Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z

360, PC, PS3


The first of Tomonobu Ita­gaki’s Ninja Gaiden games was de­fined by its coun­ter­at­tack. Ac­ti­vated by block­ing and then press­ing an at­tack but­ton the mo­ment an en­emy blow con­nected, it pow­ered a game that re­quired care­ful play and in­sisted you re­spect your op­po­nent, pun­ish­ing mis­takes se­verely. In the process, it set a new high bar for its genre. Ninja Gaiden’s been go­ing downhill ever since, and it says much about how in­ex­orably bound this se­ries is to the law of di­min­ish­ing re­turns that its lat­est en­try’s defin­ing me­chanic asks for no tim­ing, pre­ci­sion or re­spect for your op­po­nent. Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is built on the QTE.

Whit­tle down an en­emy’s health suf­fi­ciently and the ac­tion briefly slows, an ex­cla­ma­tion mark over their head prompt­ing you to squeeze L2 and mash a but­ton to trig­ger a grue­some close-up ex­e­cu­tion. Against the bog-stan­dard zom­bie hordes that pop­u­late the early game, all you’ll get is a mod­est health top-up. Against tougher en­e­mies, the re­wards are much greater, with a larger health re­fill and Yaiba yank­ing their limbs from their torso to briefly use as weapons. A killer clown yields a pair of Nunchuck­les, a fire-breath­ing priest gives up a rocket launcher, and a mu­tant that spews streams of toxic bile pro­vides a weapon that lets you do like­wise. This is the only way to ex­pand your toolset; while Ryu Hayabusa picked up new weapons dur­ing his ad­ven­tures that were then per­ma­nently avail­able from a menu screen, here they are of limited use and must be ac­quired through a process that is all too easy to miss.

The cam­era is the main cul­prit, which is es­pe­cially galling given that de­vel­oper Spark Un­lim­ited clearly recog­nises, and has sought to fix, this se­ries’ longest­stand­ing prob­lem. By re­plac­ing Team Ninja’s in­fa­mous third­per­son cam­era with a fixed view­point, Yaiba should be off to a good start. But the res­o­lute in­sis­tence on track­ing ev­ery­thing on­screen fre­quently re­duces its ninja pro­tag­o­nist to a mere speck. One of our count­less un­fair deaths came dur­ing a rooftop bat­tle with a pair of zom­bie wrestlers, when the com­mit­ment to track­ing the move­ments of both meant we met an un­seen demise while oc­cluded by mid-screen scenery. The cam­era spends much of the game zoomed out as far as pos­si­ble and this, com­bined with the way its lens gets cov­ered in yel­low goo if you take too much bile dam­age, fre­quently makes it not only im­pos­si­ble to track your op­po­nents, but even to see where you are. You’ll find yourself mash­ing X to dash a few times in the hope of pick­ing yourself out among the crowd.

It makes those QTE prompts hard to spot, too, which wouldn’t be a prob­lem were they not so es­sen­tial to suc­cess. Weapon-bear­ing en­e­mies have high health, but each is vul­ner­a­ble to the pow­ers of cer­tain pick­ups. It’s a sys­tem that has lit­tle ground­ing in logic – fire priests are weak against elec­tric­ity, while us­ing bile on

It takes us two dozen re­tries to de­cide to for­get ev­ery­thing we’ve learned in the past decade of Ninja Gaiden games

an elec­tric foe freezes them in brit­tle hunks of gold crys­tal – but what­ever you can lay your hands on is go­ing to fare bet­ter than Yaiba’s stan­dard sword, flail and cy­ber­netic fist. Bat­tles quickly de­volve into the same pat­tern: at­tack, look for the QTE prompt, yank off a zom­bie’s arms, col­lect the health pick­ups to re­pair the dam­age you in­evitably took, then use their weapon un­til it runs out. Then re­peat the whole process over and over and over again. And whether it’s down to the cam­era, to the fact that you did so much dam­age that you didn’t even get a fin­isher prompt or, in­cred­i­bly rarely, from a gen­uine mis­take that you im­me­di­ately un­der­stand, we sug­gest you pre­pare to die.

Within a cou­ple of hours, you’ll have seen ev­ery sin­gle en­emy the game has to of­fer. From there on, Spark sim­ply mixes up their group­ing across fights last­ing three or four waves with no check­points in be­tween. Fill a me­ter and you can click both sticks to activate the Devil Trig­ger-alike Blood­lust, but you’ll be too afraid to use it, be­cause it takes seem­ingly for­ever to recharge and you don’t know how many more waves are go­ing to mag­i­cally rise from the ground.

Ba­sic com­bat is dis­mal, turgid stuff, yet ac­counts for al­most all the ac­tion. The only changes of pace come from the oc­ca­sional boss fight, some trial-and-er­ror, one-but­ton plat­form­ing sec­tions, and a lev­el­ling sys­tem that pow­ers a new con­tender for gam­ing’s most point­less skill tree. Sup­posed light re­lief comes from your ex­changes with Miss Mon­day, Yaiba’s li­ai­son with the mys­te­ri­ous cor­po­ra­tion that res­ur­rected him af­ter a fa­tal tus­sle with Hayabusa. He point­lessly di­rects a stream of lazily misog­y­nis­tic pat­ter at the screen-cor­ner redhead, whose bra pokes out over her shirt, a black tie dis­ap­pear­ing down her cleav­age. It says much that this is merely the least of this game’s litany of prob­lems.

Those flaws are per­haps most per­fectly en­cap­su­lated when, two-thirds of the way through, Yaiba tracks Hayabusa down. It takes us two dozen re­tries to de­cide to for­get ev­ery­thing we’ve learned in the past decade of Ninja Gaiden games. We stop learn­ing at­tack pat­terns, look­ing for open­ings, or re­spect­ing our op­po­nent. We get up close, mash­ing the same four-hit combo over and over, dodg­ing his AOE at­tack be­fore re­sum­ing our te­dious as­sault, and we win. Hayabusa is, here as ever, el­e­gant, pow­er­ful and pre­cise. Yaiba is dumb.

All of which is baf­fling, given that this was made un­der the eye of Keiji Ina­fune, who fa­mously lam­basted how far his coun­try­men had fallen be­hind western game de­vel­op­ment. His so­lu­tion, ap­par­ently, is to turn one of Ja­pan’s last great se­ries into a repet­i­tive grind rid­dled with cheap deaths, and to help a western stu­dio with a poor track record reach a new, un­think­able low. Or per­haps Ina­fune’s plan wasn’t to make Ja­panese games bet­ter, but western ones dra­mat­i­cally worse. In that case, this is a job well done.

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