Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is the latest entry into the famed series, and while it shares some gameplay elements and themes we've come to expect, it takes some bold steps to blazing its own path. While not a total success, I did enjoy Yaiba more so than NG3, although not by much. Let's take a closer look.
Even though he may not be one of the first videogame characters to come to mind when you come up with a list of favs, it's likely that anyone who has played through a Ninja Gaiden game -- at least since the series reboot on the Xbox a decade or so ago -- thinks highly of Ryu Hayabusa. The 'good' ninja's awesome abilities and stoic yet brutally effective nature are a strong point in every Ninja Gaiden, even the disappointing Ninja Gaiden 3: Razor's Edge. Ryu is back in Yaiba, but only as an NPC. In fact, the lead character and who you control, Yaiba, is a ninja killer and he's out to kill Ryu. As the opening, beautifully cel-shaded, silky fluid, and exceptionally nicely colored cutscene shows, Yaiba takes on Ryu only to have his torso severed. Yaiba awakens sometime later, resurrected through science. His mind is intact, and thanks to scientist Miss Monday and her boss Del Gonzo, Yaiba lives again.
Unfortunately, the world is in turmoil and Yaiba is tasked by Del Gonzo, with regular remote aid via commlink to Miss Monday, with tracking and killing Ryu as well as finding the source of the chemical behind Project 72. This chemical is the apparent reason that many thousands of humans have turned into zombies, including not only typical civilians but the Russian military who were sent in to combat them. It makes for a wild apocalypse-in-progress environment rife with more zombies than you can swing a Flail at (well, almost that many). Enemy types include the plain old slow moving zombies that attack in droves of a dozen or so, and ten or so other enemies all with unique names and attack styles. The Zombibrides, probably my least favorite, are twitchy, teleport-capable pains in the ass that use electrical powers. With their shield on, you can only use your Flail to attack them, lest your cybernetic arm or your Heartless Blade become temporarily unusable. There are in fact a variety of such combat conditions, mostly centered on a few elements -- Bile, Electricity, and Fire. The combination of these can be deadly, and mixing them is often required to solve very simple and bluntly placed 'puzzles,' that are more like blockades to, for some reason, slow-up the pace of the game. For example, at one point you encounter a pile of trash you need to get through. You first have to find the zombie that is yellow in color, indicating he's a "bile zombie." Throw him onto the pile and then snag the "fire zombie" and voila, your path is cleared. These 'puzzles,' of which there are a dozen or so of throughout the relatively short game (roughly 7-9 hours), are uninspired and really unnecessary.
Finding your way in Yaiba is straight-forward, although you can use the Cyber Vision to help find your way. It also takes a keen eye to find all of the optional collectibles spread out in each of the game's seven missions. Finding collectibles in groups of four enhance things like your HP meter and resilience to electric, fire, and bile attacks, be they caused by the environment or enemies. An XP meter situated in the upper right corner of what is honestly an overly busy or "noisy" HUD indicates how close you are to leveling up, at which point you might earn a Perk point to spend. These points are useful for unlocking additional combos and attacks, as well as other abilities like being able to Execute multiple enemies in a row or moving extra fast when you've successfully countered an attack. Each of these upgrades, just like the combos, enemies, weapons, and the half dozen or so combat scenes that make up each mission, all have a clever, or not so clever, name. Executing a zombie clown, which involves ripping their arms off, gets you a pair of Nunchuckles, for example. Execute the fat priest zombies, which use fire-based attacks, and you get a makeshift rocket launcher called the Rigor Mortar or the Spinal Tap is the spine of a Zombibride.
So the premise behind Yaiba, combined with its fluid, over-the-top comicbook style presentation, set it quite a bit apart from the traditional Ninja Gaiden games, which is perfectly fine I should add. The ultra fast, furious, and difficult combat is here though. Yaiba carries with him his trusty katana for fast and moderately damaging attacks. His cybernetic arm is the slower, but more damaging heavy attack. Then you have the Flail which is incredibly useful for crowd control and for attack at a distance. As powerful as you may feel, even the weakest zombies can take quite a beating, but the mid-level foes can take a pretty amazing amount of hits before finally going down. And while there are a variety of combos for each weapon, and the most skilled and passionate players may take the time to know them by heart, the average gamer will probably get by fine with just mixing up all three attacks as their instincts suggest, i.e, button-mashing. Interestingly, Yaiba cannot jump except at specific spots to navigate the environment, and you also carry no throwing weapons. Blocking and thus countering are key, tho, and performing Executions is vital. Executions can be performed on an enemy whose HP is very low and, interestingly, the last hit you perform on them to get them into "ready to be executed state" must be at the end of a combo. I thought this design was a bit odd and ultimately I just got in the habit of press L2 every so often during my attacks to enter into the Execution mini-game in case the cue for it popped up while I was in mid-combo. Executing any foe drops health pickups, which is the only way to restore your health, and it also gives you Zombie Weapons in place of your Flail, such as the Nunchuckles and others as mentioned earlier. These weapons offer enhanced melee and ranged attacks and a meter in the lower right of the HUD lets you know how close they are to being expired. You can only carry one of these at at time, and while you carry them, you cannot use your Flail.
Combat is clearly the main gameplay element in Yaiba, but there are also a lot of agility sequences. These are kind of like QTEs where you have to quickly guide Yaiba through the environment by jumping, wall-running, using your Flail to swing between points, or pressing Triangle to smash through a wall or an enemy. Latter levels require more exact timing on these events, too. For the most part, I thought these were a good way to transition the player through an area and also break up the combat scenes a bit. Speaking of which, every combat encounter is like its own stage, or section. From the first mission to the last, Yaiba will enter an area, the name of this 'scene' will pop up, and then its you versus x number of waves of increasingly challenging foes. Afterwards, which is usually somewhere between three and ten minutes, a summary pops up while you move on to your next fight. The summary includes scores for longest combo, number of executions, duration, and score, resulting in a final score and medal for the area. These combat scene scores, along with all of the collectibles you find, are all tallied up at the end of the mission to give you points, which quickly get into the hundreds of thousands.
Regarding the combat in Yaiba, my overall takeaway is mixed. First, I love being a ninja or in this case a ninja slayer who not only looks the part but also fights as fluidly and violently as you would expect Ryu would, sans Ninpo which Yaiba also cannot do. The variety of enemies is good, and the challenge is definitely there, but that challenge often turns sour because it feels very arbitrary and cheap. Each combat encounter very simply boils down to Yaiba versus x number of waves of enemies in an enclosed area. Just as you clear one wave, out pops the next one from the ground, and you never really know how much is going to get thrown at you although it's safe to assume the re-use of previous bosses and mid-level foes gets more and more demanding as you grind your way through the story. Note that dying at any point means you have to start the whole sequence all over. That might not sound so bad, but the load times are 20-25 seconds, every time, which really works against this game in the every-important balance of frustration and reward, or fun factor, however you want to call it. More generally, this type of game design, while certainly not new, is honestly pretty damn uninspired. Overall better games have used it too, don't get me wrong, but I thought Yaiba made it too obvious and too much of a focal point in their game design.
Yaiba as a character is a pretty raw one, and very much an anti-hero. Typically, it's natural to either like or at least feel neutral about the playable character(s), especially as you play whatever game more and more. With Yaiba, I didn't like him from the start as he was an enemy of Ryu's, his opposite really, and he was built up to be much more of a villain and ultra violent type just for the sake of being so. Some of the Story collectibles you find give just a little more insight into him, but nothing much, so ultimately I'm still undecided as to what I make of Yaiba the character. However, by not automatically being either a fan of or neutral about the character I was controlling, I thought the developers did a nice job of giving me something to think about for a bit after the credit roll.
With that, let's get to the summary...