Like a blindly flung shuriken, the once revered Ninja Gaiden series has apparently lost its way, first made evident by the utter catastrophe that was 2012’s Ninja Gaiden 3 and demonstrated again here by the shamelessly empty-headed and arcadey spin-off Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. The initial misstep comes with the sidelining of iconic central protagonist Ryu Hayabusa, inexplicably replacing him with Yaiba Kamikaze, a bad-tempered, merciless shinobi who massacres his own clan and promptly gets sliced up by Ryu after foolishly challenging him to a one-on-one face-off. The encounter leaves Yaiba severely wounded, but he’s recovered by a secretive organization who rebuilds him with mechanical body parts, supposedly making him the ultimate killing machine in the process.
If this impromptu introduction to a new main character isn’t baffling enough, there’s a massive Russian-zombie-outbreak plot thrown into the mix that involves Yaiba repaying his saviors by slaughtering hordes of undead foes on their behalf, all the while preparing to exact his revenge on Ryu. On a very superficial level, Yaiba has promise: Its lively, colorful cel-shaded graphics, coupled with the involvement of Keiji Inafune, whose résumé is relatively spotless, should have worked to the game’s benefit, rendering it a more lightweight, pick-up-and-play alternative to the often intimidating mainline installments. Yet, Team Ninja, co-developing with Inafune’s Comcept (Soul Sacrifice) and Spark Unlimited (Lost Planet 3) have dropped the ball in nearly every critical area aside from the visuals, which deliver just the right amount of comic-book quirk to save Yaiba from being completely unplayable.
Yaiba forgoes the traditional quick-thinking, precise combat approach to past Ninja Gaiden games in favor of an all-out, brainless barrage of button-bashing tactics that, while flashy enough to hold one’s attention in passing, fail to warrant trudging through seven missions worth of tedious hack-and-slash objectives. There’s literally no skill required in murdering countless waves of flesh-eating enemies, a few haphazard mashes of the controller result in their timely disposal; the monotonous clear-this-room-to-move-forward progression speaks volumes as to how much thought went into the structure of Yaiba’s core mechanics. There’s minimal depth to Yaiba’s movements; he lacks the fluidity and finesse of Ryu, and his specialty seems to be repeating the same dash-attack-evade sequence until there’s nothing left to do.
Furthermore, Yaiba adds to the blandness of its gameplay by largely doing away with conventional Ninja Gaiden power-ups and support items that keep the constant circulation of melees interesting. Gone are long-range armaments, elixirs, and various forms of magical assistance. Truth be told, it’s not like these aids would be entirely necessary, given how laughably elementary the bulk of Yaiba’s battles are. One of Ninja Gaiden’s most notable traits has always been how devilishly designed its duels can be, but the degree of imbalance here is staggering. While vanguard grunt adversaries go down without much of a fight, bosses, both mini and endgame, hardly take any immediate damage from assaults that were previously devastating, requiring painfully prolonged periods of health-meter chipping. This could have been somewhat alleviated with a halfway decent upgrade system, but what Yaiba has is subdued at best, limiting players to the standard light-strong-spread strike layout via blade, robotic arm, and chained flail.
Recurrent camera-angle issues also heighten the frustration in the thick of heavy battlefield situations. The screen commonly becomes so overcrowded and bathed in garish pixel flares exuded from cartoonish explosions and blood splatters that losing track of Yaiba in the midst of such unregulated chaos is a typical occurrence. This is, in essence, Yaiba in a nutshell: a clueless game that has lost sight of what made its digital ancestors genre classics, cheapening itself by unwisely choosing style over substance.