much of it has a deleterious effect across the whole game. Throwing out every weapon but the Dragon Sword (and other similar blades) takes a toll on enemy variety and the pressing need to alter your basic patterns. The game punishes you for locking yourself in rigid defense too long, but your evasive dash can also interrupt animations and be chained into combos, so escape is always an easy, risk-free option.

The same can be said for Ryu's bow, which snaps to vital targets automatically and even dilates time for you. The fact that it can be exploited mid-air means two things: you become an untouchable god in flight; and nobody really thought this through. Meanwhile, your magic charges up as a crescendo while you kill (again, filed under "makes sense"), and then punishes everyone in the room with the same, single animation throughout the entire game.

The last quarter of Ninja Gaiden 3 tosses tougher monsters and more challenging configurations at you, requiring prioritization and more deliberate shifts between offense and retreat, but at that point it's like the last gasp of the old, fighter-like design that electrified the series. Hard mode isn't much help either -- whereas previous games augmented enemy tiers and AI aggression, Ninja Gaiden 3 simply increases the enemy count until the framerate falls down. The Xbox 360 version doesn't exactly maintain 60 frames per second consistently, but the drops are downright appalling on PlayStation 3.

What's truly saddening, and perhaps unsurprising given Team Ninja's focus on melodrama in Metroid: Other M, is that after all the nips and tucks there's still no shortage of stupidity. Some moments are taken seriously at your own peril, and nobody should be jaded enough to withstand the charms of a ninja fighting a cybernetic dinosaur, but other ideas are too terrible to ignore. Climbing walls is an exercise in trigger-pulling tedium, and the game's quickly forgotten affair with "stealth" boils down to stabbing a man who stares wistfully out a window, wondering why God couldn't have just made him face the other way.

We almost get a respectable female character in Mizuki, who dresses like she has a real job, but her position as mission observer and advisor becomes fairly questionable when she tells Ryu, "Sometimes I forget you're a ninja." To be fair, Ryu does become a government agent of sorts. He's drafted and sent to London after evil alchemists request his presence ... and never mind that, in doing so, the government gives in to terrorist demands pretty much immediately.

We can return to more sensible things with Ninja Gaiden 3's two-player co-op missions. They work well as an us-against-them show of endurance against the game's whole menagerie, though bosses are clearly not adjusted to handle the simultaneous attacks of two. You'll also find four-on-four competitive multiplayer in the menu, but it must - MUST - be dismissed in a single sentence. All you need to know is that there's an Achievement for killing yourself, and you'll get it quickly.

This review starts as an attempt to be explicit and even-handed, but it too gets whittled down by an onslaught of cuts, as resolve wavers in finding and discussing the so-so action game that remains in Ninja Gaiden 3. What you're seeing here and in the game is not murder -- it's suicide.

This review is based on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 retail copies of Ninja Gaiden 3, provided by Tecmo Koei.

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