When it comes to popular culture, some patterns are hard to break. Many people would argue that only the even-numbered Star Trek movies are worth watching. While others might note that Beethoven had much better luck with odd-numbered symphonies. And now, thanks to Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge, we can add Ryu Hayabusa to the long list of victims of the pop-culture curse.
Back in 1991, Tecmo disappointed millions of Nintendo Entertainment System owners with Ninja Gaiden III: The Ancient Ship of Doom. It was a half-baked action game with nasty technical problems and a lame story. Two decades later, Tecmo is ready to repeat history with Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge, a modern-day action game that completely misses the point of what makes this franchise so much fun. It's a game so miserably uninteresting that it will no doubt stop the franchise in its tracks.
To be fair, this is technically the second release of Ninja Gaiden 3. Released almost exactly a year before Razor's Edge, Ninja Gaiden 3 (no subtitle) hoped to attract a new audience by upping the action and blood. The results were decidedly mixed, with many critics complaining about the bad pacing, shallow action and repetitive boss battles. Somehow I missed out on the original 2012 release, so I vouch for the general consensus. But let me tell you, if Razor's Edge is the good version, then the original Ninja Gaiden 3 must have been a train wreck of epic proportions.
Ninja Gaiden 3 could have been a really powerful story about humanity and coping with the immediacy of death. Early on, Ryu is cursed by a mysterious alchemist and is only given a few days to live. This should have led to a deeply introspective look at who Ryu Hayabusa is, where he came from and what was important to his life. Sadly, Tecmo decided to go a different direction.
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is split up into a series of days, each taking Ryu around the world killing bad guys in the bloodiest ways possible. Unlike past installments, the action presented here is heightened to an absurd level. Right from the get-go, Ryu will be taking down helicopters and making waste of expensive tanks. Eventually the game veers into the fantastical, thanks to a fight with a metal dinosaur and a few other memorable boss encounters.
Ninja Gaiden's speedy gameplay is just as over-the-top as the baffling storyline. Ryu doesn't have time for you to perform well-planned combos, he's ready to stab enemies and fill the screen with blood. At times the action feels out of control, where I was having a lot of luck by mashing buttons and hoping for the best. There are combos, moves and abilities to unlock (new to this version of Ninja Gaiden 3), but the game's ridiculous speed made it harder to pull of precise actions.
While the first two Ninja Gaiden games are far from brain-teasers, they both offered moments that involved figuring out paths and solving puzzles. Sadly, those quiet moments have been yanked out of Ninja Gaiden 3. Instead of giving us a chance to catch our breath, Tecmo keeps cranking up the action. The whole thing becomes incredibly tiring, especially when you realize that you're essentially going from one blocked-off combat arena to the next.
Forget the speed and repetitive action, the real problem is the difficulty. Last year's model was widely criticized for being too easy, a first for the Ninja Gaiden franchise. Tecmo has decided to go the opposite direction in Razor's Edge. Even on the default difficulty, this game is brutally difficult. While there are one or two easy boss encounters, most fights range from unfair to outright frustrating. One particular battle made me seriously question giving up on Ninja Gaiden the franchise altogether.
This is not a new phenomenon; the original Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox was also notoriously difficult. But there is a difference. That 2004 release was fair, rewarding players for learning Ryu's moves and mastering each of his varied weapons. Too many of my deaths in Razor's Edge were due to events outside of my control. This isn't a situation where simply learning Ryu's moves will win the day; you will also need to be incredibly lucky and patient.
As I suffered through the game's insane difficulty, I couldn't help but notice all of the wasted potential. While Ninja Gaiden 3's messy story is completely unsalvageable, the actual gameplay could have worked if the action wasn't so manic. Stringing attacks together would be much more fun if you could see what was going on, instead of just gauging your success on the amount of blood on screen. Better still, I might actually be able to use the impressive-sounding special moves I bought along the way. As it is, the game is simply too fast for its own good.
Even though it's not always clear what's going on, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge is a good looking game. The backgrounds are varied, taking players from big cities to deserts to jungles. Better still; each area is brought to life with non-stop action happening on all sides. In true Ninja Gaiden fashion, the bosses are gigantic and will leave a real impact. I was also impressed by the game's weather effects and special moves. There are few things as cool as seeing Ryu in full-on blood thirst mode.
If you're the kind of person who can't get enough Ninja Gaiden 3, then Razor's Edge packs in a bunch of extra modes, bonus levels and multiplayer distractions. Perhaps the most interesting addition involves the ability to play as multiple characters, including cameos from the Dead or Alive cast. Ayane shows up just long enough to remind you that Team Ninja has a thing for busty women in compromising situations.
Beyond the eye-rolling sexism, Ninja Gaiden 3 features a series of time trials that can be played with a friend. Players can win prizes and level up their ninjas in a series of arena battles. This is hardly the most exciting video game mode, but at least you don't have to suffer through the story. Other modes have you racing through previously completed chapters and challenging your friend's scores.
As nice as these extra modes are, I wish more time had gone into making Ninja Gaiden 3 a better experience. The action is too fast, the difficulty is out of control and the story is goofy to the point of being lame. Ninja Gaiden 3 needs more than a difficulty adjustment and bonus stages to be worth buying, it requires a complete redesign. Razor's Edge is a game that fundamentally misses the point of why Ninja Gaiden was so damn cool in the first place.