It’s been a long time since master ninja Ryu Hayabusa infiltrated a Nintendo home console, with 1995’s Ninja Gaiden Trilogy for the SNES marking his last appearance. Tecmo Koei decided the time was finally right for Ryu to make his return with Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge, a souped-up, improved version of Ninja Gaiden 3, which launched on the 360 and PS3 earlier this year. We’d roll out the red carpet, but Ryu’s already done a good job staining the ground that colour himself.
While in the context of the story Ryu is presented as a calm, serene man dedicated to his duty, in practice he is the ultimate “flip out and kill people” kind of ninja. Combat in Razor’s Edge centers on fighting large groups of enemies at a time and killing them in delightfully brutal ways. Ryu has several weapons in his arsenal, from his trusty Dragon Sword to metal claws on his hands and feet to a giant staff, as well as many others. Each introduces a unique play style that will compliment different situations; for example, dual katanas are much faster and allow for flashy combos, while the giant scythe is much slower but deals massive damage.
Killing enemies will satisfy the most primal urges of the player, because regardless of what weapon Ryu is wielding more often than not bad guys will burst into crimson geysers of limbs and viscera. For Ryu Hayabusa, merely cutting off an enemy’s head isn't enough; afterwards the body must be kicked into the air and then sliced in half for the job to be done correctly. It’s all ridiculously over-the-top, but when you are playing as a ninja with giant metal claws on his feet that cut clear through the torsos of his enemies you can’t help but appreciate the sentiment.
The most cinematic ways to destroy opponents are the Steel on Bone kills, triggered by dodging and countering a powerful attack from an opponent. These cause the camera to zoom in on Ryu as his opponent explodes into a messy fountain of gore. Mashing the attack button can chain it to other enemies nearby as well, which is not only cool to see but also extremely useful for clearing a room quickly.
Executing long combos and clearing out rooms without taking damage will earn Ryu karma points, an in-game currency used to learn new skills, upgrade weapons and Ninpo (magic) and unlock costumes. It adds a much-needed sense of progression to the game, allowing you to customise Ryu and max out your preferred elements of his arsenal. You get enough of this currency to get by, but rarely enough to unbalance the experience.
That doesn't mean that the waves of baddies thrown at you are pushovers. The Ninja Gaiden franchise (both the original series as well as the modern one) is regarded as punishingly difficult and Razor’s Edge is no exception. Blocking and dodging are paramount to victory; blind button mashing is an express ticket to reloading your last checkpoint. Far from being the cannon fodder present in other games, Ninja Gaiden 3’s enemies will swarm Ryu, interrupting his combos and attacking from behind. They’re tenacious to a fault, too – slice the arm off of an enemy and he’ll still shoot at you with his good hand. Well, his only hand, to be precise.
Later on in the game, soldiers are replaced with demons and mutants with often frustrating results: some will block everything while others are able to grab you and throw you from impossible distances. This is where combat transitions from tough (but exciting and fun) to a frustrating slog. It really drags the second half of the game down, because rather than wishing for more people to fight you’ll just be crossing your fingers that the level is almost over.
Which leads us to the biggest downfall of Ninja Gaiden 3: there’s not much to do besides kill guys. Levels rarely allow for any kind of exploration, so it’s often Ryu running down a path into a clearing, killing a bunch of dudes, going down another path into another clearing ad nauseum with the occasional quick-time event thrown in. There are Golden Scarabs scattered throughout the game to collect, but as the level design doesn't allow for much deviation most are just out in the open and you’ll easily find over half of them without even trying.
Quick-time events are a controversial addition to any game, but luckily Razor’s Edge gets the execution right. QTEs are best when they still make the player feel as if they’re involved, and we defy you to have Ryu jump from a plane (with no parachute), dodge two missiles, then land on an enemy sword-first and not feel exhilarated by the experience. Several of the game’s bosses are gigantic (cybernetic T-Rex, anyone?) and will require some button mashing sequences to defeat, but it all feels engaging rather than being a bore.
The story is pretty nonsensical, but the voice acting is phenomenal with industry vets Troy Baker (Snow from Final Fantasy XIII) and Ali Hillis (Liara from Mass Effect, Palutena from Kid Icarus: Uprising) lending their voices to Ryu and female lead Mizuki McCloud. While the cutscenes don’t make a ton of sense, they’re still fun to watch because they’re put together so well.
Exclusive to the Wii U release are two levels featuring Dead or Alive star Ayane, the purple-haired kunoichi who has guest-starred in some of Ryu’s previous adventures. She adds literally nothing to the story and is never referenced by the main cast, but she’s much faster and more agile than Ryu, making her levels a fun diversion from the main game. She’s shoehorned in awkwardly but you’ll be glad she’s there nonetheless.
The Wii U's GamePad isn't used in any meaningful way, giving you a list of Ryu's combos and touchscreen shortcuts to functions mapped to other buttons. However, we're definitely of the opinion that the increased real estate on the controller feels good to hold during the white-knuckle combat - even better than the smaller Pro Controller, if you ask us.
For those out there who prefer to ninja it up in groups, online Clan Battle mode returns from previous releases to let you battle against other players. You play as an anonymous ninja, and while the combat mechanics in Razor's Edge work great in a single-player context, shoving it into a multiplayer setting is kinda like forcing a square peg into a round hole. Ninja Trials mode lets you grab a buddy and try to earn high scores in various challenges, which is much more satisfying as it's just a twist on the game proper rather than a complete re-contextualization that doesn't quite work.
Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor’s Edge plays great, with fast, fluid combat that’s gruesome and satisfying. Still, you’ll often wish there was a little more to it than just fighting waves of enemies in predetermined spots, and even with the campaign a little over five hours long (excluding cutscenes) it starts to feel a bit tired towards the end. That certainly shouldn't put you off it, though, as the game is still a worthwhile purchase and a great example of Nintendo’s willingness to shirk their “kiddy” perception.