Also On: Xbox 360
Publisher: Tecmo Koei
Developer: Spark Unlimited
I don’t think that Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z does much to deserve its illustrious subtitle, something that becomes evident after just a few minutes spent with the game. And the longer you play, the worse it gets. Thankfully, it’s a short ride, but regardless of length it’s not something I’d want to play again, and it’s certainly not something I’d suggest seeking out.
The Ninja Gaiden aspect of Yaiba comes entirely from the story, which puts your lead character, cyborg-ninja Yaiba, at odds with NG’s series protagonist Ryu Hayabusa. Yaiba was defeated by Ryu in the past, and has now been resurrected, just in time for a zombie outbreak. The whole set-up is pretty absurd, and thankfully the game rarely takes itself seriously. It’s one of the few positive things I can say about the game, and while most of the humor featured is crass, Yaiba provides a handful of decent one-liners throughout.
Another element worth mentioning are the visuals, which generally look great. There’s a cel-shaded look to the world and characters that feels distinct, adopting a very different visual style compared to the Ninja Gaiden series. Zombie designs are varied, with tougher enemies getting stylized intro’s when they first appear. There’s an approach to the zombie designs that feels strangely reminiscent of Plants vs. Zombies, just with a lot more “adult” aspects tossed in. I also thought the stages featured looked pretty great, despite being a series of linear pathways opening up into larger battle rooms.
But that’s about it for praiseworthy elements in Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. The combat system here is a bit of a mess, strongly impeded by the absolutely awful fixed camera. There are two options for camera views, wide and close, and neither are ideal. For what I will assume are cinematic reasons, camera angles tend to slant in odd ways, and often do a poor job of capturing any given fight. There’s a counter/dodge system in Yaiba that works, but only when you can actually see an incoming enemy attack. Some of the smaller fights against a couple enemies are manageable, but when you’re dealing with zombie hordes on top of harder foes, it’s downright impossible to do much more than button mash and pray.
Also, Yaiba’s difficulty is all over the place. Normal mode is ridiculously tough, mostly for the reasons lifted above. Enemies hit hard, and the camera works against you so much that it becomes rarely a question of skill when attempting to survive, but instead one of luck. Boss fights are poorly structured, checkpoints are annoyingly abusive, and load times after death are long enough that you’ll question whether restarting is actually worth the aggravation.
But ratchet the difficulty down to Easy and you’ll be faced with a cakewalk, one that doesn’t train you up enough to make tackling Normal feel like an achievable goal. One aspect that I enjoy about the Ninja Gaiden series is that I can feel my skill as a player progressing regardless of the difficulty level selected. I know that once I get to certain point skill-wise on a lower difficulty, that it’s time to bump the challenge up a bit. I never got that same feeling out of Yaiba.
I also didn’t care for Yaiba’s upgrade system, or its emphasis on elemental attacks, defenses, and hazards. The latter could have been a good idea in more capable hands, but it doesn’t pan out much here. You’ll run into these environmental challenges at different points, requiring you to mix elements together to cause a chain reaction. But these aren’t really positioned as puzzles, instead they’re simply hurdles that become tedious to deal with the further in you get. For a game that’s as short as Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, you’ll find yourself getting remarkably tired of it well before the finish.
The skill system doesn’t provide many satisfying upgrades, focusing mostly on dropped weapons that can be torn from the limbs of tougher foes. These weapons have limited uses though, so focusing skill upgrades on improving these weapons often feels like a waste. There are a few points that can be devoted to more permanent things, like new combos, which feel more meaningful but make up a small portion of the upgrades available.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z definitely qualifies as a disappointment. On the surface this is a flashy, stylized action game, but it takes very little digging to realize there’s little substance underneath. Tecmo Koei and Team Ninja have already damaged the Ninja Gaiden brand with Ninja Gaiden 3, and Spark Unlimited isn’t doing it any favors with Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z.