Review: Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z
I have fond memories of Ninja Gaiden on the first Xbox, memories that I had to set aside in order to play Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. The original was created by Team Ninja, headed by Tomonobu Itagaki, who has since left the company. Yaiba is the result primarily of Spark Unlimited, who recently developed Lost Planet 3. Keiji Inafune, the ‘Father of Megaman’ was also a producer here. So we have three developers – Team Ninja, Spark Unlimited, and Comcept – combining their efforts here. All this background is here to say that with totally different people behind the game, it would be unrealistic to expect a continuation of what came before. However, I didn’t expect this…
The main draw here is playing as Yaiba Kamikaze, a murderous ninja with an insatiable bloodlust, as he sets his sights on Ryu Hayabusa, the series’ usual main character. In the opening cutscene, Yaiba tries to kill Ryu and gets his ass handed to him, getting maimed in the process. A chunk of his head and his entire left arm are gone, and he is left for dead. Forge Industries, a shady corporation ran by Alarico Del Gonzo rebuilds Yaiba, giving him another chance to kill Ryu. Still with me? The scientist who rebuilds you is the buxom Miss Monday, who looks like she was drawn by a horny thirteen-year-old. The reason they are investing in Yaiba is because there is also an outbreak of a zombie infection and they want him to take care of it.
OKAY: The scene is set. You are a techno-ninja who also happens to be a Bad Dude (and you’ll know this because he constantly swears in a growly voice) and there are zombies that need a-slayin’. Surely the Slicey McDicey will be fun in this ridiculous scenario! Unfortunately, that could not be further from the truth. Yaiba features some of the most bland combat I’ve played in quite a while. Everything is functional: buttons do what they’re supposed to (except for a spotty counter mechanic that does not feel consistent in the slightest). You use your broken sword, robot arm, and polymer chain whip to link quick combos together, and occasionally do an execution move that helps you regain health. The only concept that I can think of that is of slight interest is the status effects implemented into the combat: fire, electricity, and bile. When hit by these attacks enough to fill each respective meter, you’ll have to deal with a temporary setback (damage over time, the temporary removal of your arm powers, and loss of sight). Aside from that, everything is relatively simple and expected: kill all the zombies, robots, or mutant things in every room, then go to the next room, and do it again. There is an upgradable skill tree but, just like the rest of this experience, there really isn’t anything exciting to be gained.
One of the most baffling aspects of the game is a compete lack of a jump ability. YOU ARE A NINJA WHO CAN ONLY JUMP WHEN PLATFORMING IS DEEMED NECESSARY. There is no form of aerial combat whatsoever. The platforming sequence are little more than QTEs, where you have to jump, use your chain, or attack obstacles. Infuriatingly enough, there are sometimes hidden collectibles in between said obstacles, so the game actively punishes you for pressing the buttons when indicated. About halfway through, there are some side-scrolling segments that threatened to break my resolve and my integrity. Poor telegraphing of the perils you need to avoid and occasionally overly-sensitive controls combine into a concoction most foul. Thankfully, these sequences are usually brief.
The status effects that can hinder you are also incorporated into the environmental puzzles. These are so simple that they quickly become annoying. Throw the fire zombie at the burny thing. Throw the lightning zombie into the electrical conduit. Once in awhile you need to combine elements, but these moments drag and aren’t something to look forward to. The only time the elements threaten to be interesting is in the side weapons (which have a finite amount of uses) that you acquire from sub-bosses. Blasting an electrical enemy with a torn-off flame zombie’s head and creating an inferno provides mild amusement, but mostly because it’s a one-hit kill and you won’t have to slog through yet another sub-boss fight.
Creatures range from grotesque to try-hard-humorous. There are your basic zombies, but also clowns dual-wielding chainsaws, spider robots, and a venomous female zombie who stops to hump the air every few seconds. In the first few levels, new enemy types are introduced at a breakneck pace, but the third chapter (out of seven total) introduces the last new enemy. After that, I just sighed each time I entered a room and saw yet another electrical bride zombie. Even though she gets a distinctive introduction video making her seem like a unique character, you’ll meet about fifty more of her throughout your entire adventure.
Despite all these complaints, Yaiba is aesthetically pleasing, sticking with a comic book cel-shaded motif throughout. Even the fonts stick to that same style. The 2D panel cutscenes are strangely low-res however, and sometimes happen in the middle of the action, creating a strange, fragmented flow. I slogged through this on the PC, which had a nice smooth framerate, and made Yaiba’s movements at least look nice and fluid. The music also sticks to the techno-ninja motif and has (serviceable if not memorable) pulsing electronic music. The aforementioned brides are a highlight only because of their fun, electro-goth theme song, complete with pipe organs.
Yaiba constantly tries and fails to be funny, instead eliciting groans and deep, calming breaths. Some jokes towards Miss Monday are remarkably sexist, though it seems like they toned that down from what was seen in previous trailers. This is the kind of game that thinks an Austin Powers joke is hilarious if you replace the characters with zombies. Here’s an actual line of Yaiba’s dialogue: “He was the head of his company, and he was a dick. I guess that makes him a dickhead”. VOMIT. The story doesn’t go anywhere unexpected, and the whole promise of fighting Ryu Hayabusa is woefully ignored. The ending is actually a slap in the face to anyone who was even marginally intrigued by the premise.
While it is perhaps unfair to compare this to other games in the series, slapping the Ninja Gaiden label on there really gives you no other choice. Playing as Ryu Hayabusa gave you a multitude of options when confronting enemies, with each choice feeling viable and distinctive. The story was never anything to write home about, yet it was never actively offensive like it is here. As far as value goes, the replayability the series is usually known for is all but gone here. I really can’t see my self recommending this game at full price. Or half price.
This review probably makes me seem like a big jerk with a void in my heart where the fun receptors are supposed to be, but there are ways to be trashy and corny and still entertaining. Yaiba’s most fatal of errors is that it doesn’t do anything to justify its shlockiness. The sword-flailing is boring, the story falls flat, and you can’t fucking jump unless it’s…time to jump. Ninja Gaiden will remain special in our hearts, but this will go onto be forgotten in about two weeks time.