"Sometimes I forget you’re a ninja." — Mizuki, "Ninja Gaiden 3"
The irony of "Ninja Gaiden 3" is that it's supposed to be a story about Ryu Hayabusa's connection to humanity, when in fact the game possesses a glaring lack of soul.
The "Ninja Gaiden" series has been stripped down to basics, but not in a way that pays homage to 1988's original. What Team Ninja has delivered instead is a blood-drenched repetitive workout for thumbs.
Ryu, who other characters name-check incessantly, is on a quest to save the world with a sword and some throwing stars. He's also dealing with the fact that he kills people at wholesale rates, even as they beg for their lives. As consequence for this, Ryu gets a weird red growth on his hand, made of the souls of the vanquished that his allies try not to stare at or mention.
Of course, the intent behind this is to turn "Ninja Gaiden 3" into a morality tale of sorts. The game wants to teach Ryu that the consequences of one's brutal actions can't be avoided. So how does Ryu deal with this problem? He turns his weird hand into a weapon to harvest more souls. It's been a long time since a major release finds the gamer actively rooting against his own character.
The amount of blood and gore is unsettling, even for the desensitized. It's highly plausible that if you ran around the world with a sword, hacking at everything that moved, there'd be a fair amount of blood spilled. But of course, this isn't a documentary, it's a video game about a ninja who can summon the power of a mystical dragon. The crass treatment of human life and limb might try to make a point about Ryu's need for redemption from inhumanity, but ultimately it's there as a carrot for what Team Ninja perceives as a violence-obsessed gaming culture.
Story and tone aside, the real problem with "Ninja Gaiden 3" is its nuts and bolts. The game has been reduced to repetitive core elements that revolve around button-mashing and quantity of enemies over quality. One of the on-screen commands actually begins with the words "mash buttons." The signature difficulty of the series might be present in the harder mode of the game, but out-of-the-box, it's a test of endurance and mental focus to thrash at the ill-trained foes encircling you.
If there's a positive element to "Ninja Gaiden 3," it's accessibility. The sparse window dressing makes it so that by the end of the first mission, you've done everything there is to do and can practice the ninja arts as effectively as any player. There are no secret items to find, no abilities to unlock — just you, a sword, a bow and two powers that get used over and over again. Clearly, after about an hour, the accessibility gives way to monotony, and the game — lacking an engaging story — becomes a grind.
This grind wouldn't be as taxing if you could control exactly what you were doing. Everything is an imprecise flail, and the odd camera-view and movement controls make it difficult to direct your hack-and-slash flurries. This doesn't show much when you're killing wave after wave of terrorists, but when you get into single combat with a boss, it's incredibly frustrating. Mercifully, all of your projectile weapons auto-target directly to the bad guys. "Ninja Gaiden" is supposed to be a difficult because of the challenging enemies, not the challenging player character.
Sneak attacks are almost non-existent, which seems odd for a game about ninjas. In fact, nothing about the gameplay in "Ninja Gaiden 3" says "ninja." Replace Ryu with an axe-wielding barbarian or say, Wolverine from "X-Men," and perhaps the endless bloodbath would seem to make sense.
The game's multiplayer is a step up from the main game because of variance and customization. Different match types, the natural variety in other players' fighting styles and more options for "Ninpo" attacks provide a more varied, if not less engaging experience.
"Ninja Gaiden 3" is an easy game to pick up and play. You'll become oriented with the game's mechanics and systems quickly. Once you're there though, there's nothing to strive for that will keep you wading through the blood and mire of this disappointing entry in the series.