We have not had a new Ninja Gaiden installment since 2012, when Ninja Gaiden 3 was released to only a smattering of applause. While the rebooted series saw two very successful entries in the form of the original Xbox game and then its 2007 sequel, for many fans Ninja Gaiden has seemingly lost its way in recent years. Sure, the enhanced ports have tried to right the wrongs left in the series’ troublesome wake, but it just seems like the games have faded into irrelevance lately. Which is why we now have Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. Understanding that the IP was in need of a shake-up, Tecmo Koei and Team Ninja went back to the drawing board to figure out how they could reinvent the head-lopping, roundhouse-kicking, take-no-prisoners franchise so that it actually meant something once again. Low and behold, Yaiba was born.
Believe it or not, this new adventure doesn’t star the much-adored Ryu Hyabusa; in his spot is a fresh face — Yaiba Kamikaze. When firing up the game for the first time, players quickly find out that our new lead has a bit of a troubled past. Perhaps what makes this most evident is the very fact that Kamikaze isn’t exactly human. In fact, he’s a cyborg. So for those keeping count, thus far we’re up to a new character who’s a deadly assassin made out of human and cybernetic, mechanized parts. Sounds like a recipe for success, but there’s more to it than that. Yaiba’s enemies don’t fit into the franchise’s typical rogues gallery per se, not unless there was a game released unbeknownst to us that pits ninja versus horde of zombies. Wait, what? Zombies, in a Ninja Gaiden game? Yes in fact, which goes to show that Z‘s premise is one-part Ninja Gaiden, and one-part ridiculous, making it pretty par for the course considering where this series has gone in recent years when it comes to storytelling conventions.
Despite the less-than-traditional narrative that has some nervous, behind all the madness is actually a pretty stacked development team of industry veterans. Three studios are coming together for Yaiba, which leaves us with executive producer Yosuke Hayashi (Ninja Gaiden, Dead or Alive), producer and conceptor Keiji Inafune (Resident Evil, Dragon’s Dogma), art director Shinsuke Komaki (Mega Man), game director Masahiro Yasuma (Mega Man Legends), lead game designer Cory Davis (Spec Ops: The Line) and producer John Garcia-Shelton (Medal of Honor). Needless to say, it would seem that the project is in very capable hands. Much of the talents efforts, then, are being directed at the core gameplay — the very staple of every Ninja Gaiden title. In terms of mechanics, anyone who’s familiar with the third-person hack-and-slash genre will feel right at home with Z. In fact, the game features elements similar to those found in the previous series titles. What that means is simple: players have the freedom to run, jump, block and of course attack enemies using Yaiba’s katana.
But it’s not just his blade that dishes out the hurt; as mentioned, our protagonist is part machine. As such, his mechanical arm is just as much a death-dealer as his sword. Therefore, knowing when and how to mix up attacks with each weapon is essential to the combat experience. An obligatory score-multiplier exists on the right of the screen to keep track of the player’s hit-count on enemies, effectively logging just how well players are changing up the aforesaid attacks. As a result, combos are heavily encouraged here, obviously, and switching between weapons, as well as even using zombie appendages play an integral role in the survival of any player. There’s more, though. The “Ultimate Technique” mode employed in prior games has been almost totally replaced by an original feature called “Bloodlust”. This is different in that when activated, it grants Yaiba the opportunity to mangle multiple enemies around him in lightning-quick succession. The truth is, Yaiba feels like a blend of old trappings with a few newfangled ones — however, the game seems more akin to its predecessors than it does something entirely new. Whether or not that is wonderful or worrisome will only be answered once we have the final build in-hand.
Ninja Gaiden games aren’t always about the actual gameplay systems — they’re about captivating with an aesthetic that manages to keep up with the fast-paced combat and action. To that end, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z uses the Unreal Engine quite well, running at a fairly consistent 30FPS. The game looks especially solid to boot, despite its aging tech, thanks to the Killer Is Dead, comic book-inspired graphics that have a vibrant cell-shaded quality to them. In fact, the neon visuals seem to only punctuate the notion that Yaiba is a game with a far less serious and dire tone than its forefathers. Sure, each game has been over-the-top in their own right, but they’ve historically taken themselves pretty seriously. This one, on the other hand, seems to take particular cause with having a bit more fun than the others. This distinct deviation isn’t just seen in the visuals and overall tone; there’s even a Lightning Returns-like costume system that lets players dress up Yaiba in all sorts of weird garb, such as school girl uniforms and one fancied after Might No. 9’s Beck. Hence, Yaiba is very much so trying to be its own game in some ways, and, at the same time, a tribute to the Gaiden’s that came before it.
In the end, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z looks good, even if a little wacky. But then again, Ninja Gaiden 3 looked the same — and we know how that turned out. Certainly, the story and aesthetics aren’t what we’ve come to know and expect from the Ninja Gaiden franchise, but that’s what has us excited. Still, Yaiba looks solid and the swordplay is as good as its ever been. Better yet, the fact that pools of blood are in no short supply means that we could have a sound Ninja Gaiden game here after all, or at least something truly special in its own way. Nevertheless, check back next month for our full review to see if that holds true for the final product.