A few reversals on the traditional Ninja Gaiden formula create a bizarre - and bloody - experience
Additional reporting by Leah B. Jackson
Tecmo Koei's Ninja Gaiden series reaches several new levels with Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. The first is art style, with a dynamic cel-shaded-looking appearance that makes you feel like you're watching a colorful graphic novel in motion. The second is humor, something ninja Ryu Hayabusa hasn't been known for in previous games. Third and most significant is combat - which could be subject to change as the game is only in pre-alpha stage.
The pre-alpha demo available to E3 attendees on the show floor at the Tecmo Koei booth gave players a taste of combat with a partial level and an opening cinematic introducing Ryu and Yaiba Kamikaze - a dude he kills who then presumably turns into a demon bent on revenge. The action is a mix of classic samurai dialogue, Quentin Tarantino violence, and vivid colors that bring out the blood all the better. After the cinematic ends, players are transported to a cityscape at night time where hordes of zombies attack Yaiba at rapid speed.
Legendary Producer Keiji Inafune explained the reason for including zombies was simple. "I love zombies, and I love ninjas," he said. "I thought that if I combined these two things together that I love, it would be a great game." He also explained that Team Ninja was interested in doing a zombie game, so when he brought up the idea, the timing couldn't have been better.
Like other Ninja Gaiden games, the combat is all about timing and combos, which increases the number of hits and eventually yields over-the-top finishing moves if the player has executed a sequence correctly. Yaiba moves so fast between enemies, it becomes almost a rhythm game of pressing face buttons and triggers to execute punches, sword swings, blocks, and grab attacks. The challenge comes in the rank of enemies - the further you progress in the game, the better the AI becomes about blocking Yaiba's attacks, forcing the player to change tactics beyond mere button mashing. The finishing move attacks are also timed with a narrowing reticule hinting at when a player should mash their next button to complete the move and a "Good/Fair/Poor" rating displayed on screen immediately afterward.
Another thing that hasn't changed for Ninja Gaiden Z is the gore. Because these are zombies Yaiba is killing, it's even more off-the-wall to see heads and torso fly in opposite directions with vibrant sprays of bloods. In the demo level, Yaiba could also pick up and throw the body parts of dead zombies into other zombies, or grab a whole zombie, run to the top of a building and fling him off the roof. The wall-running was another familiar feature, though very clearly not fleshed out for this demo. It appears as though the plan is to press a single button to begin running along a wall and then different buttons to maneuver between walls - like a quicktime event.
What began to feel different was the comedy. It begins first with Yaiba's on-call sidekick chiding him not to "pull any ninja shit" while hunting down a generator to shut down. When Yaiba actually finds said generator, it's inside a sex shop decorated with a giant statue of a woman's fishnet-clad legs protruding from the top of the store (we have something like this in San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury neighborhood...). To blow the generator, Yaiba must fling a zombie into the cab of a gas tanker where somehow the zombie "accidentally" drives the rig into the building... causing an explosion between the legs.
And just in case that DIDN'T read as sexual to you, the legs then fall down on either side of the building (spread apart, get it?) and a glowing light emits from between them while the music plays a choir of female voices raised in song. Yaiba throws his head back and laughs as singed panties rain down upon him and his on-call sidekick (a woman with about five inches of cleavage) calls him a jackass. The demo ended with a boss battle against a much-smarter-than-a-zombie monster that successfully blocked everything Yaiba had but a charged-up punching move.
Team Ninja head Yosuke Hayashi explained that the reason behind the lighthearted feel of the game is because the zombies are the main enemies. "Zombies by nature have some humor in themselves, and that's probably why you feel the humor," he said. "We want people to play with these zombies and not be serious about them." However, he did explain that Yaiba himself is a very serious character who is very focused on his goal to become the number one ninja.
I walked away from the demo amused, entertained... and concerned that fans of Tomonobu Itagaki's Ninja Gaiden series for the current generation of console are going to be disappointed. This cartoony take might have all the violence of the core series, but it's not serious, nor exactly "canon" to the fate of Ryu's family clan. Additionally, the combat in this demo felt drastically simpler than anything Ninja Gaiden has offered before.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is due out on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 in early 2014.