on 22 January 2013
The original Ninja Gaiden 3 was abysmal, by virtue of Team Ninja inexplicably removing all the features that had made the Ninja Gaiden series one of the pillars of action gaming. These included multiple weapons, an upgrade system, brutal dismemberment and a notoriously challenging difficulty level. As a longtime fan of the series since the original Ninja Gaiden on the Xbox, who had completed all the games up to Ninja Gaiden 3 on the Master Ninja difficulty, I was outraged that one of my all-time favourite gaming franchises had been massacred in such a manifest way in order to allegedly make the series more "accessible". Thankfully the cumulative voices of other outraged fans and myself were heard loud and clear at Team Ninja, and the result is the "Razor's Edge" edition of Ninja Gaiden 3 on the Wii U which reinstates all the core mechanics that had made Ninja Gaiden great in the past. It follows that Razor's Edge is also great, and without a doubt one of the best games on the Wii U at the moment, but sadly nevertheless falls short of the standard set by Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2. I will elucidate in more detail why Razor's Edge is great and why it nonetheless has shortcomings relative to previous titles below.
What Team Ninja have essentially done with Razor's Edge is replace Ninja Gaiden 3's simplified combat system with the excellent and nuanced combat system from Ninja Gaiden 2. The result is inevitably a double-edged sword. Anyone who has ever played Ninja Gaiden 2 (and if you haven't, you really should) is well aware of how visceral, violent and responsive the combat in that game feels. Razor's Edge now feels the same way, evoking the same sensations of malevolent joy from Ninja Gaiden 2 every time you "obliterate" a dismembered enemy just before he is about to unleash a damaging suicide attack upon you. On the other hand, Razor's Edge also feels overly familiar, given that the game's combat offers no significant progression upon Ninja Gaiden 2's but largely retreads the same ground as a "quick-fix" solution to the unsophisticated combat of the original Ninja Gaiden 3. The feeling of familiarity is reinforced by the fact that the weapons and ninpo (magic) you unlock in Razor's Edge are identical to the ones you unlock in Ninja Gaiden 2, rather than the game offering something new. Moreover, Razor's Edge recycles many of the same enemies from Ninja Gaiden 2 with the number of new enemies being surprisingly low. It is therefore hard to shake off the feeling that by playing Razor's Edge you are more or less playing Ninja Gaiden 2 again but in new environments, which is no bad thing except that it makes Razor's Edge feel more like an expansion pack or downloadable content to Ninja Gaiden 2 rather than a fully fledged sequel. Of course if you haven't played Ninja Gaiden 2, this sensation of deja-vu does not apply so prepare to be blown away by the fluid and barbaric combat of Razor's Edge.
However, even for long time Ninja Gaiden fans, Razor's Edge does offer one new and interesting gameplay mechanic not found in Ninja Gaiden 2. This is the "Steel on Bone" technique, which was a simple quick-time event in the original Ninja Gaiden 3 but in Razor's Edge acts as an immensely satisfying counter attack to enemy grabs. Basically any time an enemy or boss is about to grab the player they will glow red and yell out a cry. If you evade the grab and hit the strong attack button you will perform a Steel on Bone manoeuvre which results in the camera zooming in and showing you piercing the enemy with your weapon in a forceful manner before you rip them apart. This may sound similar to an obliteration technique but the Steel on Bone animation is a lot more visceral and gives the impression that Hayabusa (the protagonist) is really struggling to tear apart his adversary as steel clashes with flesh. What makes a Steel on Bone attack even more satisfying is the fact that it can be chained into multiple Steel on Bone attacks. All you have to do is press the strong attack button as Hayabusa finishes his first Steel on Bone attack and if there is another enemy in his vicinity Hayabusa will immediately launch a Steel on Bone on the adjacent enemy and so on if you continue pressing the strong attack button until all surrounding enemies are a pile of dismembered body parts on the floor. The revised Steel on Bone mechanic in Razor's Edge is really a fantastic new addition to the Ninja Gaiden series and a lot of your fun will be acquired through learning how to perform it correctly.
In addition to a better combat system, Razor's Edge also offers the opportunity to play as three female characters not found in the original Ninja Gaiden 3. They are Ayane, Momiji and Kasumi. The first two play as they did in Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 with a few minor alterations to their move-set. Kasumi, on the other hand, is a brand new character never seen before in a Ninja Gaiden game and she is a lot of fun to play, being more athletic and nimble than even Ayane. She also has a neat move called the "Ukifune" which allows her to launch her enemy into the air mid-combo, DMC style. Razor's Edge furthermore features new "Ninja Trials" and Tests of Valour (the latter are now called "challenges"), which test the player's skill in small battle arenas with increasingly difficult enemy waves. Ninja Trials and Tests of Valour have always been the best part of the Ninja Gaiden games and this continues to be the case in Razor's Edge.
In light of the improvements Razor's Edge offers over the "vanilla" version of Ninja Gaiden 3, why does it still come up short in comparison with past Ninja Gaiden titles? As mentioned, one reason is its striking resemblance to Ninja Gaiden 2 outside of the Steel on Bone mechanic. But a more prominent reason is the frequent slow-downs which plague Razor's Edge and consequently suck a lot of enjoyment out of the title. Ninja Gaiden is known for being a super smooth 60 frames per second action series, so it is massively disappointing when the action slows down considerably in Razor's Edge whenever things get a little hectic on screen. It is simply unacceptable given the heritage of the series, especially when the slow-down results in your button inputs not being registered by the game and getting pummeled by the enemy as a result. The original Ninja Gaiden 3 also had slow-down but Razor's Edge takes it to another level. Other less frustrating, but still notable shortcomings in Razor's Edge include a substandard and generic soundtrack (apart from the title screen music) in a series which has always featured highly ambient music which pumps you up for the battles; rocket launcher enemies in seemingly every enemy encounter throughout the game which disrupt the flow of combat; fairly uninteresting boss battles outside the "Regent of the Mask" fights (helicopters and gunships always make for poor bosses); and less interesting environments to fight in compared to past titles (although London and Tokyo are nice). At least the generally mediocre boss fights can be mitigated by being able to fight the more intriguing bosses from previous titles in the Ninja Trials and challenges.
Razor's Edge, then, despite being a marked improvement over Ninja Gaiden 3 on the Xbox 360 and PS3 is nonetheless a weaker title compared to Ninja Gaiden 1 and 2. Despite this I would still recommend the game strongly to existing Ninja Gaiden fans and Wii U owners because the core combat remains more satisfying than any other action game, in my opinion, even if it is held back from its full potential by unfortunate drawbacks such as slow-down. And at the end of the day, for this type of game, a solid combat system, familiar or not, is all that matters. The lack of discussing the story of Razor's Edge in this review was therefore deliberate, because it is irrelevant.