Ah, what the heck: Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is one of the most gnarly, radical, <insert '90s slang here> game I've ever played. I just wish it was a little less focused on being Xtreme to the MAX and more focused on remaining consistently fun. Ninja Gaiden Z departs from the rest of the franchise by placing you into the tabi of Yaiba Kamikaze instead of the games' usual hero, Ryu Hayabusa. Yaiba is a boisterous, foul-mouthed, drunken and angry ninja, who also fancies himself as a rival to Ryu. Unfortunately for him, Ryu's skills exceed his own, and he winds up on the sharp side of Ryu's sword.
The game's opening cinematic shows Yaiba getting half of his head and most of his left side sliced off, and subsequently being rebuilt as a revenge-seeking cyborg, who just happens to get dropped into the middle of a zombie outbreak. These concepts are all introduced within ten seconds of each other, by the way. "Slow burn exposition" is not a phrase Ninja Gaiden Z seems to be familiar with.
Instead of creating a sidekick or ally to Ryu, developers Team Ninja, Spark Unlimited and Comcept have placed Yaiba as far removed from Ryu's solemn, serious vibe as possible. His world, too, feels unique, to the point that it's hard to imagine anyone but Yaiba in the starring role. The tone is decidedly comic book – colors are bright and neon in their hue, the world is cel-shaded with strong black outlines on environmental objects as well as enemies, and the game even comes with a miniature comic book that contains a short prequel story.
Yaiba can attack with his sword, robot-powered punches and a chain flail, serving as light, heavy and crowd control maneuvers, respectively. If you damage an enemy enough, you can perform special execution animations, which cause health refills to drop. Combos are easy enough to pull off but never require much focus – it's entirely possible to button mash your way through Ninja Gaiden Z's hordes, so long as you remember to dodge or block once in a while, and pay special attention to what I'm going to refer to as "super-zombies."
The super-zombies are much tougher than your run-of-the-mill stiffs, and often pack an extra element that makes them exceedingly dangerous. During your adventure, you'll run into enraged brides that spark electricity, limber clowns that dual-wield butcher knives, pot-bellied priests that spit fire, and a few surprises too good to spoil here. If you manage to execute one of these extra-tough baddies, you'll receive a limited-use special weapon. Execute the clown to have Yaiba rip off the poor sap's arms and use them as nunchuks – or "Nunchuckles," as the game calls them. Take the spine from an electric zombie bride and you'll receive a "Spinal Zap" whip.
The jokes in Ninja Gaiden Z are cringeworthy, but in a B-movie, tongue-in-cheek sort of way. It's a game where the main character describes a (very Handsome Jack-like) villain as the head of a megacorporation, "and also a huge dick." Which, Yaiba deduces, "made him a dick-head." It's also a game where a lingerie store's roof has two giant legs in stockings sticking out the top, and to blow it up, Yaiba throws a zombie into the driver's seat of a oil truck, which drives off a ramp and comes crashing down, sinking suggestively between the legs as they shudder.
Unfortunately, not all is smiles and so-bad-they're-good jokes. While Ninja Gaiden Z's combat is beautiful to watch, it can also prove frustrating and lacks depth. Yaiba never gains new weapons, a leveling system offers the barest of upgrades – e.g. special weapons last 50 percent longer – and only one enemy type requires a unique approach of disabling their shields with your flail, while all others can be approached and whittled down using even the most basic combo.
As I progressed through waves of zombies, I realized I wasn't switching up my combos because one was more effective than the other, but because I was mindlessly mashing, or I just thought a particular combo looked cool. Whether I was earnestly trying to be the best cyborg ninja I could be, absent-mindedly tapping the same attack button over and over, or going for flair and style, I got the same results.
Failing feels like a particularly hard bop on the nose, as if the game is calling you a bad, bad player. If you die before finishing off the very last enemy, you'll start back at the area's entrance, which means even if you were on the third wave of zombies, you'll have to slog through waves one and two again.
This is particularly problematic in the late-game, where Ninja Gaiden Z stops coming up with new enemies and opts instead to throw existing churls at the player in larger and larger numbers. Combat scenarios grow increasingly ridiculous, often throwing 10 or more super-zombies, a handful of weaker zombies and multiple bosses at Yaiba at the same time. You will die. A lot. You will feel like the game is being cheap. A lot.
Compounding these frustrations, the process of resurrection is a lengthy one, taking approximately 20 seconds each time. The most I died was on the second-to-last level, where I failed a stupendous 22 times. Twenty seconds multiplied by 22 deaths is more than seven minutes. Seven minutes of staring at a static loading screen just to be killed almost immediately by swarms of zombies. It wasn't fun.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z knows it's a stupid, flashy arcade action game, and rolls with it. It doesn't try to be clever or witty, or even ironic and self-effacing. It's not deep or customizable, and it's clearly running out of ideas past the halfway point. It isn't perfect. To some people, it won't even be considered good.
But like its gruff and grouchy protagonist, you can roll with Ninja Gaiden Z's gnarly 'tude or leave it, and there's something, well ... pretty rad about that kind of balls-to-the-wall, cybernetic-finger-in-the-air confidence. Dude.
This review is based on a retail copy of the PlayStation 3 version of Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, provided by Tecmo Koei. Images: Tecmo Koei.
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