The first of Tomonobu Itagaki’s Ninja Gaiden games was defined by its counterattack. Activated by blocking and then pressing an attack button the moment an enemy blow connected, it powered a game that required careful play and insisted you respect your opponent, punishing mistakes severely. In the process, it set a new high bar for its genre. Ninja Gaiden’s been going downhill ever since, and it says much about how inexorably bound this series is to the law of diminishing returns that its latest entry’s defining mechanic asks for no timing, precision or respect for your opponent. Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is built on the QTE.
Whittle down an enemy’s health sufficiently and the action briefly slows, an exclamation mark over their head prompting you to squeeze L2 and mash a button to trigger a gruesome close-up execution. Against the bog-standard zombie hordes that populate the early game, all you’ll get is a modest health top-up. Against tougher enemies, the rewards are much greater, with a larger health refill and Yaiba yanking their limbs from their torso to briefly use as weapons. A killer clown yields a pair of Nunchuckles, a fire-breathing priest gives up a rocket launcher, and a mutant that spews streams of toxic bile provides a weapon that lets you do likewise. This is the only way to expand your toolset; while Ryu Hayabusa picked up new weapons during his adventures that were then permanently available from a menu screen, here they are of limited use and must be acquired through a process that is all too easy to miss.
The camera is the main culprit, which is especially galling given that developer Spark Unlimited clearly recognises, and has sought to fix, this series’ longest-standing problem. By replacing Team Ninja’s infamous thirdperson camera with a fixed viewpoint, Yaiba should be off to a good start. But the resolute insistence on tracking everything onscreen frequently reduces its ninja protagonist to a mere speck. One of our countless unfair deaths came during a rooftop battle with a pair of zombie wrestlers, when the commitment to tracking the movements of both meant we met an unseen demise while occluded by mid-screen scenery. The camera spends much of the game zoomed out as far as possible and this, combined with the way its lens gets covered in yellow goo if you take too much bile damage, frequently makes it not only impossible to track your opponents, but even to see where you are. You’ll find yourself mashing X to dash a few times in the hope of picking yourself out among the crowd.
It makes those QTE prompts hard to spot, too, which wouldn’t be a problem were they not so essential to success. Weapon-bearing enemies have high health, but each is vulnerable to the powers of certain pickups. It’s a system that has little grounding in logic – fire priests are weak against electricity, while using bile on an electric foe freezes them in brittle hunks of gold crystal – but whatever you can lay your hands on is going to fare better than Yaiba’s standard sword, flail and cybernetic fist. Battles quickly devolve into the same pattern: attack, look for the QTE prompt, yank off a zombie’s arms, collect the health pickups to repair the damage you inevitably took, then use their weapon until it runs out. Then repeat the whole process over and over and over again. And whether it’s down to the camera, to the fact that you did so much damage that you didn’t even get a finisher prompt or, incredibly rarely, from a genuine mistake that you immediately understand, we suggest you prepare to die.
“It takes us two dozen retries to decide to forget everything we’ve learned in the past decade of Ninja Gaiden games”
Within a couple of hours, you’ll have seen every single enemy the game has to offer. From there on, Spark simply mixes up their grouping across fights lasting three or four waves with no checkpoints in between. Fill a meter and you can click both sticks to activate the Devil Trigger-alike Bloodlust, but you’ll be too afraid to use it, because it takes seemingly forever to recharge and you don’t know how many more waves are going to magically rise from the ground.
Basic combat is dismal, turgid stuff, yet accounts for almost all the action. The only changes of pace come from the occasional boss fight, some trial-and-error, one-button platforming sections, and a levelling system that powers a new contender for gaming’s most pointless skill tree. Supposed light relief comes from your exchanges with Miss Monday, Yaiba’s liaison with the mysterious corporation that resurrected him after a fatal tussle with Hayabusa. He pointlessly directs a stream of lazily misogynistic patter at the screen-corner redhead, whose bra pokes out over her shirt, a black tie disappearing down her cleavage. It says much that this is merely the least of this game’s litany of problems.
Those flaws are perhaps most perfectly encapsulated when, two-thirds of the way through, Yaiba tracks Hayabusa down. It takes us two dozen retries to decide to forget everything we’ve learned in the past decade of Ninja Gaiden games. We stop learning attack patterns, looking for openings, or respecting our opponent. We get up close, mashing the same four-hit combo over and over, dodging his AOE attack before resuming our tedious assault, and we win. Hayabusa is, here as ever, elegant, powerful and precise. Yaiba is dumb.
All of which is baffling, given that this was made under the eye of Keiji Inafune, who famously lambasted how far his countrymen had fallen behind western game development. His solution, apparently, is to turn one of Japan’s last great series into a repetitive grind riddled with cheap deaths, and to help a western studio with a poor track record reach a new, unthinkable low. Or perhaps Inafune’s plan wasn’t to make Japanese games better, but western ones dramatically worse. In that case, this is a job well done.