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We need to talk about Yaiba


"F***." You'll hear that a lot in Yaiba Ninja Gaiden Z, the odd Ninja Gaiden spin-off created by the unlikeliest trio in game development: Keiji Inafune's Comcept, Ninja Gaiden's Team Ninja and Lost Planet 3's Spark Unlimited.

You'll hear that and more expletives from Yaiba, the cyborg ninja star of the third-person hack-and-slash as he cuts through the game's comic book zombie horde. He's an angry chap, is Yaiba. The origin story: for some reason he was sliced to bits by Ninja Gaiden's Ryu Hayabusa and for some reason he was brought back to life. All he has is his hate, a robot arm and in-ear guidance from the hyper sexualised Miss Monday - Yaiba's "in-game tour guide" - as he goes on a revenge mission as tiresome as the clichés this game is riddled with.

Yaiba is the quintessential douchebag. His eye-rolling conversations with Miss Monday's bulging bust are listed under the heading "a sense of humour all its own", but they're about as funny as Duke Nukem Forever. He says things like "take a suck," "I've always known exactly where to stick my sword, sugar tits," and, "can I see through your dress with this thing?" Yes, I think Yaiba is a douchebag.

But then, am I - are we - supposed to think that? Perhaps it's all part of Inafune's master plan. Is Yaiba's dialogue intentionally terrible? Is Yaiba ironic? Or post-ironic? Or something else I don't understand?

"I wanted to make a ninja who was nontraditional," he tells me during a recent interview.

Inafune and Team Ninja chief Yosuke Hayashi are sat next to each other in a meeting room in the London office of UKIE. They're flanked by a translator. Inafane is wearing a red shell suit jacket, a grey T-shirt underneath and unremarkable jeans. The jacket is the star, as it always is. When on tour promoting Dead Rising 2 the former Capcom super designer would wear a yellow jacket - the yellow jacket of the game's protagonist, Chuck Greene. Perhaps this red version is as close to Yaibai's red cyborg eye as he could get.

"A traditional ninja is pretty much Ryu Hayabusa at the end of the day," he says in that hoarse voice of his.

"I wanted to come up with something totally opposite. Yaiba is the opposite of Ryu Hayabusa. He's breaking the taboo pretty much in all areas you can think of. That's the approach I took."

"Yaiba is the opposite of Ryu Hayabusa. He's breaking the taboo pretty much in all areas you can think of. That's the approach I took."

Keiji Inafune

Then, before I mention that I think Yaiba might not be everyone's cup of tea, Inafune issues a pre-emptive strike. Perhaps he saw some of the reaction to that trailer and knew I'd ask about it.

"Maybe your first impression of Yaiba is he's a sort of stingy character. Some people will have negative thoughts against him. But if you actually play through the game and understand the storyline and the plot, you'll understand more of Yaiba as a character."

Wait, did Infanue say "stingy"? I double check with the translator. Apparently, yes, that's the word that came out of Inafune's mouth. Hmm. He's cheap? He won't sub you a couple of quid for the bus ride home?

"He turns out to be a character who is not as bad as you first think," Inafune continues. "So hopefully the player will play through the game and feel that way as well."

Yaiba goes on some grand journey of discovery. He starts out all cocky, effing and blinding and gawping at Miss Monday's breasts, but the harsh reality of his mission makes him see the light. As he cuts through his trillionth zombie it dawns on him: I have been a bad cyborg ninja. I have the wrong attitude. I must change my ways.

What happens to Yaiba to cause such a personality shift? Infune, without giving too much away, mentions something about Ryu Hayabusa, something that sparks a change in Yaiba's character.

"From about the halfway stage of the game you'll see Yaiba actually interact with Ryu Hayabusa," he says. "That's the stage players should feel the different side of Yaiba. Hopefully players will play to that area and will feel the change in Yaiba as the game progresses."

While we wait for Yaiba to catch up with right-thinking members of society, we have a somewhat mindless hack-and-slash to get to grips with. In it you kill thousands of zombies. Sometimes scores are on screen at once. Yaiba's gameplay is over the top; its comic book art style, its red spray, torn limbs and crushed flesh all shock tactics drawn in thick black lines. It's Afro Samurai on a piss-up in Croydon.

Yaiba's current-gen cel-shaded visuals have a certain charm to them - even if the action is so fast and frenetic and so packed with zombies that it's hard to properly judge, a bit like Michael Bay's Transformers movies. The combo system is by the numbers with occasional flair. The action game staples are present and correct: the ninja sword for quick attacks; the robot arm punch for guard-breaking and the chain flail for crowd control. As he fights, Yaiba fills a meter that powers Bloodlust mode for extra carnage. Yaiba can dash. He can guard. He can counter. He gains experience points. He unlocks combos and abilities.

Yaiba's combat revolves around executions. Once you do enough damage to a zombie the "!" execute mark appears above their hitbox. That's your cue to press L2 or LT, triggering a brutal execution animation unique to each enemy type. The trick is to chain these together with the proper timing. We're not talking about Itagaki-level timing here; the timing is forgiving enough for you to chain executions almost mindlessly, earning back health points in the process.

You also have to pay attention to the elemental system. Some zombies have elemental attributes, such as fire and electricity. If you use an elemental zombie weapon against them, you'll do more damage. It's not rocket science, but it's something you need to keep an eye on.

The game's combat is by the numbers, then, and certainly easier than previous Ninja Gaiden games (that's why there's the just-announced ultra difficult arcade mode). I will praise the "Zombie Weapon" system, though, which lets you pick up a whole zombie or its body parts and chuck them or use them to bash other zombies' brains in. It's kind of cool, I guess, which sums up Yaiba's first two levels: the tutorial Warzone and the harder Oldtown. Once you get over the spectacle of the over the top gore - so silly you stop caring after 10 minutes - and the super speed of the action, you're left with an average action game.

Which is fine, but then Yaiba opens his gob again and says something silly to Miss Monday. "We were anticipating different directions from different people based on the different cultural understandings of the information we pushed out," Inafune says, diplomatically.

"But having said that, we think different reactions are normal. If we were to deny that, and try to be too conservative, it would take out any fun aspects of the game. It's not just limited to Yaiba, but in general."

Inafune doesn't want us to take Yaiba seriously. He wants us to laugh at the silly zombies do silly things to each other, like accidentally rip off a zombie buddy's arm then eat it, or drive a bulldozer over a buddy zombie, or fail to pull the pin out of a grenade and charge at Yaiba. I'm happy to laugh along with the mindless slaughter of zombies, but the Miss Monday stuff veers too far on the side of cringe. You can't help but sigh, shake your head and wonder if this game is for you.

"We can't be too cautious and take it in a conservative approach that would make the game pretty much flat with no fun aspects or interesting characters," Inafune counters. "That's the route we don't want to take.

"It will be a long process to bring the true meaning of one person. But at the same time we feel we need to keep on challenging and bringing out the best of this character we're creating."

I don't care about Yaiba's story. I don't care about Yaiba's character. All I care about is mastering the combat, then seeing how far I can take it. All I care about are chained executions, input commands and counter timing. All I'm interested in is making the gameplay sing, the current-gen controller my microphone.

This is what it boils down to for me: is the combat slick enough to drown out all that awful dialogue, to get me to that magical halfway point, where - inevitably - Yaiba and Ryu Hayabusa join forces before taking down the game's true enemy? In short: is Yaiba the game so good I'll put up with Yaiba the douchebag?

Right now, I think not, but you never know. Perhaps that's what I'm supposed to think.

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About the Author
Wesley Yin-Poole avatar

Wesley Yin-Poole


Wesley likes news, interviews, and more news. He also likes Street Fighter more than anyone can get him to shut up about it.

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