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Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z

Yaiba is dumb. You play as the titular antihero who’s out to kill normal series protagonist Ryu Hayabusa. But make no mistake, this is a Ninja Gaiden game in name only, save for the punishing level of difficulty and an absurd plot. Realistically, Yaiba is just the latest misfire in a long line of idiotic Japanese games – Yaiba was developed by the Western studio Spark Unlimited but co-designed by Team Ninja and Keiji Inafune’s Comcept – designed to pander to a Western market they clearly do not understand.

At first blush Yaiba has a lot of cosmetic similarities with Grasshopper Manufacture’s dreadful Lollipop Chainsaw; it’s a colorful, foul-mouthed game where you eviscerate wave after wave of zombies with little to no thought involved. To its credit though, the simple combat system here is fast and responsive, making the mindless maiming easy and even a bit enjoyable.

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As enemies are staggered they can be executed, triggering flashy kills that net extra experience points and drop healing items. Combat quickly becomes an endless loop of crowd control and executions, and oddly enough, the system works. The speed of combat broken up with the cinematic deaths is reminiscent of the PlayStation 2 great, Shinobi, though Yaiba‘s basic combat requires little of the same manual dexterity: mashing flail and the occasional execute command will win most easier fights.

“The combination of the alternate weapons, their effects and their relative scarcity combine for a satisfying dichotomy”Where combat gets a bit more interesting is when Yaiba introduces its tougher crop of zombies. Many of these enemies have an element associated with them, either electricity, fire or bile, though there are non-elemental elite zombies as well. The difference with this group of enemies, other than the sometimes absurd amount of hits they require to kill or stagger, is the accessory weapons they drop once executed. These alternate weapons range from disembodied heads that belch fire to nunchuck-like clown arms, aptly named “Nun-Chuckles”. Though Yaiba‘s combat system is simple, the combination of the alternate weapons, their effects and their relative scarcity combine for a satisfying dichotomy.

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The elite zombies are hard. They’re the kind of enemies you can only absorb a few hits from, but no more. And after the first couple of stages Yaiba likes to dole out several at a time, and then in repeated waves in arena after arena. What this effectively means is you’re locked into combat for several minutes at a time and the only way to survive is to either not get hit or heal via executions. The easiest way to beat tough zombies is with accessory weapons, but the catch is you’ll kill them if you’re not careful, rather than stagger them for an execution.

“Combat boils down to a game of chicken”Combat boils down to a game of chicken. Without trial and error you never know how many waves lie ahead, so you constantly have to decide whether you should just kill everyone in a wave as quickly as possible, expending your accessory weapons in the process, or take them out one-by-one, leaving you a safer opportunity to secure executions, and thus heal and create new accessory weapons. When this dynamic is working, Yaiba is both surprising and exhilarating. But this system comes with a hefty price: huge potentials for frustration.

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Once you’ve figured out the schtick the majority of combat arenas are a breeze, but as mentioned, the game ups the stakes quite a bit in the second half. Arenas can last as many as five waves, releasing upwards of a dozen tough enemies at once. Again, these zombies hit hard, meaning death is always a hit or two away; when you die it’s back to the previous checkpoint, and depending on how long that particular arena is, you could be sent back several minutes or longer – I’m looking at you final boss.

“The difficulty might be mitigated if the game were a little better polished”The difficulty might be mitigated if the game were a little better polished, or slightly more forgiving in its design. The camera is the first culprit, which rarely provides a desired view of the battlefield. The camera is often too far away or obstructed by enemies in front of you, leading to tons of heavy hits you didn’t see coming. Elemental enemies can also drop elemental attacks on the ground or even on top of themselves that linger, leaving them impossible to attack without taking damage – the camera’s lack of depth perception also comes into play here as well. The last and probably the most infuriating aspect is the counter system’s microscopic activation window, rendering it essentially useless against melee foes.

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Outside of its series of increasingly frustrating combat arenas there isn’t a whole lot to Yaiba. Its sophomoric humor will illicit an occasional chuckle, or groan, but otherwise, there’s an astonishing lack of content throughout. One mission feels like it’s been composed entirely of recycled boss battles. And then there are two missions that are entirely boss battles. And this is out of seven total missions.

Yaiba is weird. It’s dumb, insanely frustrating and to be honest, kind of insulting. However, regrettably, it’s also a bit fun. Tucked within its numerous levels of idiocy is a smart but simple combat system that rewards aggression and restraint in equal measures. It’s a shame it’s the only part of the game with half a brain.

5 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in April 2008. Get in touch on Twitter @_seankelley.

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