I really didn’t know what to expect from Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z.
On one hand, it has the Ninja Gaiden name (which, admittedly, doesn’t have much sway these days) and Keiji Inafune attached. But on the other, you have Spark Unlimited and the so-so grindhouse setup that kind of fell flat with a series of dull trailers.
The end result is a game that attempts to try a lot of different concepts, and only succeeds at a select few.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z (PC, PS3, Xbox 360 [reviewed])
Developer: Comcept, Spark Unlimited, Team Ninja
Publisher: Tecmo Koei
Release: March 18, 2014
In case you’re wondering, Yaiba is the name of the titular protagonist, who’s actually “evil,” depending on how you view the series hero Ryu Hayabusa. Yaiba Kamikaze is a self proclaimed “ninja slayer,” and while he would have liked to have claimed Hayabusa as his latest victim, Ryu had other plans and sliced Yaiba open instead. From here, it gets a little weird and decidedly non-cannon.
Yaiba is “resurrected” by a shadowy organization, who replaces his severed arm and sliced out eye with robotic replacements. Now as a cyborg ninja, he has to stop a zombie outbreak in addition to getting his revenge on Hayabusa. This is all told through a tongue in cheek grindhouse presentation, complete with tons of comic book text and lots of blood. The entire visual style is weird, but somewhat interesting as it presents itself through a dark, yet cartoony lens.
It tries to be edgy with your typical display of sex jokes and violence-oriented humor, but it never really goes that far and actually ends up fairly tame in the end. In fact, not every joke is over-the-top — for example, at one point it tries its best impression of the slow steamroller death scene from various films — and often times it’s more goofy than offensive. While the constant absurd plot twists and elongated enemy presentation cutscenes are jarring, I ended up putting up with them because the vast majority of the game looks great — especially when you’re ripping through droves of zombies.
In terms of combat, I wouldn’t expect a typical Ninja Gaiden experience. What I mean by that is that the fighting system is not technical, and is more akin to a hack and slash game. Yaiba starts off his quest with the power to use his well-rounded sword, his strong yet slow iron fist, and a weak flail attack that hits a large number of enemies at once.
There’s also a very rudimentary “elemental” system, involving fire, electricity, and poison (called “bile”) — with the ability to “counter” in a triangle-like setup. Along with your limited three weapon arsenal and a “Rage of the Gods” ability, that’s basically all you’re going to be using the entire game as it unfolds over a series of arena battles. Yaiba technically has a “level up” system with a small circular upgrade tree, but almost all of the powers are nominal in nature and not really required to complete the game.
In addition to the limited upgrade system, don’t expect to roam around a lot. While there are a few opportunities to find secrets hidden in walls and the like (especially when you use Yaiba’s Detective Vision-like laser eye), for the most part the game is extremely linear. Rather than the comfortable mix of combat and exploration in the core Ninja Gaiden series, Yaiba is content just delivering arena battles one after another, placing an emphasis on score attack gameplay. There is a contextual jump ability that lets you run on walls and swing around on hooks to get around, but it’s also very linear and very scripted. It’s fun for sure, just underwhelming for the most part.
Because you only wield a select few abilities, fights are about as fun as the enemies that are thrown at you, which is a generally a mixed bag. Sometimes you’ll battle a wide variety of stronger foes that test your ability to use all three elements to the best of your ability, and in other arenas, you’re just fighting wave after wave of a zombie horde that you can easily flail to death. An arena game is only as good as the arenas themselves, and a lot more effort could have been put into them in general.
Where the game really shines are the tougher encounters, especially on higher difficulty levels where you actually have to think before you slash, lest you electrocute or burn yourself. “Elite” class enemies also present the opportunity to execute them, offering up their signature weapon to use as a limited consumable — similar to an old school beat ’em up. There aren’t many major bosses, but the ones that are present are very fun, especially the encounters with Hayabusa himself.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z reminds me of last year’s Deadpool game. It’s a very limited hack and slash that enthusiasts will enjoy on a rainy weekend, but it fails to really ascend beyond that status. Yaiba isn’t a bad game per se, it’s just shallow.