Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Suda51 (Goichi Suda to his mum) is an influential and creative developer not afraid to take risks, even if the results aren’t always satisfying. On the other hand, Tomonobu Itagaki is a man who has very specific tastes and never compromises on the kind of games he makes.
Neither of them, however, were involved in Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. The game is, in fact, spearheaded by none other than Keiji Inafune, and I can only imagine that he was kidnapped by ninjas and forced to make it. That’s the only explanation I can come up with that explains why he would be associated with such a weak title.
It’s not for want of trying, however. VIsually, Yaiba has excellent cel-shaded visuals, very much reminiscent of a Suda51 title. It’s presented as though it was an animated comic book, and the art itself is done by Canadian comic book artist James Stokoe. On a technical level, the game is solid, with only the occasional hitch here and there. Even the fixed camera is pretty smart.
The game immediately starts falling apart as we are introduced to its characters. The main character, Yaiba Kamikaze (yes, really) is as unlikeable as you can imagine. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, of course, but there’s a difference between a character who’s unlikeable but interesting (say, Joel from The Last of Us) and a character who’s just a complete jerk (such as Yaiba). It’s not helped by the fact that he’s out for revenge against Ninja Gaiden protagonist Ryu Hayabusa, who makes up for his lack of real character depth by being completely and awesomely badarse.
The Z in the title comes from the fact that all this is taking place during a zombie apocalypse. The zombies exist primarily to provide sword-fodder for Yaiba and offer very little challenge, especially in comparison to regular Ninja Gaiden mooks. This isn’t helped by the shallow combat system, where mashing the same button can generally win a fight without too much hassle. Only the tougher zombies, offer any challenge, and sadly, the difficulty is more due to badly-thought-out fight choreography, with no hit-stun or interrupts, forcing you to either turtle for an opening, or risk taking damage just to get a few hits in.
To make matters worse, the traditional freeform jumping and acrobatics of the Ninja Gaiden series is gone. In its place is a system where Yaiba runs along predetermined paths and simple button presses activate automatic actions to get from area to area. Essentially these are quicktime events, and there’s no challenge to them, nor any penalty for failing them if you miss a button press.
I get that Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is going for what TV Tropes readers would refer to as ‘holy shit quotient’: The idea that every scene in the game has to somehow outdo the last. Done well, this can lead to amazing games like Lollipop Chainsaw or Ninja Gaiden or even classics like Bayonetta. The idea is that you do something, like, say, ride a motorbike up a rocket as it flies into space so you can rescue someone from a giant demon-angel thing and your reaction is “HOLY SHIT THIS IS THE BEST GAME EVER”. To achieve this, however, you need to be able to actually deliver more than hammy dialogue and the occasional dramatic camera angle.
That’s the biggest disappointment of Yaiba. It wants, so much, to be in that rare category of games that luminaries like Suda51 and Itagaki can create, but it falls so far short of the mark that it ends up exposing the dangers of trying to make such a game. These titles live on style over substance, and to pull it off, they have to make you forget that they are, ultimately, popcorn experiences: the video game equivalent of a big dumb action film.
By failing to engage players from the start, and then not keeping up any kind of momentum, Yaiba’s holy shit quotient falls to critically low levels early on, and never recovers. I can’t help but feel let down by what’s been delivered here. I can imagine that some people will be able to get into this game and extract what fun it has in it, but, if I’m honest, I just kept thinking that I could be playing any number of far better previous Ninja Gaiden titles instead.
Unique comic book art style
Dull, unlikeable characters
Tears up everything good about the Ninja Gaiden series.