What exactly is a ninja? Depending on what you watch, read or play, chances are your perception of these fabled warriors will be very different – while traditionally they were masters of stealth, sabotage and subterfuge, modern media goes even further than the romanticised folklore tales of old to paint the ninja as some kind of sword-wielding superhero. Tekken’s Raven teleports all over the place to confuse his opponents, as in fact do many of the oh-so-common beat-’em-up ninja characters – Ibuki, Taki, Hokutomaru and even Ninja Gaiden’s own Ryu Hayabusa play to the OTT Hollywood ninja stereotype, while Virtua Fighter’s Kage keeps things a little more grounded as the nature of the series would suggest. Their portrayal elsewhere is equally confused, games like Ninja Blade showcasing the fairytale ninja that throws wrecking balls at giant enemy spiders for massive damage while Tenchu plays up the historical angle, focusing on old-fashioned gadgets and gimmicks rather than ninja magic.
Rather than conform to either ideal, Team Ninja’s 2004 resurrection of the Ninja Gaiden franchise straddled these two extremes. On the one hand, the game was drenched in fantasy lore and outlandish set pieces while Hayabusa and his foes fling magic at one another. But the other side of the coin was arguably the more impressive, punishing difficulty (many players struggle to clear even the first level) and relentless AI perfectly conveyed the mortality of the ninja hero and the absolute importance of timing his every block, dodge and strike to avoid an early grave. In passing this power from Hayabusa to the player, the result was something truly empowering – an adventure just and balanced enough to be cleared without so much as denting your health bar but at the same time one that actively wanted you dead. Itagaki famously stated that the key difference between Ninja Gaiden and its peers was that while the enemies in other games were there to be killed, Gaiden’s were there to kill you. A perfect summary of what is widely regarded as one of the most challenging games in recent memory from the former frontman then, though it seems that much has changed since Yosuke Hayashi seized leadership of the Team Ninja clan.
With Itagaki leaving shortly after Ninja Gaiden II was released, the PlayStation 3 port (Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2) was Hayashi’s first opportunity to step up and make his mark on the franchise. And he did, in a big way. The previously insane levels of violence and gore were stripped right back, decapitations and dismemberment reduced while fountains of claret were replaced with a curious purple mist. Fans went nuts. Enemy counts were lowered to compensate for the upscaled visuals, their health buffed to make up for the reduced forces. Fans went nuts. Entire sections were removed and/or replaced in an attempt to shake out the cheap deaths and unbalanced sequences. Fans went nuts. The whole weapons system was tweaked to remove some, alter others and prevent any from being upgraded until story progress allows it. By this point, you can probably guess how the fans reacted but for the benefit of those not really paying attention, they went nuts.
There were certainly a host of changes that needed to be made to elevate NGII to the same standard as Black but for the most part, Hayashi seemed to have targeted areas of the game that were out of line with his vision of what Ninja Gaiden should be rather than addressing the glaring issues the sequel had. We put it to Hayashi that the original was far more of a test of skill than its explosive yet frequently unfair follow-up. “I would say that this is a fair assessment, actually,” he admits. “The first game focused on fairness in gameplay and reward, whereas the second was more about flashiness more than anything.” And while some of the changes he saw made to Sigma 2 addressed these issues, the real proof of his convictions will come in the form of his first proper sequel in charge. “Ninja Gaiden 3 is more of a combination of these two elements, coupled with the fact that it is a Ninja Gaiden for this day and age. Regarding the extreme difficulty that the series is notorious for, yes, you will get that in Ninja Gaiden 3. We also want players not used to games such as this to have a good time as well, so we are thinking about their experience as well regarding difficulty.”
This much was clear from the early build that was shown off at E3, reduced difficulty and on-screen tutorials and prompts causing both hardcore gamers and people that call themselves such to take to the internet in fits of rage to protest about a game they haven’t even played. Downplaying challenge to try and ensure everyone can get a feel for a game is common during large-scale shows, though it’s arguably not the right way to go for a game so famously tough as Ninja Gaiden – sending players away feeling three inches tall with their tails between their legs certainly didn’t do Dark Souls any harm, anyway. Still, this might just be provisional but it’s still the first of many signs that Team Ninja’s direction for the series has changed pretty radically since Hayashi took charge.
“Simply put, the main core value of development was shining the light on the sword and the action of using the sword to kill,” he states. “What this means in more detail is that Ninja Gaiden games up to now have set a standard for fast paced action which felt good when you were playing the game, but this time around we really wanted to take the game a step further and focus on what it would really feel like to cut someone with a sword.” This emphasis is apparent even at such an early stage and where NGII’s reveal was awash with talons, scythes and mislaid body parts, the third chapter so far appears to be significantly stripped back both in terms of gore and weapon variety. “We were thinking about what worked in previous Ninja Gaiden games, and we really enjoyed the katana,” Hayashi continues. “Historically, it is a visceral, up close and personal weapon. When using it, the end result is commonly a lot of blood and guts, and so we thought this one weapon summed up Ninja Gaiden as a series best. Focusing on the violence and action in this way underlines these values further. This is something, I believe, that is deeply embedded in Japanese culture.”
What is strange, though, is the clear contradiction between Hayashi’s vision and the game in its current state. The introduction of the ‘Sword On Bone’ mechanic is the culprit behind enraging so many serious Gaiden players, a feature that arguably panders to the cinematic at the expense of gameplay fluidity. Hayabusa’s blade will sometimes get lodged in an enemy mid-combo, a button prompt (which apparently only appear during the early stages, which should delight all those worried about some kind of QTE takeover) asking you to repeat the last button of your combo in order to force the sword through as the camera zooms in on the eruption of bodily fluid. The problems with this should already be clear – randomly triggered kill events completely break the flow of combat and crush any kind of combo planning, with the extreme close-up also making it difficult to plan your next move with such a reduced view of the battlefield. The worst part, however, is the utter lack of payoff. NG2’s most powerful attacks would leave the arena carpeted in limbs and gallons of blood, so the explosion of claret that accompanies Steel On Bone looks strange by comparison when forcing a katana all the way through an enemy in slow-motion leaves them visually unscarred as they bleed out or crawl away. It’s the Soul Blade to its predecessor’s Bushido Blade and for a game so keen to place emphasis on the might and wonder of its main weapon, Ninja Gaiden 3’s leading blade just doesn’t cut the mustard – or anything, for that matter – at this stage. Disappointing.