Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is aimed at the secret meathead in all of us, at that part of our brain that resents all the hard thinking it’s been made to do and that just wants to mash buttons to make the zombies fly. Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z often scratches that itch beautifully. This game is not, nor is it intended to be, an action game in the mould of a DMC or Bayonetta, but it is a game that allows you to pull off large combos and spectacular executions with relative ease, and to find a certain satisfaction in doing so.
Combat in Ninja Gaiden Z is based around three weapons – a chain ‘flail’ attack, which favours range and speed over damage, Yaiba’s fist, which is slow but powerful and his sword, which is somewhere in between. Weakening your undead enemies allows you to perform ostentatiously violent executions in order to boost your score and regain health. When it comes to the game’s standard enemies, little to no thought has to be employed by the player when it comes to mixing up your attacks – any combination of wild button mashing will do. That there is simplicity to Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z (at least in the early going) and that it prioritises style over substance does no harm to a game that successfully generates enjoyment from the act of clearing the screen of an undead horde.
More powerful enemies are gradually introduced – from psychopathic clowns to giant two-headed babies – not only to ramp up the difficulty level, but to introduce new tools and mechanics to play with. Execute one of these enemies and you’ll receive access to a degradable weapon, many of which have elemental affiliations that interact with each other in different (though often explosive) ways. Fire some bile from a ‘hag pipe’ at an electrical enemy, for example, and they will be frozen in crystal, allowing you to smash them into pieces with Yaiba’s fist.
In principle, that sounds like a nice idea, a clever way of introducing a tactical element to the game’s combat, but it’s here we reach the crux of the problem with Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. As the game progresses, developers Team Ninja evidently felt – and you’d be inclined to agree – that the game needed more challenging enemies and a few extra mechanics to keep it from degenerating into a bore-fest once the novelty of the zombie meat grinder wears off. The issue that the game faces is that the technical implementation of those additional facets does not serve to make the game more interesting, but instead turns it into an exercise in frustration.
As you progress into the latter half of the game, you will regularly find your screen littered with an array of powerful enemies, as well as large crowds of elemental and standard zombies, and it’s in these situations that it becomes apparent that the prospect of playing around with different weapons and the possibilities proffered by combining elements in a way that turns the odds in your favour never quite matches up with the reality.
With enemies teleporting left right and centre, fireballs, electrical beams and other projectiles being thrown at you from all directions and a variety of enemies trying to grab, slash or punch you, the screen can get, shall we say, busy. Add into the equation one or two spectacular but distracting electrical storms (caused by electric and fire elementals coming into contact) and a fixed camera that often obfuscates where you are being attacked from and the game becomes visually bewildering.
As the act of spotting where your character actually is (never mind who’s attacking you) amongst all the chaos develops into an increasingly regular feature, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z becomes infuriating. The game transforms from being one that gently indulges the whims of the meathead inside you, into one that draws it out into the real world, making you want to bite your controller in half and smash your head through the TV.
In all other aspects, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is less objectionable, if decidedly unremarkable. There are QTE-like platforming sections that we’re loathe to refer to as gameplay and simple puzzle sections that usually involve throwing whatever zombie is in the area at whatever obstacle is in your way. As we’ve established, complexity is not what Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is aiming for and in providing a small distraction to the combat that makes up the meat of the game, these platforming and puzzle sections just about suffice.
That the same cannot be said for the combat is a real shame because, and this might seem odd to say for a game as brash and distasteful as this one, there’s something endearing about the way that Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z knowingly panders to our base instincts, from its meatheaded combat, to its gloriously silly zombie slapstick vignettes. However, lacking the mechanical meticulousness to deal with its more difficult sections as it does, Ninja Gaiden Z ceases to draw an easy libratory satisfaction from the chaos, as it does in the early going. In the process, it becomes less of a game and more of an anger generator – that’s anything but a recipe for fun.