It was around the time we hopped along a line of missiles to deliver a deathblow to a helicopter that we realised Ninja Gaiden 3:Razor's Edge was a pretty silly game. Half an hour later, as we chopped up Alsatians decked in Kevlar body warmers, we realised it was a really silly game. When, just 20 minutes after that, we drove a katana into a cyborg T-Rex's skull, we decided this was the silliest game we'd played for a year.
It wasn't always this way. The Ninja Gaiden 3 that hit PS360 last year was a more earnest affair, as Team Ninja attempted to take players behind the mask and reveal the inner turmoil of legendary limb-severer, Ryu Hayabusa. Yes, it introduced the aforementioned Alsatians and cyborg dinosaurs, but it also gave him a cursed arm that pulsed with past sins and awkward interactive cutscenes where he had to kill men as they pleaded for their lives. It was jarring and tonally unpleasant.
Suddenly discovering Ryu's conscience made for a conflicted action game that questioned its hero's murderous career as it skewered thousands of meat puppets onto his blade. Turns out you can't philosophise about moral responsibility and let people garrotte dogs. It reminded us, tellingly, of Team Ninja's other action game-turned-human drama: Metroid: Other M. That game also struggled to marry blistering action with a heroine who just wanted to have a good cry.
Bad To The Bone
Razor Edge's greatest innovation, then, is its renewed commitment to dumb action. The story still bears the scars of the earlier game - Ryu's cursed arm is a key plot point - but it keeps the moralising off the battlefield and in the overwrought cutscenes where it belongs. You're no longer asked to slaughter unarmed men (the game isn't so picky with goons you've de-armed) and segments where his sinful arm takes a toll on his body are radically overhauled.
Originally, the cursed limb forced Ryu to stumble along, hacking up enemies in blur-o-vision. On Wii U, the arm whisks him to an alternate dimension in which his health continuously falls unless he kills waves of demons. It's so much more hands-on (and arms-off) than the original, though we do question the logic of punishing a killer with, er, extra killing. It's like sending a Lion bar fiend to a dimension made of Lion bars (if some god of chocolate happens to be reading, I am totally cool with this idea).
With Ryu's health bar turned into a ticking time bomb, you're forced to engage with Razor's Edge's 'Steel On Bone' attacks. Countering a grab with a strong attack - by performing an evasive dodge and striking before the enemy regains composure - results in a violent instant kill. The attack can be chained to nearby foes, enabling one strike to remove three or four opponents. Waiting for a grab to counter makes the draining health tense, but the payoff is worth it.
For all the shattered femurs it brings about, Steel On Bone provides a robust skeleton for an altogether tighter combat system. The same moves in the original were almost randomly triggered (they worked on weakened enemies); having a concrete rule set reintroduces the clinical precision the series is famed for. It's a good thing, too: for all the pain that can be woven from weak/strong combos, enemies are real damage sponges. You'll want to master Steel On Bone just to rest your mashed-out thumbs.
That said, could the moves prove too reliable? Learn to anticipate the telltale signs of a grab - certain sound effects and a glowing red aura - and there's little enemies can do to touch you. Confusing monster designs in the second half of the game hide their weaknesses better, but, bosses aside, Steel On Bone carves through most with little resistance. Don't get us wrong, it'll take genuine mastery to break the game's steep difficulty curve, but it can feel like an instant-win button.
Instant wince, too, as the zoomed-in camera gives us front row seats for some of the ickiest scenes since Inside Nature's Giants. Vast geysers of blood are harmlessly silly, but scenes of sawing through bone and muscle come with a tangible sense of gristly resistance.
Blood and dismemberment were absent from earlier versions, putting us in a bizarro universe in which a Nintendo platform has the most vicious version of a game. Liberal squirts of jam-like plasma aren't big or clever, but they do lend a violent sting to your actions. It also impacts enemy tactics. Goons will pull out machine guns with their one remaining arm or crawl - legless - along the floor with a grenade in their grip. It's like fighting an army of Monty Python's Black Knight.