Ninja Gaiden got a major makeover back in 2004 for the Xbox. The game took no prisoners and defied the tenets of accessible game design. If you didn’t learn how to play on the fly and understand the combat system, you weren’t getting past the first level – let alone get anywhere near the end of the game. There was an easier difficulty setting when Ninja Gaiden Black was released a year later, but the game still kicked many a player’s tail and quickly weeded out those who couldn’t play it well. The sequel, Ninja Gaiden II, hit in 2008 and wasn’t received quite as well but still managed to draw players back in thanks to the great graphics and non-stop action. Ninja Gaiden 3 came out in 2012 to fairly negative reviews as it was deemed too easy and a step backwards for the series.
As for me, I tried Ninja Gaiden in 2004. I was one of those who simply couldn’t play it. I got my butt kicked repeatedly and, without some feeling of progress or accomplishment, traded it in a couple of days later. I glossed over Ninja Gaiden Black and Ninja Gaiden II because the first game pretty much scared me off. With Ninja Gaiden 3 – and, more specifically, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge – the persistent opinion that the game was easier than its predecessors appealed to me. In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, thiis game originally appeared as a launch title on Nintendo’s Wii U as an enhanced port of the original Xbox 360/PlayStation 3 release, and now it’s back on its original platforms – minus the Nintendo GamePad goodies. Yes, it’s a port of a port of a port.
Could it be that Razor’s Edge is the game that breaks down that fear and lets me believe that I can actually play a Ninja Gaiden game that’s not on the Nintendo Entertainment System?
Well, I can play Razor’s Edge all right. It’s also a great-looking game, although the 30 frames-per-second cutscenes irk me a bit. Unfortunately, there’s a sense of repetition without reward here that makes the game tough to recommend.
The story is your typical “save the world from destruction” idea, as Ryu Hayabusa is tasked with trying to take down the powerful group known as the Lords of Alchemy. Ryu has seven days to finish the job, or else the group will start destroying countries one by one. During a climactic battle early on in the game, Ryu is also cursed by a powerful enemy known as the Regent of the Mask. This “Grip of Murder” consumes Ryu’s arm and the Dragon Sword, so there’s additional pressure to take down the Lords of Alchemy before he dies. It’s an over-the-top adventure as Ryu fights dinosaurs and other mutated beasts as well as hundreds of LOA soldiers seemingly out there just to get hacked to pieces.
Make no mistake about it – you will be hacking and slashing a lot in Razor’s Edge, as well as doing a fair share of dodging and blocking in order to stay alive. Ryu’s weapon of choice is normally a sword, but he will find other weapons such as claws and a scythe along his journey. Each weapon can be leveled up by spending a certain amount of karma points, which is the currency in this game. Ryu also has shuriken and Ninpo magic, of which various forms can be found and leveled up. Ninpo magic can only be used when the Ki meter (just below the life bar) is at maximum; however, it’s powerful magic that can damaged multiple enemies in range and is really useful when Ryu is surrounded by enemies… which happens in this game quite frequently.
Each weapon has its own exhaustive list of moves and combos to learn, but some combos don’t feel as natural as others and it’s more likely that lesser-skilled players will spam combos that they’re comfortable with. The key to combat is to effectively block or dodge and then attack when there are openings to do so. Ninja Gaiden 3 may be a cakewalk to some, but I was certainly challenged pretty early on. Ryu is overwhelmed by enemies with a variety of weapons at their disposal, including machine guns, riot shields, and missile launchers. Some enemies require different tactics to take down than others, and Ryu sometimes takes cheap hits from projectiles fired from a distance while trying to fend off enemies up close. This is especially maddening on higher difficulty settings. Boss battles also require different tactics as well; for example, taking on a helicopter requires use of a bow (yes, really) and the Black Spider boss battle plays like something out of God of War in terms of attacking weak points and advancing with quick-time events. Overall, though, the boss battles are pretty entertaining, even if a few are rather ridiculous.
Aside from the combat, which is about 95% of Razor’s Edge, there are a few sequences that have Ryu running for his life from hazards like napalm bombs and rogue dinosaurs. These ideas are interesting, but the execution isn’t great. These sequences start without warning and the first time though, players should probably expect to die as they attempt to figure out where the game wants Ryu to go. The change of pace is nice, but the lack of direction can be frustrating – so be forewarned.
The biggest problem with Razor’s Edge is that it’s tedious at times. Battling a bunch of bad guys, walking eight steps to another clearing, then repeating the process gets tiresome. Unlike the Dynasty Warriors games, where there’s at least some sort of progression for the characters as they wipe out thousands of enemies, there’s nothing like that here. Ryu (or Ayane) mows down enemies but the sense of advancement or getting stronger isn’t as strong. Yes, players can use Karma Points to learn new moves and power up weapons, but it’s just not the same. The payoff for all of this killing is seeing blood splattered everywhere and advancing through the rather silly storyline. This doesn’t make Razor’s Edge a bad game, but it feels stale at times and like a slog other times.
Razor’s Edge does look very good. Combat sequences are animated smoothly at 60 frames per second, there’s some nice lighting, and there’s quite a bit of detail to be seen. While some of the enemy character designs tend to be overused and seen too frequently, the player models for Ryu, Ayane, Momiji, and others are well done. Ryu’s cursed arm pulsates, clothing articles float in the breeze while he runs, and he’s got a plethora of beautiful (though deadly) moves. The sound and music are pretty good, too, although the voice acting is hit-or-miss.
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge is a more accessible experience for those who might have struggled with the first two games, and a considerable improvement over the original release. There’s some replay value after the 4-5 hour campaign is done, including Chapter Challenges and Ninja Trials, but it’s not a given that players will want to go back to Razor’s Edge after finishing it. The good news is that the game is down to $40 now and it’s a fair challenge for fans of action games. It’s not as stylish as DmC, it’s not as futuristic as Metal Gear Rising (although fans of Metal Gear Solid 4 might see some character similarities here), and its missing some of the Wii U bonus GamePad goodies, but it does have Ryu Hayabusa doing what he does best. Well… aside from being an actual ninja and being stealthy.