We have not had a new Ninja Gaiden installment since 2012 when Ninja Gaiden 3 was released to only a smattering of applause. While the rebooted series saw two very successful entries in the form of the original Xbox game and then its 2007 sequel, for many fans, Ninja Gaiden has seemingly lost its way in recent years. Sure, the enhanced ports tried to right the wrongs left in the wake of various bad design choices, but it just seems like the games have faded into irrelevance as of late. Which is why we now have Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. Understanding that the IP was in need of a shake-up, Tecmo Koei and Team Ninja went back to the drawing board to figure out how they could reinvent the head-lopping, roundhouse-kicking, take-no-prisoners franchise so that it actually meant something once again. Lo and behold, Yaiba was born.
Believe it or not, this new adventure doesn’t star the much-adored Ryu Hyabusa. In his spot is a fresh face: Yaiba Kamikaze. When firing up the game for the first time, players quickly find out that our new lead has a bit of a troubled past. Perhaps what makes this most evident is the very fact that Kamikaze isn’t exactly human. In fact, he’s a cyborg. So for those keeping count thus far: we’re up to a new character who’s a deadly assassin made out of human and cybernetic parts and has the last name “Kamikaze.” Sounds like a recipe for success, but there’s actually more to it than all that zaniness. This time around, enemies don’t fit into the franchise’s typical rogues gallery, not unless there was a game released unbeknownst to us that pitted ninja against zombies. Wait, what? Zombies, in a Ninja Gaiden game? Yup, and it goes to show that Z‘s premise is one part Ninja Gaiden, and one part ridiculous.
After reading that premise, one might be concerned with how this all is going to pan out. Fortunately, a team of developers from some of the biggest studios in both Japan and the West are coming together on this project. As a result, much of the talents’ efforts are being directed to the core gameplay — the very staple of any Ninja Gaiden title. In terms of mechanics, anyone who’s familiar with the third-person hack-and-slash genre will feel right at home with Z. In actuality, the game features elements similar to those found in the previous Gaiden entries. What that means is simple: Players have the freedom to run, jump, block, and of course attack enemies without discretion using Yaiba’s katana.
But it’s not just his blade that dishes out the hurt; like previously mentioned, our protagonist is part machine. As such, his mechanical arm is just as much a death-dealer as his sword. Therefore, knowing when and how to mix up attacks with each weapon is essential to the combat experience. An obligatory score-multiplier exists on the right of the screen to keep track of the player’s hit-count on enemies, effectively logging just how well players are changing up the aforesaid attacks. Consequently, combos are heavily encouraged here, obviously, and switching between weapons, as well as even using zombie appendages to kill baddies, all plays an integral role in the survival of players.
There’s more, though. The “Ultimate Technique” mode employed in prior games has been almost totally replaced by an original feature called “Bloodlust.” This is different in that when activated, it grants Yaiba the opportunity to mangle multiple enemies around him in lightning-quick succession. With all of these facets combined, Yaiba feels like a blend of old trappings and newfangled ones — however, despite that, the game seems more akin to its predecessors than it does something entirely new. Whether or not that is wonderful or worrisome will only be answered once we have the final build in our hands.
Ninja Gaiden games aren’t strictly about their gameplay systems, though; they’re about captivating audiences with an aesthetic that manages to keep up with the fast-paced action. To that end, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z uses the Unreal Engine well, running at a consistent 30 frames per second. The game looks especially solid to boot, even with its aging tech, thanks to the employment of comic book-inspired graphics. In fact, the vibrant visuals seem to only punctuate the notion that Yaiba is a game with a less dire tone than its forefathers. Sure, each game has been over-the-top in their own right, but they’ve historically taken themselves pretty seriously. This one, on the other hand, seems to take particular cause with having a bit more fun than the others. This distinct deviation isn’t just seen in the visuals, as there’s even a Lightning Returns-like costume system that lets players dress up Yaiba in all sorts of weird garb such as school-girl uniforms and one fancied after Mighty No. 9’s Beck. Hence, Yaiba is very much so trying to be its own game in some ways and, at the same time, a tribute to the Gaiden’s that came before it.
In the end, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z looks good, even if a little wacky. But then again, Ninja Gaiden 3 looked the same, and we know how that turned out. Certainly, the story and aesthetics aren’t what we’ve come to know and expect from the Ninja Gaiden franchise, but that’s what has us excited. Overall, Yaiba looks solid, and the swordplay is as good as it’s ever been. Better yet, the fact that pools of blood are in no short supply means that we could be in for a sound Ninja Gaiden game after all, or at least something truly special in its own way.