Despite its title, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is not really a Ninja Gaiden game. It shares some passing similarities, but even the game's producers shy away from direct comparison to the notoriously difficult action titles. After talking to key team members and getting hands-on time, I understand why.
In short, Yaiba is everything Ninja Gaiden is not. From the pace of its action beats to the humor of its writing, the game is the precise opposite of Ninja Gaiden's approach. It is set in that world, and you are a ninja, but the similarities really end there. The trio of developers were given an impressive amount of freedom with the beleaguered brand, and the results make a distinct mark.
Ninja Gaiden Z stars Yaiba, an anti-hero killed by series protagonist Ryu Hayabusa. He's revived, complete with cybernetic parts, just as a zombie apocalypse breaks out. Guided by an operator, he sets out to carve his way through the hordes of undead to find Ryu and exact his revenge.
"Yaiba is a rival to Ryu Hayabusa. He hates that Ryu is the ultimate ninja and is stronger than Yaiba. He is obsessed with defeating Ryu," executive producer Keiji Inafune told Shacknews, through a translator. "For the story, if someone can give him a hint of finding Hayabusa, the zombies just get in the way. As a character he's a crazy, over-the-top, dirty ninja--the opposite of Ryu. Hayabusa is the proper ninja: cool, calm, worried about honor and doing things the right way. Yaiba is a complement to that, but the opposite: crazy, brutal, he'll do whatever it takes to win a fight. He doesn't care about a code or honor or anything."
At least in its early stages, Yaiba has a much more forgiving action curve than the traditional Ninja Gaiden game. Since the enemies are endless hordes of decaying people, most of the moment-to-moment combat involves slicing through enemies like butter. The jump is replaced by a dash, to keep Yaiba in constant deadly motion around enemies instead of merely outmaneuvering them. Simple platforming breaks up the pace somewhat, but the majority of my time in the demo was spent severing limbs with ease, throwing zombies at their compatriots, and just generally becoming a whirlwind of (re)death. If Ryu kills with precision, Yaiba contrasts that with fury.
"Yaiba is its own thing," Inafune said. "It takes place within the universe of Ninja Gaiden but it is not purposely trying to set itself apart. The difficulty will be a difficulty that is appropriate for Yaiba, as its own game. We are looking at having a deep combat system in place for fans who come to Yaiba from Ninja Gaiden.
"It will be different from Ninja Gaiden, but it will feel like it could be in a Ninja Gaiden game. We'll also have people coming in from zombie games or who like the art style. They might not be familiar with the technical side of Ninja Gaiden. We don't want to make it so difficult that they just rage-quit in two seconds. We have to care for that new audience as well, but there will be systems in place to please the Ninja Gaiden fans."
Occasionally harder enemies would present themselves, but they served more as power-ups than true threats. Ripping off their body parts would grant weapons like nun-chucks built of arm parts ("Numb Chucks") or an explosive firearm ("Rigor Mortar"). The path would also sometimes be temporarily blocked, only to be solved by tossing a zombie into a car and watching as it mindlessly drives through a wall.
As you might have noticed from the special weapons, the humor can be described as cheekily crude. A few of the gags had me chuckling a little in spite of myself, the kind of eye-rolling amusement that assumes the developers are in on the joke. Some visual gags would be outright offensive if I weren't positive that they're self-aware.
"With zombies, there's always that element of dark humor. So when I was coming up with the idea of a game that crossed ninjas and zombies, that's an element you need to put in for the zombies, for the idea to work."
In that way, I noticed that Yaiba seems like a spin-off aimed at his own series. While the team was coy with any future plans, the story is likely to leave that door open. "Hopefully when people play Yaiba they'll be hungry to spend more time with the character."