Ninja Gaiden 3 for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 was met with a large chorus of disappointed cries. Clearly, developer Team Ninja heard and considered the negative feedback that players flung in its direction like the blades of a thousand and one katanas, and thus crafted a retooled, more difficult edition of its brutal action game. Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge has more faith in you than did its original iteration, challenging you to prove your worth rather than mindlessly slice your way through hordes of foul-mouthed ninjas. There are other improvements and additions too, all of which sound good on paper. But making Razor's Edge substantially harder did not make it substantially better.
In many ways, Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge resembles its blade-heavy forebears, with series hero Ryu Hayabusa eviscerating ninjas and dodging about at an alarming rate--and with alarming amounts of viscera--as accompaniment to your frantic button presses. With some assassinations comes a cinematic animation in which the camera swoops in close as Ryu slashes and chops, though they are fewer in number this time around, which keeps the pace flowing better. Every so often, you can hold a single button, and Ryu slices and dices through a number of foes, though you can't rely on this mechanic to do too much of the work for you: you have to earn your victories.
Indeed, Razor's Edge is quite hard at certain points. While you started the original release with a full repertoire of moves, here you begin with a scant list of attacks and purchase new combos and upgrades once you have earned enough karma through battle. You earn new weapons and magical ninpo attacks too, which is a great relief considering how the original Ninja Gaiden 3 limited you to a single blade and a single ninpo. Now, you can cut into bad guys with a giant scythe, voracious talons, or dual katanas, each of which subtly varies the tempo of combat in satisfying ways, and features its own gory animations.
The increased challenge also comes in more traditional ways: enemies do more damage and you do less, and certain new enemies, such as throngs of speedy demon-creatures, threaten to overwhelm you by sheer numbers. But while the challenge is welcome, Team Ninja didn't balance it out by tightening the controls--and all too often relies on the projectile-spewing enemies that plagued Ninja Gaiden II. It simply isn't fun to have rockets flying at you from multiple directions in a melee combat game, particularly when they interrupt animations and knock you down. More importantly, there are excruciating moments when Ryu simply doesn't want to perform the necessary action, even though the animation for his previous move is clearly finished. This was a noticeable foible before, but given how easy Ninja Gaiden 3 was, it was more a nuisance than a liability. Now, Razor's Edge requires precision, but doesn't give you the tools to be precise.
The Wii U control pad doesn't prove a great asset to Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge--nor does it present a great liability. Given the mashy nature of combat, the sticks and buttons allow you to keep pace as well as a traditional controller. As for the touchpad, the ability to select weapons from the screen rather than pull up a separate menu is a handy touch, though otherwise, any action you can perform on that screen (ninpo attacks, for instance, or ninja sense, which shows you where to head next) is more efficiently performed using buttons.
Along with standard encounters, the boss battles have been intensified, in some cases exponentially, though the original release's recurring boss still manages to be a tedious one. At least most of these battles test your wits in this iteration, with additional attacks and vast amounts of health lost when big baddies like a hulking metallic dinosaur get a swipe in. But while many of these encounters require more focus than before, the challenge was not evenly applied. The god prototype requires many minutes of patient slashing and dodging that you will likely repeat a number of times--yet you'll probably triumph in the larger-than-life Obaba battle in a single go. Your biggest enemy when it comes to bosses is not the battle itself, but rather your health bar: your maximum health diminishes over time as you take damage. There's a good chance you might enter a boss battle with your health bar a fraction of its full length--and there it shall remain even when you restart the battle.
The pacing has been dramatically improved at least; those moments Ryu clutched at his arm and impaled his attackers in slow motion have been transformed into otherworldly challenges in which you must annihilate all enemies before your health siphons away. These sequences aren't as difficult as the main-world action that surrounds them, but they are a welcome alternative to the pace-killing moments of the original. So, too, have the quick-time events been adjusted, though not entirely removed. In many cases, the game still requires a particular button press at a particular time--it just doesn't tell you what button to press. The move you're meant to perform is obvious most of the time, though every so often, the lack of a prompt means you have to guess what the game wants you to do, and so you might press the attack button when you're actually meant to dodge out of the way.
The story remains much the same as before, and its attempts to humanize Ryu with the addition of a wordless little girl that sees him as a father figure remain just as hollow. At least it forgoes Ryu's uncomfortable murdering of those begging for their lives, among other tweaks. There is a new element here, though not a surprising one: two chapters featuring heroine Ayane, who boasted her own segments in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 as well. She's lighter on her feet than Ryu, waving around her dual blades and leaping about with a somewhat different moveset. Her missions feel shoehorned in rather than organic extensions of the narrative that preceded them, but her nimble acrobatics enliven the experience.
For an extra challenge, you could go online, where you can take part in cooperative challenges and (gasp) competitive matches. If you played Ninja Gaiden Sigma's co-op, you have an idea of what to expect here: servings of slashes and dashes for two. The sense of progression in the single-player campaign is duplicated online; as you play, you level up and learn new techniques, along with costume pieces, costume colors, and so forth.
The co-op is fun, in part because it jettisons superfluous mechanics and quick-time events in favor of the core action. This is in spite of the hyperactive camera, which is jarring enough to get you temporarily lost as you try to figure out just which of the blade-flailing figures is you. More importantly, there's a sense that you aren't quite in control. The auto-targeting is fickle enough in the single-player game, but it can be frustrating to have the game send you slashing toward one opponent when you meant to focus on another. Not that you will get much chance to experience the issue: at launch, there are so few players online that you could wait a significant amount of time before finding a match.
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge makes a myriad of fractional improvements that address many of the main complaints leveled against the original release. It's a welcome gesture, and one that makes for an improved action game--yet a hundred small fixes are no substitute for a game built from the ground up to be a challenging, fluid, and fulfilling action extravaganza. These are the elements this series is known for, though it seems we might need to wait until Ninja Gaiden 4 to see Ryu return to his true form.