Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z preview

January 6, 2014

In recent years, the video game world has been working hard to move past a reputation of blood, guts and unadulterated violence. Games like Beyond: Two Souls, Journey and The Last of Us have paved the way to elevate audience interaction above the physical realm, reaching out on a much deeper emotional level.

Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, on the other hand, gives a big one finger salute to those emotional sissies. Instead, Keiji Inafune’s latest outing combines ninjas, cyborgs, zombies and oodles upon oodles of blood and gore to create a grindhouse hack n slash with plenty of style – and after playing through the first two levels – we were surprised to find that it’s pretty damn good.


The opening cutscene sees newcomer Yaiba Kamikaze lounging amidst a bamboo grove. Half Mugen from Samurai Champloo, half Yojimbo from Zantochi, it’s quickly made evident that this is the kind of guy that couldn’t give two shits about anyone but himself. Something has disturbed him though, and as he brings a rather large bottle of sake away from his lips he mutters “I should’ve killed you fifteen ninjas ago… Hayabusa”. Enter series frontman Ryu Hayabusa. Cue epic ninja battle of ultimate destiny.


After matching blow for blow in a furious bout of swordplay, the combatants are finally thrown apart to reveal Yaiba’s sword cut in twain. Not only that, but with a “Fuck” that sounds more annoyed than defeated, his body explodes in a torrent of blood as his arm separates from his body. The title crashes onto the screen, and it takes me a second to realise that the main character has died before the game even begins. Nice.

Two weeks pass, and Yaiba is standing on the rooftop of a modern building surrounded by Zombies. He’s chatting to a sultry looking lady known as ‘Miss Monday’ via an electronic earpiece, who explains that she is responsible for his newfound Cyrborg arm and abilities, as well as the signature glowing red eye that comes as a fashion accessory to all cyborgs since the Terminator.


It turns out a mysterious big wig is responsible for the zombie outbreak that engulfs the city, and he wants you to ensure no one interrupts his evil plans. At first Yaiba tells him where to shove it, but when he’s told that Ryu is in town trying to quell the apocalypse, Yaiba jumps to like a rabid dog. What follows is a hack and slash frenzy that makes that black and white scene in Kill Bill look tame. Attacks consist of Yaiba’s broken sword for quick cuts, his Cyborg arm for stronger attacks and a metal flail, which covers a wide area but generally chops zombies in two, creating multiple crawling torsos that move slower but still grab at you from the flow. Each move can be chained together in traditional God of War style combat, earning skill points from the dead that can be used to unlock more moves as you go.


As this was a demo build, skill points were awarded a lot faster than the regular game, which meant that we gained access to more moves than you would usually have access to in the first two levels. One of the more notable abilities was the power charge up Yaiba’s cyborg arm, activating the rocket booster in his elbow and sending him flying bodily across the screen, turning all zombies in his path to mush.


As we worked our way through the streets, we encountered all sorts of zombies: the aforementioned crawlers, walkers, zombies with grenades, clown zombies, zombies on fire – you name it. But these work towards more than just a change in combat. Yaiba, being a crafty sunovabetch, utilises his enemies to his advantage. Ripping the arms off clown zombies, for example, makes for a surprisingly good pair of nunchucks, or the head off a lava zombie creates a nifty little lava cannon. Grenade zombies can be thrown bodily to explode large groups of enemies and… you get the point.


The games linear level design is reminiscent of last years DMC title, with combat areas being broken up by  sections of jumping, climbing and swinging. Some points require zombies to activate, like throwing a zombie into a bulldozer to destroy a wall or using a Grenade zombie to explode a door. These instances generally initiate an undead slapstick skit, providing moments of bizarre humour that actually had me laughing aloud. The second level concludes with a zombie’s reckless driving ending in a gentle rain underpants much to Yaiba’s delight, revelling in his private “panty party” in what becomes a very Deadpool moment.

At  this point I feel like I should say that at first, I was turned off by the games misogynistic tones, such as Yaiba’s crude slurs towards Miss Monday and Miss Mondays unashamedly … err … raunchy character design. But playing through the game reveals Miss Monday to be a genius of sorts, and while this doesn’t excuse her overt sexualisation she does shuts down Yaiba’s crude comments at every turn, dishing out enough insults of her own to the very flawed ninja cyborg. By doing so, she embodies the strong female lead that grindhouse films are famous for, and her misguided physical design fits with the genre. It’s also a pleasure to see that Yaiba’s gameplay works alongside his character traits, utilising everything at his disposal to get what he wants. Ripping the arms off his enemies to beat on other enemies, for example, is strangely satisfying.


But Ninja Gaiden’s latest entry can best be described via the Ryu vs. Yaiba battle of the opening scene. As the two rivals soar through the quiet bamboo glade, Yaiba lines a flurry of attacks with poisonous comments, while Ryu wears his silence like armour, matching each of Yaiba’s strikes with methodical precision. More than anything, this battle signals a changing of the guard for the Ninja Gaiden series. Where up to this point the series has been about precision, stealth and the power of silence (personified by Ryu) it has now jumped ship and donned the form of Yaiba, a crass, impulsive, overindulgent beast, which strangely combines into a highly stylised, yet intriguing character. It may not pluck your emotional heart strings, but it comes as a good reminder that sometimes video games can be plain old fun.

Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z releases on February 27, 2014 for PS3, XBOX 360, and PC. For a full in game review, keep your eyes glued to Rocket Chainsaw.