Ryu Hayabusa – gaming icon and goody two-shoes – is a little bit too awesome, don’t you think? He’s worked his way through some of the hardest games on the market, hardly breaking a sweat. He’s faced all sorts of fiendish enemies and has come through mostly unscathed. But not anymore – Yaiba Kamikaze, a psychopath ninja, is on his tail. Oh, and there might just be zombies. Lots of zombies. Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is a gross-out comedy action slasher that is entirely unlike the rest of the series – but that's not necessarily all bad.
That’s not to say that Yaiba doesn’t give off a poor first impression. He’s perhaps one of the most unlikeable main characters of the last few years, and not in a “so bad it’s good” kind of way. The game itself is shoddily introduced as well, asking you to get revenge on Ryu, a character you can at least respect as the good guy and probably won’t want to hunt down. There’s also a zombie outbreak which you’re tricked into trying to help contain, but aside from giving you endless enemies to face, probably won’t do much to keep you playing. There's not a single piece of interesting story here, outside of the core concept of "you're the bad guy”.
The first level, which doubles as a tutorial, is also stupidly easy to get through. We started on Hard mode, the highest level available at the beginning, and even then there was very little to hold us up as we strutted our way past hordes of the undead. In fact, if there was anything that made that level annoying, it was the controls, which never quite feel as natural as they should. Too many important moves are set to the shoulder buttons, and you’ll spend the whole game accidentally grabbing instead of blocking, or trying to use an execution ability when there’s nobody around to execute.
So presented with a story that’s uninteresting, a lead character that won’t stop making crude, unfunny jokes, and a short, boring opening level in which you realise that the controls are pretty terrible, what possible reason do you have to keep playing? It’s a question you’ll almost definitely ask yourself, but it definitely pays to stick with it. If you don't entirely hate that first level, things get better.
For instance, regular zombies make up the vast majority of enemies early on and are nothing but cannon fodder; they’re there mostly to increase your combo and improve on your score. They still take some knocking around and in groups can be deadly if you’re not careful, but you’re probably never going to die because of them. Special zombies, on the other hand, will tear you apart. You’ll need to time blocks and dodges, attack using certain moves, and even luck out a little. This is a game in which you’ll fight what you presume is a boss, scrape through with the tiniest bit of health remaining, and then head around the corner to find that there’s two more of what you just fought waiting for you.
Yaiba continues the Ninja Gaiden tradition for difficulty. Only by learning about each main enemy's strengths and weaknesses will you be able to properly speed through, and even then you’ll need a little luck. The bad controls don’t help, especially when timing is so important, but there’s never really a feeling that you can entirely blame them. If you’d just reacted faster, dodged quicker, hit with harder moves, perhaps you wouldn’t have got squashed like a bug.
Your first playthrough will be even harder, because there’s quite a lot introduced, and quickly. The elements mechanic, while nice on paper, means that you’ll be left desperately trying to remember what to do with the enemies that you come across. Find a yellow gooey monster and set fire to it, either with the environment or an item, and watch as he falls apart. Hit them with electricity and they’re frozen in crystal, ready to beat into a pulp. This is all rather overwhelming, especially when you suddenly find yourself surrounded by several different enemies of various types.
Outside of the fact that you’ll die an awful lot, it won’t take you too long to finish up your Yaiba adventure. Action games like this don’t tend to be very long at the best of times, relying on increased difficulty, leaderboards, and collectibles for replayability, and this game has all of that in spades. There are two difficulty levels above hard, and it’ll take a lot of skill to work your way through both of them. There are also health improvements to pick up, perks to earn (by gaining experience), and diaries and biographies to collect.
The leaderboards alone should have made for an interesting addition, but as of writing the top players have all cheated their way there. It’s a little sad that UK players picking up the game today will already be met by people with corrupted names and impossibly high scores. Hopefully this is something that Tecmo Koei will fix sooner rather than later.
As you progress, the battles that you win start to become more rewarding and the jokes start to get funnier. It’s important to qualify that “win” part, because you’ll start dying more often as well and that’s as frustrating as you let it be. Sometimes the checkpoint system isn’t quite as on the ball as it needs to be, and you’ll end up getting through a tough fight for the first time, dying a second later, and having to do that first fight all over again. It’s fair, insomuch as the developers decided not to reward you for getting through every single encounter, but soon becomes just another reason to turn off your console.
There are a few of those. Annoying fixed camera angles will make certain fights a chore more often than they should, and occasional glitches will make you lose concentration when you need it the most. These aren't the sort of things that'll make you regret a purchase, but waiting for a price drop and a patch might be beneficial to those easily bothered by this sort of problem.
When you’re not fighting the undead or swearing because you’ve positioned yourself in a place that the camera refuses to go, you’ll be climbing your way through office blocks and sewer systems – usually while they’re falling apart around you. The best way of describing these sections is as a QTE without the huge highlighted control indicators: when you come across a specific kind of obstacle, you’ll need to press the right button to deal with it. These are simple enough, but not exactly fun. It’s just a method of getting you from one set of battles to the next.
While uninteresting, it’s a nice chance to properly get a look at the visuals. Yaiba boasts an interesting and well-delivered art style not entirely unlike Telltale’s The Walking Dead – only faster. It’s very stylized, so it stands out and never looks dull. Even though you’ll face the same enemies time and again, and spend a lot of time around samey environments, the visuals never give out. The gameplay on the other hand, does.
There comes a point in Yaiba where you’ll know that you’ve seen more or less everything that there is to see. There won’t have been a new enemy type introduced in a while, and you’ll have probably died a few times. How much this bothers you will depend on a couple of things: whether you’re any good at it, and whether you mind having to fight foes that you’ve already defeated countless times to progress. If you can bring yourself to power through, though, Yaiba may just about be worth picking up.
You don't have to actually enjoy misery and pain to pick up Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, but it helps. When the difficulty isn't making you cry like a little girl, the terrible jokes and uneven gameplay probably will be. If you're the sort of person that enjoys a challenge and doesn't mind overlooking a few rustier moments, buy a box of super absorbent tissues and give this a go. Otherwise, just check out the hilarious zombie cutscene on YouTube – you won't have missed a whole lot else.