So as part of my silly 1000 Follower special thing over on Twitch, I’ve been playing – among other things – YAIBA: NINJA GAIDEN Z. This was one of countless games in my collection that I’d picked up at one point or another with no particular desire to necessarily play it, beyond a general sense of “eh, why the heck not”. YAIBA I suppose has more reason for being in my collection than plenty of other games I’ve bought; it is (theoretically at any rate) part of a series I have traditionally enjoyed, but more importantly it’s a game I’d been curious to try out since it has, er… a reputation. That is, a very, very bad reputation.
Anyone who is even somewhat familiar with my streaming/collecting/game playing habits may know that I have a soft spot for “bad” games. Obviously that’s not to say I enjoy not enjoying something, but I’m often drawn to games with poor reputations because one way or another, less polished games seem to often have more personality, peculiarities or unique quirks than the kind of polished-to-a-sheen AAA games commonly agreed upon as “good”. And sure, sometimes…. a lot of the time even, “bad” games are really bad. But I do find that more often than not, even the worst crap at the bottom of the barrel has something going for it – some kernel of fun, a good idea or something interesting and unique if you’re just willing to look for it.
So, YAIBA. Now, there were many reasons to not question the narrative surrounding the game – it’s an odd, western-developed off-shoot of a revered (if less so with each successive mainline entry) Japanese action game series, that neither seems to look or feel much like its source material, nor be something that anyone really asked for. On top of that, it’s a god damned zombie game! So I gotta admit – I was pretty surprised to find that I… don’t really hate it.
Don’t get me wrong, YAIBA: NINJA GAIDEN Z is not a good game. You might even say there are several rightful reasons for hating it. But it manages to be competent in areas where I really didn’t expect it to, and has some neat ideas that… don’t quite work in execution, but definitely rise above the level of cleverness that I expected from a game like this.
The bad is bad
So why is it bad, then? Well, you could say that the game bungles the core concept – a game where you play as a bad guy, taking his revenge on series main protagonist Ryu Hayabusa – by A) making the player character an impossible-to-root-for, truly loathsome piece of shit, and B) not making the game feel like part of the Ninja Gaiden series, from a visual, narrative or game mechanical standpoint. So right off the bat the game feels like a missed opportunity… I mean, it is a spin-off, and maybe its weird lack of connection to the main Ninja Gaiden games wouldn’t be an issue if what YAIBA offered instead was any good (see, for example, METAL GEAR RISING: REVENGEANCE). Rest assured, what YAIBA does offer instead is not any good. Not at all.
The immediately striking thing about NINJA GAIDEN Z is that the writing is truly awful. And not just in the sense that most video game writing is awful – certainly not in the sense that the main NINJA GAIDEN games are hokey – but just really embarrassingly bad. The game trips over itself trying to deliver one forced innuendo after another, ceaseless “edgy” jokes and puns, all while clearly believing that if you use enough swear words, someone will mistake this nonsense for, I dunno, something “mature”. The game feels more explicitly than perhaps anything I’ve ever played, to be written for 12-year olds – but I feel like even at 12, I would’ve found this woefully embarrassing. It fucking sucks.
The titular protagonist Yaiba (full name: “Yaiba Kamikaze”, jesus christ) fully embraces this attitude by basically being shitty towards anyone and anything, having no personality beyond generic rage, and swearing a lot. I’d write more about my thoughts on Yaiba and the rest of the (very small) cast, but I can’t even be bothered. The writing was so bad I actively tried to avoid as much of it as I could after the first 20 minutes or so, so I don’t even know how much I could say about it. In any case, the overall tone of the game is painfully unfunny and embarrassing to the point where I really would not fault anyone for dismissing the game wholesale just on that basis. For some frame of reference, the games that first come to mind are DMC: DEVIL MAY CRY and HOUSE OF THE DEAD: OVERKILL, but I’d say YAIBA: NINJA GAIDEN Z just might edge out HOTDO as the worst offender.
What’s good then?
Well, the thing is… it doesn’t actually PLAY too bad. The combat is far from the best I’ve played, and there are definitely some very significant issues; mainly feedback from enemies attacking and the player taking damage being woefully inadequate, in addition to dodging feeling weirdly inconsistent and unreliable. Yet on a basic level, it actually feels pretty satisfying. Fun, even! Yaiba’s abilities feel well suited to mowing down zombie crowds – less so perhaps for the kind of intense, one-on-one duels where Team Ninja’s original games shine. Still, even with a bunch of caveats, I’ve definitely played plenty of hack & slash/3D brawler type games with far less engaging and just generally good-feeling combat. Seeing as this is what you’re doing 90% of the time in the game, combat being even average saves the game from being nearly as bad as its reputation would suggest.
Maybe my favourite feature of the combat are the execution attacks – nothing terribly unique; hitting enemies with certain attacks in certain health ranges allow you to hit them with a special instant-kill attack that triggers a special animation and rewards you with a bit of health. The reason I like YAIBA’s version of this staple is that first of all, it just feels good! The timing, animation, sound and camera combine to make something that feels cool while being fast and seamless enough to never be a pain. Once you get an upgrade you can also chain executions – trigger an execution when 2-10 enemies are susceptible, and you can instantly jump from one to the next will a well-timed button press. It’s extremely simple, but it feels really satisfying, and breaks up the pace of the otherwise rather monotonous combat. Good stuff.
Also good: the vaguely QTE-esque platforming sections between fights. As you travel between areas of a level the game assumes sort of a simplified set of controls/mechanics where you travel along a designated path, dodge the occasional hazard but mostly just timing button presses for jumps, grappling hook swings, wall-punching, and whatnot. At first it felt weird, but these sequences do allow the player to move around with a lot more grace than they perhaps would if given full control, and when trying to move forward at full speed it almost takes on the feel of a rhythm game. YAIBA: NINJA GAIDEN Z knows that it’s a game all about combat, and doesn’t try to pretend it’s also a platformer – any platforming or exploring happens in what essentially becomes a little mini-games between combat encounters. Honestly, I can’t say I really miss the kind of aimless messing around, looking for secrets that you end up doing in BAYONETTA or GOD OF WAR games. I’m kinda into it.
Lastly… I don’t know that it’s good exactly, but I was surprised to discover that the game features a kind of systemic approach to special weapons and status effects. Basically, there are weapons/attacks/hazards that cause fire, electric or bile-type effects. These can all affect Yaiba as well as enemies and certain spots in the environment – and any combination of the three will cause further different effects! This is used in both combat, light puzzle-solving, and maybe even other contexts (I did not beat the game yet). I’ve found it a little difficult to make good use of this system beyond where the game essentially forces you to in order to progress, but every now and then I’ve felt like a genius for holding on to a special weapon a little longer, letting me crystalize and instantly kill a few really tedious special enemies. Super satisfying. I’m a sucker for systemic design, or at least small examples like this integrated in an action game, so it was a fun surprise to discover. The reason I’m a little hesitant about calling it a positive is basically down to what the game does with it – or doesn’t, maybe – but also because it is kind of intrinsically tied to the special enemies who give you the elemental weapons allowing you to play with this system – and are also generally far more tedious to actually fight.
Well, that ended up being pretty long. There’s still more I could say about this game — maybe if I feel like it I’ll write down some more thoughts once I finish it — but this is probably more than this – frankly mediocre – game deserves.