The Japanese word “Gaiden” means “side story,” and is typically used to refer to anime and video games spun off from established franchises. That Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z isn’t called “Ninja Gaiden Gaiden” kills me. Still, a missed opportunity for recursion is a minor issue. I only bring it up because I want to start this review on a light note, and criticizing the game’s title is pretty much the nicest thing I can say about it.
Well, that’s not entirely fair. Whatever else I may say about Yaiba, (and I will say a LOT else), I have to give the game credit for its sense of style. Whereas previous Ninja Gaidens took stabs at more standard cinematic realism (with jiggle physics!), Yaiba tosses all that out the window in favor of stark, comic-inspired cel-shading. The look is reminiscent of Mad World and No More Heroes, and it lends the game an explosive visual energy. Coupling that with an intense, dubstep-heavy soundtrack, Yaiba pulls out all the stops to get you pumped. Sadly, everything else in the game works to deflate you at twice the speed.
You play as Yaiba Kamikaze, a ninja hunter who was killed by series protagonist Ryu Hayabusa. Of course, the very first thing he says when he starts explaining this is “that was the first time I died.” Because it’s one of those games. I’d complain that the writing is mired in clichés, but it’s worse than that. Clichés at least make sense. Yaiba’s brought back to life with a robot arm for some reason, and is sent to hunt down Ryu in Moscow, which is overrun with zombies… for some reason. It’s the flimsiest of excuses for an action game.
Instead of selling itself on a coherent plot, Yaiba tries to sell itself on humour. This almost works. The zombies lend themselves to some solid sight gags and slapstick, and the banter between Yaiba and the two psychos who brought him back to life is occasionally funny. Unfortunately, what little humour that exists is spread awful thin, and it’s absolutely ruined by constant repetition. The first time you kick a pair of disembodied legs in the nads, it’s funny. The twentieth time, not so much. In-game dialogue never changes no matter how many times you repeat a section, so it’s all but guaranteed that you’ll get sick of every joke in the game. And that repetition comes after you have to sit through 30 seconds of three separate loading screens.
But Ninja Gaiden isn’t known for its writing, it’s known for visceral, challenging combat. The games require that you react quickly, maneuver efficiently, and carefully manage dwindling resources to make it through each level. The combat is fast and acrobatic, but also very measured. Instead of facing dozens of easy enemies at once, you usually have to fight a handful of tough ones. You’re given all the tools you need to sort out any situation, but it’s down to you to use them effectively. The original games also have a fantastic sense of depth, letting you pick from a wide arsenal of weapons that drastically alter the flow of combat.
In Yaiba’s very first encounter I racked up a 200 hit combo (enough to net me a silver trophy) by randomly mashing buttons. I feel as though the designers may have slightly missed the mark on what a Ninja Gaiden game should be. In fact, it seems they were under the impression that a Ninja Gaiden game should be a crappy God of War clone, because that’s what they’ve made. You have a light attack, a heavy attack, and a long range chain swinging attack, and you finish off every enemy with a gruesome (but ultimately monotonous) QTE execution. You have to use these a LOT because performing them is the only way to recover your health.
Just about every encounter in the game involves a horde of harmless mooks and one or two of five possible minibosses. The only enemy in the game that poses any actual threat is the horrid fixed camera, which constantly obscures enemies from view. The minibosses and bosses only present a challenge because they’re damage sponges. It’s mostly easy to dodge and block your way around their attacks, but you have to keep it up for two or three mind-numbing minutes against each wave. That adds up, mistakes are made, and then you have to go through the motions again. That is, of course, after another 30 seconds of loading.
The game doesn’t really give you all the tools you need, either. Gone are the equipable weapons from previous games, replaced instead by the weaponized body parts of fallen mini-bosses. These sound cool in theory, but to get them you need to perform an execution, and each is good for maybe 5 uses before it disappears. This means that if your execution gets interrupted, or you’re locked into a lengthy, overblown attack animation, you miss out on the weapon that’s needed for the next wave of the fight and (most likely) do the whole thing over, again after that 30 second wait (are you seeing a pattern here?). What’s worse, these limited weapons are the only way to deal elemental damage, which is just about the only interesting thing about the combat system.
Enemy attacks are divided up into three elements: Electricity, Fire, and Bile. Electricity stuns you, fire deals damage over time, and bile blinds you. It’s all pretty standard stuff, but what makes it interesting is how the elements combine. Fire and electricity create a lightning vortex, electricity and bile freeze things in yellow crystals, and fire and bile toast things in a chemical inferno. This means you can exploit enemy elements to alter the battlefield and wreak havoc. Or it would, if weapons weren’t such a goddamn chore to get and they didn’t run out so quickly.
Also, while I’m complaining, the damage dealt by fire is grossly imbalanced to the point that being set ablaze is almost always a death sentence. This wouldn’t be such a problem, except that there’s a little tutorial (and by little I mean it takes up the whole screen) that pops up the first time you get hit with an element, and the game doesn’t remember it’s shown you the tutorial if you die before hitting a checkpoint. On top of that, fire attacks tend to have buggy hit detection, so you see that tutorial a LOT. Suffice it to say, if I have to hear “you still have fleshy parts, you know” one more time, someone is gonna get punched in their fleshy parts.
You also – and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Ninja Gaiden game – can’t jump. Like, not at all. Instead, the x button is assigned to a lame dash move. The combat of this series is more or less defined by its acrobatic elements – wall runs, jumps and flips – so the decision to take that out baffles me. Certain combos have jumping elements to them, but they appear to simply be visual effects, since enemies can damage Yaiba by attacking the space below him. On top of that, larger enemies can push Yaiba into corners, and without the ability to jump, getting around them is literally impossible
It’s not as though this makes sense as a way to differentiate Yaiba from Ryu, because Yaiba is also a ninja. In fact, outside of combat, he’s shown to have some impressive acrobatic skills, which he shows off in QTE platforming segments (wherein X, as it should, makes you jump. CONSISTENCY!). If those sound awful, trust me, they’re worse than you’re imagining. At best, these are boring bits of filler that exist solely to break up the combat. At worst, they’re torturous grinds of trial and error, forcing you to restart over and over and over again as you try to get the timing down. These segments do absolutely nothing for the game, save making the combat seem a little better by comparison.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is an affront to all good taste. When it comes to the gaudy aesthetics, that’s mostly a good thing, but it doesn’t work so well for the gameplay. If Ninja Gaiden 3 left a black mark on the series, Yaiba dumps a bucket of black paint all over it. It’s little wonder Tecmo Koei downplayed the franchise name when giving Yaiba its title. They wanted to give the IP as much space as possible from this train wreck, and I’d suggest you give yourself the same.
Version Reviewed: PlayStation 3