What exactly is Yaiba?
That's what everyone interested in Keiji Inafune's Ninja Gaiden spin-off, developed by Comcept, Team Ninja and Spark Unlimited, has been wondering since the game's mystery-shrouded reveal at last year's Tokyo Game Show. How does it work? Is that Ryu in the key art? What's with the "Z"?
After attending a recent preview meeting, I've a little more information to hand and a truckload more unanswered questions to boot. Inafune and Team Ninja lead Yosuke Hayashi are currently siding with the popular trend for reveals - a few scattered assets and a little ideology, but not much in the way of actual meat-on-the-bone gameplay. The focus is still on Yaiba himself, who's posited as something of anti-Ryu Hayabusa (Inafune said Yaiba, whose name means "blade" in Japanese, is the arch nemesis of Ninja Gaiden's more typified ninja hero.)
Yaiba's a cyborg ninja, and while he's compared to Raiden or Grey Fox his cybernetic makeup seems a bit more piecemeal. In his ninja regalia he resembles Shredder with one bright red cybernetic eye, and he's got a light line in '90s-style snark as well. That's right: this ninja wisecracks. He's kind of mean-spirited about it, too, or at least takes some perverse pleasure in ripping legions of zombies to pieces.
"Yaiba is in some ways maybe not really typically Japanese," Inafune says. "He is very...out there, very crazy sometimes."
Call Yaiba a Japanese Deadpool (I just did) - one that lost his eye and arm in an epic battle with Ryu. Although Yaiba clearly doesn't care for Ryu, he seems well enough adjusted ¬to his situation - or conversely, is simply utterly unhinged - to a point where he doesn't seem to take much very seriously. He's the kind of guy who'll gleefully rip off a zombie's arm to form a makeshift nunchuk, an organic action that will make up part of the game's combat system.
"Sometimes designers tend to have combat in mind and they fit the character into it. With this [game], Yaiba comes first," Inafune says. "He is more important than the combat system - the combat system is catered to the character of Yaiba."
With so much work being poured into Yaiba's personality, this seems par for the course. So we know, it seems, that Yaiba is insane; at one point Inafune likens him to Dragonball's perennial loser Vegeta, who always thinks he's going to beat Goku but never does. This humour is a key element in this sort of game, Inafune says, especially since Yaiba will be fighting zombies.
"Dead Rising has some comical elements to it," Inafune says about his previous zombie creation from his career days at Capcom. "It's not just about killing zombies, but there are [also] situations that make you laugh and smile. And I think that zombie games need this sort of atmosphere." So we know that Yaiba will be, in Inafune's words, "funny" (that would certainly separate it from Ninja Gaiden proper.)
Yaiba's got style as well as wit, taking place in a very graphic novel-influenced world that's the result of the collaborative efforts of Inafune's Comcept, Team Ninja and Lost Planet 3 developers Spark Unlimited. The comic panels shown were actually cobbled together using in-engine assets and - in stills, at least - the game's look is striking and stylish.
Interestingly, Team Ninja previously had ideas internally about creating some kind of ninja versus zombies game, but it wasn't until Inafune independently pitched the developer to let him do his own take on Ninja Gaiden that Yaiba was born. However, true to Inafune's views about collaborative "new wave" Japanese game development in working with the West, bringing Spark Unlimited aboard made the project really work, with each studio bringing their own strengths. Inafune even admits that with his zombie expertise, there is still something missing.
"Ninjas are very rooted in Japanese culture, and if you really wanted to make a ninja game, I think the Japanese would have to do that - to make them really genuine ninja," Inafune says. "Same goes for zombies. [The] Japanese didn't come up with zombies. I think the West, Americans get zombies more than the Japanese ever will."
So, what exactly does Yaiba's gameplay look like? Inafune says it's still a hack and slash like Ryu's Gaiden outings, though Yaiba's cybernetic abilities will make for a different experience. There are short glimpses being shown right now: scenes of Yaiba beating up Dead Rising-style hordes of undead enemies, running along rooftops in an industrial warehouse district, a few almost QTEs that appear to take direct cues from the "shrinking circle" timed actions in Mercury Steam's Castlevania reboot Lords of Shadow.
It was stressed that the footage was work-in-progress, but right now it looks so rough and unpolished - signs of it being in the earliest of pre-alpha stages - it doesn't seem quite ready to bare its face to the world. Not a single word was uttered about platforms, either, though the in-game comic book stills seemed to be higher quality than the preview footage. Could Yaiba be next-gen as well as current? The notion doesn't seem completely out of the question.
Still, what little was shown left me curious as to how exactly Yaiba fits in to Inafune's philosophy of original Japanese game design. He likened Yaiba's cross-national mentality to football.
"These days there are Japanese [football] players who go overseas and join the UK team or the Italian team. The fact that they're Japanese won't change no matter where they go, but every time they work together with foreign players, they keep doing better and growing as players," Inafune says. "That collaboration empowers each of the Japanese. When I say the Japanese game industry is dead, that's like saying it's no longer good to just play in the J-League in order to win the World Cup."
The combination of a Spark who are yet to atone for the miserable Legendary: The Box, a Team Ninja whose star has waned and an Inafune whose recent games haven't had the same impact as his outbursts is hardly a dream team - but there's enough interesting about Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z to ensure that it'll be a fascinating project no matter where it lands.