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Hands-On: Yaiba - Ninja Gaiden Z delivers dumb 'n' fun carnage

By Shaun Prescott on Wednesday 11th Dec 2013 at 10:00 PM UTC

Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is a video game about hacking and slashing zombies. There is rarely a moment in this game when you are not flogging a zombie with your sword. Sometimes, when you finish killing a roomful of zombies, more zombies appear and you must kill them also. On these terms, Yaiba lives up to its promise.

The story is thus: you are a newly exhumed ninja called Yaiba tasked with solving a bothersome zombie epidemic. The suss corporate figurehead responsible for bringing you back to life (in cyborg form, naturally) has demanded you do his bidding or else he will activate a killswitch lodged inside your brain. He's not a very stressful boss though: most of the time you are directed by said corporate figurehead's buxom redhead assistant, who speaks in thick sexual innuendo.

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It's worth mentioning early that Yaiba doesn't feel much like Ninja Gaiden 3. This is a fixed camera slasher with no illusions of grandeur, and apart from its pleasing cell-shaded art style and quippy humour, there's very little else that suggests depth. Its a dumb game and it knows it.

Still, the combat is elegant in its simplicity and an extensive levelling system progressively unlocks up to 24 new combos and abilities. By the second mission in our playthrough it's obvious that button mashing doesn't work, and getting the hang of a handful of combos quickly enriches the overall experience.

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It's a learning curve players are advised to get ahead of early, because this is a Ninja Gaiden game and is therefore not adverse to killing you over and over again. You'll need to learn to block, parry and evade pretty early on.

Most satisfying is Bloodlust mode, which can be triggered once a gauge has been filled by engaging in conventional combat. Bloodlust gives Yaiba the ability to mow down most onscreen enemies with very little effort, and the fountains of blood that result are hilarious and cathartic.

Equally amusing is the ability to grab zombies and use them as weapons against their friends. While this is a standard feature of combat, 'special' zombies are also littered throughout the world which can be used to progress through the levels. So, for example, if you see a zombie on fire, there's probably a wall nearby you can burn to the ground with it. It's basically Ninja Gaiden Z's answer to the 'collect key to progress' convention, except more violent.

Less successful are Ninja Gaiden Z's platforming sections, which serve as relief from the prolonged zombie slaughter. They're basically interstitial QTEs that rely more on guesswork than skill or timing, though they are mercifully brief.

Meanwhile, the actual 'level design' in Yaiba is very rudimentary indeed, with missions separated into distinct encounters which usually comprise no more than flat surfaces. An exploration game this ain't, though there is the occasional very-obvious secret wall.

Let's be honest: it's unlikely that Ninja Gaiden Z will blow any minds when it releases in February, but it's a fun game. In many ways it feels like the last of a dying breed, an unambitious yet enjoyable mid-tier game with no hope of selling multi millions but plenty of potential to please series and genre devotees.

Moving into next-gen - with the focus polarised between independent and multi-million dollar Triple A development - it feels like games like Ninja Gaiden Z will all but disappear. This is a game that makes no attempt to ape in-vogue game systems and mechanics, there's no (announced) multiplayer mode, and it's more likely to appeal to those with an enduring affection for PS2 games.

"I was a little off my game from being dead," Yaiba announces at the beginning of the game. In some ways Yaiba does feel an outdated and nearly extinct genre come to play one more time. On the evidence of our two mission playthrough it'll offer joy to genre aficionados and few others. Sometimes that's perfectly fine.