Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is an ugly game. Ugly in design, ugly in tone and ugly in content. It's a garish smear of a game that dribbles all over the legacy of one of the all-time great action franchises.
Series star Ryu Hayabusa is sidelined here in favour of Yaiba, a boorish clod who loses in battle to Ryu in the opening cut-scene, only to have his dismembered body patched together again as a cyborg. What follows is a repetitive and utterly tiresome romp as Yaiba sets off to get his revenge.
He does this by wading through wave after wave of zombies because those are the easiest foes to throw at a player, and because high-faluting notions such as AI can be conveniently brushed off the table. So Yaiba enters an area, makes some terrible foul-mouthed quip, and proceeds to carve up enemies with his three basic attacks - sword, fist and flail.
Anyone lured into this game by the Ninja Gaiden brand will be in for a crushing disappointment. Forget any hopes for nuanced, balanced melee combat, any dreams of counter-and-parry tactics or indeed any sort of skill at all. Combat in Yaiba is a watery gruel of ideas lifted from better games, served up with as little panache as possible. Blocks are sloppy even before you take into account the vaguely telegraphed unblockable attacks that tougher enemies can unleash, and the timing required for consistent counter-attacks feels off. There's no flow to the fights, no grace to the movements, no logic to the way attacks chain together. It's a button-masher, but it can't even get that base level of gameplay right.
Charge into a gang of ordinary zombies and Yaiba slices through them as if they're not there. The lack of impact is distracting, but nothing compared to the crudely balanced introduction of tougher enemies. There are heavy-hitting zombies, leaping clown zombies, electrified zombies and fire-breathing zombies. These can be whittled down with your combos, but fall much more easily when attacked using elemental powers taken from another enemy type.
You do this by making an enemy vulnerable, which means landing a complete combo on them. Do this and an exclamation mark appears for a split second, and tapping a button takes you to an execution animation. For ordinary zombies this just plays out - and gets incredibly repetitive - but for special zombies you'll have to mash a button, because that's how you know they're special. Normal zombies give up health top-ups (the only way to replenish your life in the game) while special zombies offer more health and an elemental attack that lasts for a short time.
Yaiba also builds up to a sort of super-charged attack mode which is capable of demolishing enemies in a shower of gore, but this takes forever to build up and is then spent all too quickly. Given that the game's challenge largely comes from simply throwing increasingly numerous waves of enemies at you, in different combinations of zombie type, there's never any right time to trigger this mode as you can guarantee that an equally random and annoying wave will be along right afterwards.
There's the seed of a decent system here, but Yaiba's shoddy construction makes for barren soil. Distinguishing between enemies in the middle of a scrum is difficult, while simply directing your attacks with any accuracy is a dice roll thanks to the absence of any lock-on function and Yaiba's tendency to launch into lunging attacks that often send him skidding away from the enemy you were hoping to hit.
The camera is a force unto itself, offering fixed angles on the action but constantly zooming out or zooming in. Sometimes it tries to keep every enemy on-screen, reducing Yaiba to an indistinct stick figure in a splurge of gaudy colour. At other times the camera zooms in close, usually when you're near a "distracted zombie" which just stands there so you can grab it and use it as a throwing or flailing weapon. Either way, the game never manages to find a happy medium where the camera isn't an annoyance. Add in skittish animation and a lazy cel-shaded aesthetic that smears all the graphics into a kaleidoscopic soup, and it's often a struggle just to keep track of where Yaiba is.
It's pretty much impossible for a game to survive such critical weakness in its core gameplay, and Yaiba's only defences are a formulaic upgrade system that offers one new perk with each XP level attained, and a lethargic approach to collectables with shards that increase your health or resistance to elemental attacks secreted in corners of the level you can't see because of the terrible camera.
Also attempting to break the monotony of the combat are some half-hearted "puzzles" which mostly involve throwing zombies at or into objects (again, assuming the perpetually wayward camera actually shows you the thing you need to throw them at) as well as some wretched one-button parkour sections as Yaiba swings and wall-runs to his next mind-numbing encounter.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is a shoddy, sloppy mess in a genre loaded with shining examples of how to do this sort of thing far better
It's not like Yaiba himself does anything to redeem this game. He's a yammering, knuckle-dragging buffoon who makes Deadpool sound like Stephen Fry. You get the impression that he's supposed to be the sort of obnoxious grindhouse protagonist that Suda 51 specialises in, but the idiotic script can't even match the genital-obsessed gonzo schlock of Shadows of the Damned. Instead, Yaiba's leering at his improbably bosomed handler and his playground-level quips merely irritate. By the time the story tries to redeem this wafer-thin caricature, you'll be so infuriated by the gameplay and so sick of the lame gags that you'll be long past caring what happens in the cut-scenes.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is a shoddy, sloppy mess in a genre loaded with shining examples of how to do this sort of thing far better and would be an embarrassment under any circumstances. That it comes bearing the title of one of the genre's best really rubs salt in the wound. It's hard to imagine why Team Ninja would put its name to this, and even harder to detect the creative fingerprints of Keiji "MegaMan" Inafune, who acted as producer. There's certainly none of the precision you'd expect from someone with his pedigree.
With humour too dumb to even be offensive and one-note gameplay blighted by clumsy design, it's really only possible to cede Yaiba a couple of plus points: wading into zombies with a katana is moderately amusing even in this shonky form, and some of the jokes might raise a smile if you've recently suffered a head injury. That aside, if the 2004 reboot of Ninja Gaiden marks the series at its A-list best, then Ninja Gaiden Z is at least appropriately titled.