When the British Prime Minister is kidnapped as part of a coup d'etat, none other than legendary ninja Ryu Hyabusa is willing to take up arms against a sea of troubles - and by opposing, end them. And end them hard. The moody new London setting is a refreshingly dark and dank change of pace from the first two games, with familiar landmarks and tube stations providing a canvas to liberally splash with an inordinate amount of viscera. Though the voice acting is insultingly stereotypical ("looks like Jack the ripper is back again," quips a mockney soldier as he observes a fallen comrade), on the whole the new setting is by far the most pleasing part of the package. Team Ninja have to prove that they're capable of making a Ninja Gaiden game without Itagaki at the helm... but from what I experienced in the Gamescom demo level, Itagaki may have been more important than they'd like to admit.
Fighting against fellow humans was easily the most satisfying part of the first two games, and once again, you'll be thrown into arenas against waves of incoming forces. Like their predecessors, these mercenaries use a mix of ranged and melee attacks, with more powerful foes bringing shields or rocket launchers along to the party. Combat, therefore, revolves around blocking attacks, dashing behind foes and planning quick, decisive strikes from your Katana and throwing stars. The infamous Flying Swallow attack no longer decapitates opponents, instead, it triggers a cinematic takedown when it connects. Brawling is just as fun as you might remember, though frequent knockdown attacks still make an unwelcome appearance.
Project lead Yosuke Hayashi famously promised that Ninja Gaiden III will feature "deeper" violence that actually makes players witness the consequences of their actions, and I'm delighted to report that he's managed to pull it off. Dealing the killing blow occasionally snaps the camera in for a gory close-up of the finishing strike, but rather than an outrageously cinematic moment that glorifies the act of murder, it's a jarringly nasty and efficient affair that genuinely makes you feel sorry for the man on the business end of your blade. I doubt that fighting against demons will elicit the same emotional reaction, but it's an impressive touch nonetheless.
Unfortunately, any sense of immersion is instantly neutered by the inexplicable addition of Quick Time Events. Just when you're about to buy into the moment, just when you're on the verge of buying into the universe, Ryu will frequently automatically lock blades with an opponent as an enormous button prompt appears on the screen. Ninja Gaiden III constantly reminds players that they're simply playing a game. In a franchise that traditionally relies on technical combos and split-second timing, these QTEs feel awkward, unnecessary and pointless. More than that, they feel plain wrong; like the nausea one experiences a few seconds after being punched in the gut. This wouldn't have happened on Itagaki's watch.
There are other, more obtrusive examples of the new focus on QTEs in action. Ryu seems to have forgotten that he can effortlessly flip and bounce up walls, and now has to sluggishly drag himself up sheer surfaces using his kunai and a series of timed trigger presses. Again, replacing a fluid and visceral gameplay feature with Quick Time Events doesn't improve anything whatsoever, and from what I can see, it's just an effort to bring Ninja Gaiden III in line with what Japanese developers assume we want from our games. There's little courage or conviction on show here.
To give Team Ninja some credit, there were a couple of fun new innovations in the demo level. Dealing damage charges up Ryu's cursed gauntlet, which can release its energy in a teleportation smart bomb attack that sends Ryu on a furious short-lived (and automatic) rampage. A section set in deep fog also demands the use of stealth (an underused mechanic in the Ninja Gaiden series), as attacking the guards directly results in them calling in air strikes on your position. Sneaking around and backstabbing your hapless foes is the order of the day, and is fairly satisfying and refreshing to do. Leaping from tall buildings allows Ryu to glide, resulting in a brutal kill if it connects with an enemy on the street below.
You'll also spend a lot of time sliding around on your arse, which feels a bit silly to be honest. Sliding under barriers is a little redundant when we know full well that Ryu could just as easily leap over them in a single graceful flip (which would be much more cinematic and impressive to boot).
And then the boss arrived: a quadrupedal mech that will likely rank amongst the least imaginative, least inspired and most formulaic boss fights of all time if it makes it into the final cut unedited. Each of its legs needed to be slashed open, leaving them vulnerable to - say it with me - a Quick Time Event. After three more of these identical animations, the core opens and - you guessed it - another QTE was required to polish off the walking tank once and for all. It was a far cry from the fast, capable and skilled combatants that series fans are used to facing, and a battle that left a sour taste in my mouth.
As the demo faded to black, I was left with the distinct impression that Team Ninja are trying to fix the parts of the series that aren't actually broken. The combat, once fluid and slick, is now punctuated by QTEs that add nothing to the experience and stifle the flow of each engagement. The wall climbing is a pointless replacement for something that worked perfectly well. And the boss was plain awful. If Ninja Gaiden III resembles the preview build when it hits shelves next year, it's set to be a homogenized shadow of its former nuanced self as rather than a return to form. As a fan of the series, I hope that the finished article will prove me wrong.