Put simply, playing Ninja Gaiden III was like coming home to my apartment to find someone had moved all of the furniture around. The rooms are all in the same place, but nothing is quite the same, and Ninja Gaiden III is similarly familiar-yet-disorienting.
Ninja Gaiden veterans won't be completely thrown off by the game if my time with it is any indication -- at least, not right away. Deciding to cut to the chase and find out what Ninja Gaiden III was made of, I put the game on Hard and jumped in. What I found was... different. But familiar. The dodge move on the left trigger from Ninja Gaiden II (which was a roll in Ninja Gaiden Black) is now a slide, but during combat, it works similarly in terms of managing combat. The slide might even be more useful, since it seemed like I could slide into certain enemies to stun them, though I didn't use it very often. I was too busy coming to grips with the absence of the Flying Swallow.
If you played Ninja Gaiden in the last seven years, you'll know the Flying Swallow. A gap-closing move that would send protagonist Ryu flying through the air chopping off heads in the process, it's been a staple of effective crowd management in Ninja Gaiden games since Ninja Gaiden games reentered the gaming conversation. And in Ninja Gaiden III, it's gone. In its place is a decently effective suplex move that puts a hurt on enemies, but it's not a potential instant kill anymore and it's not as effective in moving Ryu across large distances to engage groups of enemies.
It seems like a minor alteration, but I found this changing the way I played, forcing me into direct confrontation and more defensive play much more often than in other recent Ninja Gaiden games. I've never been afraid to take it to enemies on the ground using the Dragon Sword, but my MO in the past has been to use the Flying Swallow to open up against a group of enemies, then cut them to pieces once they were disoriented by the violence of the initial attack. Now you're stuck against enemies that aren't stunned or otherwise knocked back, and you'll be relying more on timely use of the dodge/dive to make sure you don't get overwhelmed.
Or at least, I imagine you might need to be more careful, at some point, later in the game. Maybe. I'm good at Ninja Gaiden, but I've never been able to jump into a game on Hard and manhandle the opposition the way I did in Ninja Gaiden III's opening level. Ninja Gaiden is a series known for its willingness to butcher the unwary from the word "go," but Hayashi has said that he wants Ninja Gaiden III to be a more approachable game than past titles. So I'm not expecting the not-thinly-veiled-at-all insults of Ninja Gaiden Black directed at players tackling Ninja Gaiden III on anything lower than normal -- ninja dogs, breathe a sigh of relief.
Ninja Gaiden III's combat remains fluid, and Ryu still feels powerful but... I couldn't shake the strange sense of the alien and unfamiliar in the demo, a sense that goes beyond the standard baggage attached to any sequel. The lack of dismemberment or even decapitation was bizarre, because those things were mechanical elements in previous Ninja Gaiden games -- it was a faster way to disable opponents. The "cutting" mechanic, where Ryu's sword gets stuck in an enemy and has to sort of be sawed out, is... strange. It slows combat down in a series traditionally known for fights that can be over in an instant. Of course, the quicktime sequences slow things down even more, and I'm not really sure what they're doing there.
That's the thing about most of these changes. I'm not really sure what Hayashi and Team Ninja are going for, yet, and things feel different without feeling especially intentional. Ninja Gaiden III isn't in awful shape right now. The combat is still faster and controls better than 99 percent of games out there. But Team Ninja has a lot of questions to answer, and a lot to prove, with Ninja Gaiden III.