Spin-offs to major game series are both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the familiarity of a well-known franchise gives your new game some exposure. On the other hand, being vastly different from the parent game means you break players' expectations, and that's always risky since your game has to be spectacular enough for them to accept the new formula. Games like Rayman Raving Rabbids were able to pull off the feat nicely while others, like Death by Degrees, a Tekken spin-off, didn't fare as well. Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, a spin-off of Tecmo's big action franchise, falls into the latter category, but it does so with style.
The story is the first way Yaiba tries to establish itself as something vastly different. As the game opens, you take on the role of Yaiba, a ninja from another clan who decided to murder Ryu Hayabusa after he was asked to return a powerful sword. Yaiba decided on a duel instead but came out on the losing end with the sword shattered, his eye missing, his left arm cut off, and he was left for dead. With his new body parts in place and a new lease on life, Yaiba seeks revenge. To get that, he must help his benefactors clear a zombie outbreak in Russia and get to the man who's ruining their plans: Ryu Hayabusa.
The game tries to make everything more lighthearted. Your boss, Del Gonzo, is a happy-go-lucky guy who tries to make witty observations about what's happening. Your assistant, Miss Monday, tries to do the same but throws in some sexual flavor to the proceedings. Yaiba is like Deadpool, a bit psychotic and carefree but with more murder than humor on his mind. Some of the situations also try to bring humor to the game. Interrupting a zombie wedding, seeing the undead get excited about driving trains, and a lingerie shop with raining underwear all try to make the proceedings seem funny.
The problem is this all falls apart once the game begins. None of the dialogue is close to witty, let alone funny. The level of writing doesn't need to be Oscar-worthy to be considered good, but every line feels like it's trying way too hard to be funny and using foul language and sexual innuendo because it can. This is especially true in the written story fragments, which contain lines so cringe-worthy that they'd be bad in B-grade movies. Events like seeing a zombie hump a box or urinate on a wall or get disappointed that his train is running late seem like lame attempts at humor to make up for the dialogue. The only thing of interest here is that Ryu is the villain. With no way to see how "bad" he is, though, there's no way for the player to get invested or interested in killing the ninja.
Bad story and horrible dialogue can be swept away if the gameplay is up to snuff. The developers tried to do something a little different here. Yaiba has essentially three different attacks, each using a different weapon at his disposal. His quick attack uses his broken sword to carve enemies with large arcs to every slash. Strong attacks use his cybernetic arm to deliver hard punch combos, and area attacks use his flail to whip enemies around him and hit enemies from a distance. While he can't gain other permanent weapons, Yaiba can get other limited-use weapons. Some, like the zombie arm "numb-chucks," are stronger melee weapons, but others take on more elemental traits, like the electrified spine, flaming cannon head, and the bile-spewing stomach, all of which are ripped from enemies you defeat. If that weren't enough, you also have a rage meter you can build up to activate a temporary mode where you're almost invincible and your attacks deal more damage.
The combat may not be as nuanced as the games in the original series, but that doesn't mean that it can't be fun. There are many combos at your disposal, but you can safely stick with a few and be fine. Most of the undead hordes just crowd around you and take in all the damage. Execution moves help with the flash factor but also give you health shards, and you can even string them together if you have enough vulnerable enemies. Using elemental attacks against specialized zombies results in some spectacular method of death, whether it's being encased in crystals or engulfed in a tower of fire. Again, it's flashy and somewhat effective, but it spices up the combat, especially when you're dealing with vanilla hordes of zombies.
The simplified approach to fighting should make for an appealing game for a broader audience, but there's a litany of issues that bog down the game and come close to destroying it. Many of the issues are technical in nature, with the camera being the main culprit. While it tries to go for something more cinematic, it is pulled so far back that Yaiba is barely big enough to see. Other times, the camera barely moves until he's near the edge, obscuring enemies at the edges and giving them free hits to kill your combos unless you're button-mashing the flail button. Since the camera is not attached to Yaiba but to the action and some bosses, you'll get plenty of situations where you lose track of Yaiba or get caught in artificial spots because the camera can't move back to show you have ample clearance for movement.
The game's tendency to favor flash over function also contributes to the frustratingly broken combat system. As pretty as some of the smoke, fire and blood effects are, they successfully obscure where enemies are — and even Yaiba himself. The fight with the giant zombie infant provides a perfect example of this. The green slime coming from the pipes doesn't become transparent when anything is behind it, and combined with the camera angle that is too far away, you have a fight where you're guessing where you are at all times. The same goes for things like destroying large crystal walls or creating fire vortexes, as the effects last far too long and force you to guess what you're doing while fighting. It's terrible when you're up against the more specialized enemies.
The difficulty spikes and methods are another reason why combat, and general gameplay, feels broken. The former isn't anything new for the series, as it has been known for being tough on players, but the lack of tells or feedback from the stronger zombies makes it tough to perform any counters, a problem amplified by the counter system, which doesn't seem to function most of the time. Leveling up Yaiba doesn't increase his strength or any useful abilities, and with the enemies remaining tough, the game never seems to decrease the difficulty. Further compounding the issue is how the developers maintain that increase in toughness. Early on, the game introduces all sorts of zombie types, but that slows down significantly in the third level. Instead of giving those zombies newer moves, the designers threw more of them into an area and made all sorts of combinations with them. The first time you meet the fire priest may be tough, but his fights become more annoying when the electric brides, killer clowns, and strong hobos appear. Furthermore, the checkpoint system is designed so you need to pass several of these fights before you get a checkpoint reprieve, and any death repeats the process.
The design in combat feels cheap instead of innovative to the point where luck may be the only way to get through any of these encounters. The tough challenges feel like a lazy way of maintaining the legacy of being difficult, and success only diminishes your desire to break the game instead of relishing in your success. The familiar pattern of traversing from room to room to encounter enemy arenas is very prominent here, and it makes the game feel like a slog instead of something enjoyable. If the main goal was to make the game feel like boring work, then the mission was accomplished.
Outside of combat, Yaiba seems to view non-combat as a necessary evil and goes out of its way to make it feel as brain-dead as possible instead of giving the player a proper respite. You can look for hidden artifacts that can give you more background on the story or boost your health and elemental resistance. The trouble is that the artifacts barely make much of a difference since enemies, like the giant robotic dog, will be able to kill you in the same amount of hits after collecting the shards. Yaiba lacks the ability to jump at will and can only leap at particular areas, specifically anything marked with red bloodstains. Even then, all of the acrobat leaping you'll do is accomplished through Quick Time Events (QTEs) instead of your own controller dexterity. You'll certainly look cool using your flail to swing around large metal pipes, climbing up walls, and punching people midair, but since the game is doing all that for you, you get robbed of feeling cool for doing all that yourself. As for puzzles, every single one of them boils down to throwing zombies around, and while it seems fun at first, the fact that this is the only type of puzzle you experience makes it feel old rather quickly.
Like the gameplay, the presentation starts off strongly but falls short. Graphically, the game has a striking cel-shaded look that gives it a comic book feel. Colors are bold and shadows are dark, but it still manages to bring out some nice details in both the background and characters. However, there is no antialiasing present, so the appearance of jagged lines is rampant throughout the game. It also has a tendency to stutter during non-combat situations, and pop-up is prevalent in heavily populated scenes. It is nice that these issues don't happen during combat, especially since it already has enough on its plate. As for sound, the music and effects are fine, as is the voice acting, given the quality of the material they're working with. There is an issue with Yaiba and Ryu, however, in that they sound so similar minus Yaiba's gruff delivery that you'll be forgiven for being confused over who's speaking during their exchanges. Also, the cut scenes have a tendency to be much louder in volume than the game, another annoyance that hasn't been fixed yet.
What is sad about Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is how much potential there is. A slightly goofy take on the universe isn't a bad concept, and the combat, while not as refined, can be fun at times. However, the numerous problems, from the stubbornly low enemy count to the bad camera and terrible platforming bog, put a damper on the game's few positives. Worse yet, the context surrounding the game isn't very interesting, and it doesn't take long before what were chuckle-inducing moments become groan-inducing ones instead. If you insist on playing the game and only doing so because you've exhausted every other game of this system, then do so via a rental.
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