[Disclosure: A review copy was provided by the publisher for the contents of this review]
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is, on paper, a fantastic idea. Take all of the tough-as-nails difficulty of the beloved Ninja Gaiden series, add zombies and a comic book aesthetic, sprinkle in some B movie tasteless jokes and a healthy dose of insane action and watch the good times roll. But does that elevator pitch match what developer Spark Unlimited has offered up to gamers on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3? The short, and unfortunate, answer is no. No it does not.
My first experience with Yaiba took place on the showroom floor at E3 2013. I'm usually a big fan of cell shaded graphics and unique, edgy takes on established franchises. So of course I was quickly drawn to the look of Ninja Gaiden Z and the grind house plot of this bizarre title.
Early on you discover that the titular main character, Yaiba, and Ninja Gaiden's typical protagonist, Ryu Hayabusa, didn't really see eye to eye, resulting in the evil Yaiba losing an arm, half of his head and likely some vital organs. Out of nowhere, Yaiba is resurrected as a cybernetic ninja and dropped into Russia in order to help eliminate a zombie infestation. Along the way, he keeps his electronically enhanced eye out for opportunities to seek vengeance against Hayabusa.
For series fans who have grown a bit tired of the gritty semi-realism of the Gaiden series and love the idea of a tongue-in-cheek adventure complete with a gruff anti-hero who gives the typical action fare the middle finger, Yaiba sounds like a breath of fresh air.
And that's exactly what I thought I would be getting after my brief initial hands-on with the game. Controlling Yaiba seemed fun and intuitive, monsters died in a lovely spout of crimson, there was some light platforming, a bit of humor and even a giant baby zombie that crawled out of the land of my personal nightmares.
In this brief dose, Yaiba appeared to be exactly what I was hoping it would be. After plowing my way through the game proper, however, my final assessment is far from the starry-eyed excitement I felt after first taking the disgruntled evil ninja for a spin.
Those graphics that first drew my eyes in are still kind of lovely at times but, once the game gets moving, many of the action sequences basically blend into a hodgepodge of color, like a box of crayons melted across your TV screen. In the early goings, when enemies are less numerous, things look fine. But once the enemies start piling on the screen and the camera has trouble deciding where, exactly, it would like to focus, the whole thing just looks a mess.
That light platforming I was happy to see in the game's demo remained exactly that, light, and even the “puzzles” in the game required little more than grabbing a dude and throwing him at a thing. Humorous the first time you see it, less so several times over.
The plot is paper thin, too, and that humor I was hoping for proved to be little more than sophomoric sight gags and sexist one-liners directed at the sultry partner assisting you in your quest to destroy the undead threat.
All of this, except for perhaps the tedious fixed camera angles, would be forgivable if the gameplay held strong. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.
Equipped with your katana and a cybernetic arm for combo attacks, as well as a nifty whip for some good old fashioned crowd control, it seems like Yaiba has all of the necessary tools to get the job done. He can even grab weapons and body parts off of enemies to make them into short-lived secondary weapons, which you'd think would add a bit of extra depth to the hacking and slashing, but prove to be a bit obnoxious to get a hold of and break very quickly.
Yaiba still tries to keep the focus on the blocking and counter-attacking the Gaiden series has become famous for but, unfortunately, the engine here simply can't keep up with that kind of skill-based gameplay. Controls are too sluggish and loose, meaning that most of your encounters will boil down to a button-mashing frenzy with little rhyme or reason. Yaiba is simply a chore to try and control with any sense of, well, control, meaning that making your way into the later, and far more difficult, battles is something of a chore.
The Ninja Gaiden series has always been difficult, but Yaiba is tough for all of the wrong reasons. Losing a battle in previous games felt fair; you were overpowered because you did not get the timing down or forgot to dodge an attack. Lacking a true sense of control and facing a difficulty curve that basically translates into “just add more and more monsters,” you'll often find yourself waiting for the respawn in white-knuckled anger as you die over and over again. You don't feel like the game bested you, you feel like the sloppy graphics, obnoxious camera and poor controls cheated you. That's never a recipe for fun.
I still feel like there is a wonderful concept buried in the mess that evolved into Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. I very much so want to play the game I first experienced about a year ago. But that's not what I got. And I'm not faulting the game for not turning out to be what I was hoping it would be. I'm faulting it for being a lackluster action title that demands a level of play its mechanics, graphics and camera simply cannot accommodate. Everything about Yaiba screams “I'm going to be fun as hell.” What I played, however, seldom delivered on that promise.
Platforms: PS3 (reviewed), Xbox 360
Developer: Team Ninja, Spark Unlimited, Comcept
Publisher: Tecmo Koei