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Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge review: Sharpened

Adam Rosenberg

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Team Ninja has always done better on the rebound, and Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is a testament to this fact. The technical excellence of the 2004's Ninja Gaiden was one-upped in Ninja Gaiden Sigma. Ninja Gaiden 2 was improved dramatically in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2. Razor's Edge carries that trend forward into the series' latest entry, with surprising results. It's one thing to turn a great game into an even better one, but to turn a once-terrible game into a launch lineup highlight? Impossible!

Apparently not. Team Ninja cuts liberally from Ninja Gaiden 3 in Razor's Edge, stripping away everything from the obnoxious "steel on bone" QTE-style button mashery to the multitude of joy-killing sequences in which players guide a stumbling, curse-afflicted Ryu through neutered enemy encounters. Even the questionable presentation is erased, exemplified by an early moment that forces Ryu, and thus the player, to murder a man in cold blood as he pleads for his life. This insufferable moment has been excised from Razor's Edge, and for that we can all be thankful.

Gallery: Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge (9/13/12) | 22 Photos

This revisionist take on Ninja Gaiden 3 still doesn't manage to erase everything, but what remains is mostly acceptable. The camera continues to be a pain, frequently positioning itself in less-than-ideal locations. The story is also the same nonsensical ride it was before, though to be fair, that's standard practice for the series. More problematic is the lingering issue with Ninja Gaiden 3's boss fights. Razor's Edge is a huge improvement, but NG3 will still go down in gaming history for somehow botching a fight against a cyber-zombie T-Rex.

Longtime fans of the series have the most to gain from the improvements in this Wii U launch title. Op-eds will surely be written in the days to come concerning Nintendo's decision to publish the bloody, violent Razor's Edge and what sort of message that sends to gamers. For fans though, blood and dismemberment are merely rewards, the dangling carrots earned for a flawless performance in a deep and increasingly challenging combat system.

Razor's Edge adds new weapons and Ninpo magic as well as an upgrade tree on which to spend that hard-earned Karma. It's back to the 2004 Ninja Gaiden basics here, with tiered weapon upgrades unlocking additional combos, various combat maneuvers (Flying Swallow returns!), Ninpo boosts, and purely cosmetic costumes. Having an element of progression definitely creates a greater sense of investment, but it's really the depth of the combat that keeps you playing.

Ryu's arm will still flash red when he's ready to perform an Ultimate Technique multi-kill, but a you can also opt to hold off and build up your multiplier for scoring additional kills. It's a risk/reward situation, as you also stand to lose the maximum Karma bonus if you don't chain your kills together quickly enough.

This new element plays out particularly well in the revised approach to Ryu's cursed arm and how it affects gameplay. No longer will you have to stumble through a fight with a limited set of attacks whenever the curse flares up. Instead, Ryu is teleported off to a self-contained survival arena. Combat is the only way to maintain his constantly draining supply of health here, and chain kills become the order of the day. Razor's Edge really shines in these moments, with the insane body count serving to highlight the strengths of the revised combat.

Enemies are also far more aggressive in Razor's Edge, even on the Normal difficulty setting. Take off a foe's limb and he'll use his other hand to shoot, or he'll try to tackle Ryu while carrying a live grenade. Blocking is vitally important, but you also need to meet aggression with aggression. A maimed enemy in Razor's Edge immediately becomes the most dangerous wildcard on the battlefield, an unblockable threat that forces you to take decisive action even when superior forces surround you.

The difficulty spike in the mid- to late-game is considerable as additional enemies are introduced, but this should be welcomed by fans of the series. Impressively, Team Ninja also still manages to service newcomers with the revised Hero Mode. It's essentially the Normal difficulty setting with one important tweak: an auto-block feature activates when your health falls to a critically low level. It won't protect you from tumbles into a bottomless pit, but it will turn aside any direct damage attack that comes your way.

This amounts to an unusual twist on an "easy mode," with tough moments that never overwhelm since it's virtually impossible for you to die. You get a real sense of Ryu's capabilities, feeling like an unstoppable ninja badass as you sever heads and limbs with surgical precision while avoiding the frustration of frequent visits to the Game Over screen. It's a much more enjoyable hook to snare new fans than the earlier game's Hero Mode, which only blocked a certain percentage of incoming attacks.

Hero Mode does come with a few costs attached to it, however. For starters, you'll be looking at Karma penalties whenever auto-block is activated. Play well and you'll receive the full reward, but a negative multiplier is applied whenever you would have otherwise been cut down. Playing in Hero Mode also walls off access to Tests of Valor, discrete hidden challenges found mixed into the game's levels (a returning feature from Ninja Gaiden 2).

Razor's Edge also extends the campaign with two additional levels. These are played as Ryu's fellow ninja (and Dead or Alive combatant) Ayane, who offers a different set of moves and her own unique weapon and Ninpo. The added levels aren't very long and recycle environments from other parts of the campaign, but Ayane is unlocked for play on any story level in Challenge Mode once you've completed the game.

The adversarial multiplayer Clan Battle mode makes its way over from the previous console releases intact, though fans beware: the Wii U's online community appears to be pretty light right now, at least as far as Razor's Edge is concerned. Ninja Trials mode returns as well, amounting to a series of quick-hit, wave-based combat scenarios in which your performance is graded on a five-star scale. This mode shines brightest in online co-op (two player max), provided you can find someone to play alongside you.

For a Wii U exclusive, features specific to GamePad are sparse. The GamePad adds little to the experience, with the touchscreen simply offering alternative input options for a handful of button commands. It's possible to play without touch controls or to simply use the Pro Controller, though you'll probably want to avoid playing solely on the diminutive GamePad screen. It's a neat feature, but the action becomes hard to follow on the mini-display.

Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is a standout effort as Wii U launch titles go, but it's also a welcome improvement to a game that sorely needed a kick. Team Ninja heard the complaints about Ninja Gaiden 3 and came back with an exceptional revision in Razor's Edge, one that lives up to the high standards set by other games in the series, reinvigorating its combat with fresh variety and a real challenge.

This review is based on a retail copy of Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge for Wii U, provided by Nintendo.

Adam Rosenberg is a writer and dudebro academic based out of Brooklyn, NY. He's a full-time freelancer who has contributed to a wide range of outlets, including G4, Rolling Stone, MTV, and Digital Trends. You can follow his and his dog's exploits on Twitter at @Geminibros.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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