So, to the WiiU comes a big exclusive (timed only, now it seems) and one that delivers a certain level of maturity or hardcore-ness. It is as if Nintendo is saying to the world that its next generation and a half console can take on the Sony and Microsoft efforts. Nintendo is telling us it can win in any league it chooses to play. Having defiantly created and won the casual gaming scene since 2006, now it’s time to regain more of the share of the 18-38 year olds, the original gamers and the shooter hungry middle range. Given Nintendo’s own ingrained IP third-party titles is the way around this. Titles like Black Ops II will help but having something exclusive is always good. Bayonetta 2 is a way off, so here we have Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge.
Ah, that’s quite indicting, isn’t it? Ninja Gaiden 3 was released on PS3 and 360 in March 2012. The WiiU and the speed to market through development is perhaps faster than would typically be expected, or maybe getting the software in place having moved away from typical titles to family-oriented games took longer than Nintendo had planned? Whilst this is an updated title with extra content, more characters and the obligatory attempt at utilising the GamePad effectively, what we have here is a game re-released from half a generation ago. In providing the reason to own a WiiU it fails, that much is clear. Perhaps though it does give something to the early adopters whilst they wait for the machine to reach its maturity, and in so doing allow it to maintain progress along the curve which Nintendo need to be way ahead of come the next generation proper.
The Ninja Gaiden series has been, since its return to mainline gaming in 2004, a true favourite of the proper gamer after a severe challenge. Tomonobu Itagaki, head of Team Ninja, wanted it to be so and indeed it built its reputation on its immense difficulty, fabulous combat and extreme gore. But then Itakagi-san left the company. Responsibility for the third title in the modern-day franchise fell to Director of the Sigma versions of the first and second game (think bigger and better) Yosuke Hayashi. With it came changes. The game was more a piece of blockbuster cinema compared to the subtitled arthouse nuance of the first two. The story was a piece of hokum as throwaway as anything Hollywood can muster, but most shocking of all was the limited combat. Two attack buttons (sword and shurikens) plus an ability to turn into a fire-breathing dragon when a gauge is filled. With those buttons various combos could be activated onscreen but in reality what you controlled was a brilliantly animated, overactive bunny-rabbit ninja who could take anyone or anything down provided the requisite attack intensity was applied; no finesse or utilisation of combinations was needed.
What we have here with Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge is the same basic package with more content, reshot existing content and bonus features. It is your standard Director’s cut if we’re to continue the cinematic parlance. The story is still throwaway in the main, following as it is Ryu Hayabusa’s attempts to thwart the end of the world by first complying with the Lords of Alchemy who request his visit upon terrorising London (obviously he’s a fantastic Ninja given he’s this famous) and then going after them once they move on and threaten to complete what they’ve started if every single world nation does not comply and surrender within seven days. In amongst all of this we’re treated to various musings on wrong and right as we experience first-hand Ryu struggling with the absorbed Dragon Sword in his arm which forces him to kill, or be killed. In addition to this main strand to the narrative we get the extra levels starring Ayane, a female ninja who gets caught up in the global terror attacks. The way she plays is no different really to the Ryu levels - hit buttons, attack bad guys and win through. The challenge is no more or less but it does add some variety to proceedings, rather than coping with Ryu’s personality - and looks - alone.
The use of the GamePad is not exactly innovative, being used in much the same way the DS’ second screen was in the early days, as a menu screen and for move assignments. Once you have built up enough Ki by attacking enemies and taking damage you can unleash your Ninpo, a special skill that will eliminate all enemies on the battlefield which is graphically entertaining and useful given the difficulty in this version of the game seems to have been upped by adding extra enemies, something that gets monotonous when you’re still in the same area bashing the same buttons to kill the same two or three character models within the perimeter. Eventually the bosses do come and they can be quite fun to fight but only because they’re big or brash or just plain different - the challenge is still just bashing those buttons and dodging quickly enough to survive. It really is a brute force kind of a game, rather than the subtle, deep excellence of titles past. On the flip-side it does mean anyone who can play it, can beat it. The length of the title is extended thanks to the added missions and will take the average gamer eight or so hours to plough through. Thanks to the extra volume of enemy it is a challenging title on normal difficulty but manageable still. This is sure to be welcomed by fans of the series although it still provides nothing like the challenge or sense of achievement the first two games offer.
The WiiU GamePad is not designed with ergonomics as the first thought given it needs to house the touchscreen in the middle which impacts any industrial design somewhat. It’s wonderfully tactile when in use and suited well to this type of third-person action but as it’s a weighty beast and doesn’t sit and mould into every curve of your hands an extended game session can lead to pains in the limbs with opposable thumbs. It would be better to use the Pro controller if you own one but you might choose to use it because of the reasons mentioned above and also as it is how you can best choose your upgrade paths - something which adds to the game and was sorely missing from the non sharp-edged version of the game. Of course, the ultimate use and one Team Ninja did well to incorporate is that you can turn the TV off and play the game purely via the GamePad - arguably the best use of the controller the unique WiiU can provide. Graphically you think you’re playing a current gen HD game which is to be expected as the game will have been ported and added to, rather than built ground up for the novel hardware. It’s not spectacular by any means though - not up there with the best Uncharted or Project Gotham - and does seem to offer a halo effect around many character models throughout (an issue with the native 1080 screen serving up the 720 image no doubt - a situation many will encounter) but will impress anyone more used to the Wii’s imaging capabilities.
In the end then what we’ve got here is a failure to inspire. The game is novel for a Nintendo console this side of the N64 and encouraging given it’s a good standard technically, a hardcore gamer’s game on paper and all from a third-party. But it’s not enough to just do that - it feels like a repeat (which it is in the main), it’s yesterday’s news and to top it all off it’s not the hardcore problem for the best gamers to solve that might have been expected by someone who has heard of the Ninja Gaiden games before. For Nintendo it’s a minor win (the game will be on other consoles later this year) and an early statement of intent for this platform’s life cycle, but for Team Ninja it’s too little too late for fans of the series and even then not on a par with what’s gone before.