“An Act of Gonzo.” Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z names each of its seven levels, and its last one pulls double duty as both a challenge title and a mission statement. The entire game, an unbalanced whirlpool made by three different studios, is an act of gonzo. From the very beginning, collaborators Spark Unlimited, Comcept, and Team Ninja make it abundantly clear that Yaiba is meant to be bad; trashy and violent and sexist and absurd with intent.
The entire game, an unbalanced whirlpool made by three different studios, is an act of gonzo.
More abjectly ridiculous than Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, more base in its humor than Lollipop Chainsaw, but perhaps more subtle in its nods to gaming tropes than stinkers like Eat Lead: The Return of Matt Hazard, Yaiba is never dishonest. Pick up the controller, cut zombies with a sword, swing around with a robot arm… all manner of goofy crap seemingly inspired by a tween Deviantart enthusiast with a penchant for B-movies will be wrought on screen in gaudy detail.
Against all odds, it works. Three studios is an awful lot of cooks in a kitchen, especially when they’re based in different countries, but Yaiba succeeds admirably because it does what so few intentionally “so bad it’s good” games do. It makes everything sing. Yaiba is sloppy and stupid, but its speed and blunt action are intoxicating in the right ways.
Yaiba, rather than just a catchy title, is actually the lead character. How he fits into the long-running, recently tarnished Ninja Gaiden series is established in the game’s opening moments. Yaiba is a rival of Gaiden’s leather-clad do-gooder Ryu Hayabusa. After a brief, furious duel with Ryu, Yaiba ends up like every other ninja Ryu fights: sliced right in half.
Shady billionaire Alarico Del Gonzo and his chief scientist Miss Monday resurrect Yaiba, though, kitting him out with a brand new mostly-robotic torso and T2-style robot eye. All they ask in return is that Yaiba track down and kill the hated Hayabusa, who’s busy trying to cure a mysterious zombie plague.
Yaiba actually pulls off a tricky balancing act in this regard, mixing tired video game tropes, aggressive silliness, and a legitimately novel premise. Rather than combine in a toxic sludge, Yaiba ends up a tasty brew. The tropes are plain enough: mysterious rich criminal with an accent wants you to do something for him, sexy supporting character, ninjas, zombies, ultra-violent combat.
The goofiness is even less subtle. Yaiba’s constantly laying down groan-worthy one-liners, as when he crashes a zombie-driven truck into a lingerie shop and yells, in a shower of neon underwear, “He’s ruining my panty party!” Schlock is stacked on top of schlock, but beneath both is the cool idea of putting the player in the role of the recurring video game antagonist. Action games constantly give their hero a nemesis to pop back up in various boss fights. Solo in Strider, Wesker in Resident Evil; Yaiba actually lets you be that thorn in the hero’s side.
Yaiba is sloppy and stupid, but its speed and blunt action are intoxicating in the right ways.
It also answers the question of what the rival is doing the whole time. In Yaiba’s case, he’s getting up to a lot of the same stuff Ryu does, what with the constant cutting down of various foes. Action in Yaiba is never as intricate or dramatic as it is in Team Ninja’s parent series, but there’s an admirable economy to it.
Yaiba has three main attacks, a medium strength sword slash, a heavy, slow punch with his robot arm, and a weak sickle-chain slash with a wide reach. A quick dash lets you dodge attacks, which is more pleasurable and efficient than using the block, and he can execute enemies by tapping a button that brings up a mercifully short button-tapping tapping prompt.
Its simplicity yields more fun opportunities with tougher enemies. There are barely a dozen enemy types in the entire game – literally only a dozen enemy types, with the final boss being the only significant variation from the grunts and heavies – but stronger enemies give you extra, limited-use weapons that spice things up. Rip the guts out of a nuclear bile-spitting party girl, and you get a bagpipe gun that shoots poison. Shoot that at the morbidly obese zombie priests covered in fire, and you create a giant pink inferno that burns up all the little grunt enemies. Bring down one of those giant two-headed babies that give you problems in the back half of the game, then rip out their deformed shoulder blade to use as a scythe.
Giant two-headed babies, bilious go-go girls, fire priests; hell, one of the stock foes is a zombie clown that pops up in a cloud of balloons. What the hell are zombie clowns and electric ghost brides doing in decommissioned Soviet bases, why are ninjas fighting them, and just what the hell is going on? Who cares?
The only thing Yaiba takes seriously is making sure the action is fast, that it works most of the time, and nothing in the game ever stands cumbersomely in your way. There are no ten-minute cutscenes full of melodramatic monologues, no obnoxious quick-time events that kill you if you mess up once, and only a single multi-part boss that takes awhile to put down. And guess what: it’s pretty fun and funny.
Yaiba even knows when breaks things up. Each level has at least one little platforming section and a quick puzzle. The platforming is actually a tricky. Yaiba automatically runs up highlighted walls, and you have to press the right button – jump over open flames, use the sickle and chain like a grappling hook on glowing pink handholds – at the right time to keep moving, creating a fine sense of speed without resorting to the danger-less platforming of modern action games like Uncharted. Puzzles, on the other hand, don’t involve much more than finding an electric zombie to throw into an unjuiced power station. Simple, fluffy, and distracting without detracting.
Do the enemies sometimes get stuck on parts of the level? Sure, but I’ll take a glitch over some drawn out brawl spectacle that looks like all the other games every day of the week. Are a lot of the jokes super lame? Sure, but hearing a zombie yell, “Choo choo!” as he crashes a monorail still gets a chuckle. Have other action games provided more meaningful stories and more intricate, kinetic fights? Of course, but the violence never stops flowing, and never overreaches. Yaiba won’t change lives, nor does it redeem the ailing Ninja Gaiden franchise. Trash is what it is. Glorious, schlocky, offensive, base, and oh-so-sweet trash.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 3 on a digital copy provided by the Tecmo Koei.
- Economical, swift action.
- Get to play as the token video game nemesis.
- Never takes itself seriously except when it needs to work as a game.
- Normal difficulty can be overly challenging at times.
- Lack of enemy variety and simple combat may turn off action game aficionados.
- Infrequent glitches.