The modern-day Ninja Gaiden as a franchise has always been known for it's challenge, but it was always fair. It would throw obstacles at you that could be overcome through thought and tactical awareness. Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z however ignores this, going for more aggressive and less balanced approach.
You play as Yaiba, a ninja trainer turned mass murder after massacring his own clan, motivated by reasons that aren't really explained. After being defeated by franchise protagonist Ryu in a fight to the death, Yaiba awakens as a cyborg to help put an end to a zombie apocalypse and get his revenge on Ryu. Yeah - what starts out as compelling revenge story, where you play as the villain, quickly turns into a basic hack-and-slash zombie game. If you go into this expecting a worthy sequel to Ninja Gaiden 3, then your expectations will be greatly shattered. This is a spin-off whose relationship to the Ninja Gaiden franchise is so weak that you could remove it and it wouldn't really change much of the game at all.
You can tell that Spark Unlimited, the developers of Yaiba, have looked at other spin-off games such as Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance for inspiration, but in trying to emulate that, Spark have created an unbalanced mess that holds your hand when you least want it and gives you limited advice when you do. Slicing away at hoards of weak zombies in a haze of blood and gruesome sounds is fun, but when you come across one of the several types of mini-bosses, it becomes a different story. Each of the mini bosses has its own approach of attack, some are close quarters, where other focus on ranged and area of effect attacks, all of which are supported by pretty good AI system. The AI and variety of mini-bosses isn't the problem, but the way they're pitched against you is troublesome. Taking on one of these tough foes isn't bad, but you will often find yourself going up against two or even three at a time, all of which could be of different classes. Their mix of attacks quickly stops being fun and leads to frustration. When you manage to kill one of them, you earn a special alternate weapon and this can help to dispatch the remaining bosses, but since it has a limited durability there is no guarantee it will last long enough to cause some serious damage against some of the near-indestructible foes. Ninja Gaiden was challenging, but always had the odds of success slightly weighed in your favour - you could always find a way to win. Yaiba repetitively stacks up what it can against you with no real support and just says "deal with it."
Some players may like this approach, but for others it can easily throw them into frustration-induced rage.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z unfortunately doesn't stop there with its problems. This most important part of any fast-paced hack and slash game is the camera, as it dictates the effectiveness of the combat. If you have a bad camera system, the entire experience is weakened. What Yaiba uses is a fixed pull-back camera, that locks on and tracks you around the maps. Under normal circumstances this kind of camera wouldn't be to much of an issue, but combine it with the graphic style the game has going on and the explosions, smoke and fire often clog up the screen and affect your play. Early in the game, in the tutorials actually, you have to dodge an aerial bombardment of missiles while fighting waves of zombies. That would make for a good set-piece if you could actually see what was happening, though you can't.
Despite its poor relationship with the camera, Yaiba looks pretty good in the graphics department. It precisely follows a distinctive comic book tone with colourful and interesting character design and locations that help numb the problems that game has. The maps are highly detailed and a joy to look at and when they open up into wider areas there are also environmental puzzles and little secrets to be found - secrets that can either aid or hinder you in your progression of the map. Even the cutscenes are built in a panel-to-panel comic book format with canted angles and extreme zooms that look like they came straight from a Deadpool comic. Within the first two minutes of the game, the game shows off its tongue-in-cheek sense of humour, and there are plenty of fun one liners and sight gags that can get at least a chuckle out of you.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is not a Ninja Gaiden game, it's a Yaiba game and must treated as such. The graphical look and humor isn't enough to save it from the issues that often plague the hack and slash genre. With a unbalanced combat system, poor camera and no real depth other than repetitive button mashing, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is a game that can easily be overlooked.
This is sad. At the worst I was expecting a competent, if unspectacular, hack-and-slash affair. Too bad.
Ninja Gaiden just isn't the same without Tomonobu Itagaki. I guess I'll just pick up Devil's Third.
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