Things haven’t been looking so good for the Ninja Gaiden series as of late. Since a stellar second instalment, we saw the departure of Tomonobu Itagaki and Team Ninja have been struggling.
When Ninja Gaiden 3 launched in 2012, it may have had a few merits but ultimately fell short of its predecessors. Even worse for the developer was last last year’s re-launch, Razor’s Edge, completely failing to powder over the game’s list of shortcomings.
Instead of taking another crack at emulating previous titles in the series, publisher Tecmo KOEI has thrown a bit of a curve-ball. Placing the franchise in the hands of Lost Planet 3 studio, Spark Unlimited, this latest instalment is far from your traditional Ninja Gaiden experience.
For a start, series protagonist, Ryu Hayabusa, has been relegated to the sidelines in favour of titular anti-hero Yaiba Kamikaze. Gaiden Z kicks off with a duel between the two ninjas and, suffice to say, Yaiba gets his ass handed to him, with Hayabusa almost cutting him in half.
Left for dead, the wounded swordsman is recovered by a shady organisation known as Forge. Reviving the fallen warrior using state-of-the-art technology, Yaiba is then dispatched to deal with a sudden zombie outbreak. Though not really concerned with the epidemic, he goes regardless after hearing that Ryu is in search of its infectious source.
Another big change to the popular action series is Yaiba’s distinctive art style. Instead of conjuring up jaw-dropping vistas and detailed characters, Spark has opted for a comic-inspired, cel-shaded aesthetic, similar to Borderlands. However, in comparison to Gearbox Software’s best-selling shooter, Yaiba has little in the way of finesse.
The cutscenes may be presented well using a great panel effect, but the actual in-game visuals are rough from start to finish. Environments are plastered with a mixture of dull greys and sickly vibrant colours whereas enemies lack variety; a shame considering how zany some of the designs are.
Yet there is a sense of familiarity to the gameplay. Yaiba is in no way identical to previous Ninja Gaiden games, yet the flow and difficulty of combat still remains. Due to the fact they’re mostly zombies, enemies often come in much larger waves and allow you to blast through the hordes with an array of deadly combos.
Yaiba has three weapons from the get go, including his Heartless Blade, flail, and mechanical fist. Each tethered to one of the face buttons, players are free to start experiment with different combos right off the bat. Not soon after learning the ropes, however, combat begins to fall apart somewhat.
New enemy types are gradually filtered in and it becomes increasingly more difficult to dodge, block, and counter, especially given how poorly enemy animations are telegraphed. On top of this, Spark layers on another level of challenge in the form of status ailments including fire, electricity, and bile, with their goal to incapacitate Yaiba, making it even easier for enemies to wipe the floor with him. No doubt some will actually enjoy the combat mechanics but, to me, it felt needlessly piled on and off-putting.
That’s bad new, then, considering how Yaiba’s gameplay is heavily focussed on melee skirmishes. The other sections are either puzzles, in which you fling corpses at specific things to trigger events, or platforming. This latter feature was actually somewhat of surprise though. Instead of forcing players to awkwardly throw themselves around convoluted obstacle courses, Yaiba uses a button-press mini-game. It may lack sophistication but it just felt fun and fluid, at least in comparison to the rest of the game.
Ninja Gaiden Z is an exceptionally intriguing spin-off in premise alone. The thought of playing as someone who actually hunts the series’ protagonist is original, but the execution just isn’t there.
Combat, though it does have its nuances, can be tedious and even starts to become unenjoyable. Visually, the game is also a step back for a series which has seen a worrying decline in quality over the past few years. Put bluntly, if you’re hankering for some Ninja Gaiden, then the recent Vita ports are your best option.