Recently I had the pleasure of sitting down with Spark Unlimited Senior Associate Producer Charles Babb for a nice (and very information heavy) preview of the upcoming Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, which will be launching on March 18th for Xbox 360 and PS3 and for Steam on March 21st. Charles was kind enough to walk me through one of the levels of the game — level four to be precise — titled Canyon.
I then got my hands on Yaiba personally and played through a special version of the first level with all of Yaiba’s abilities unlocked. But before I go into the game itself, let’s start with a little overview of the plot up until the prologue.
Yaiba used to be a Ninja instructor who was responsible for training his fellow clansmen in the art of Ninjutsu. However, he became discontent and resentful at the Ninja hiarchy because of the lack of respect he was treated with on a daily basis, as well as for some other reasons that have been revealed in the prequel comic.
He ended going rogue and becoming a Ninja killer; after hunting and killing countless Ninja to establish his reputation, Yaiba tracks down the greatest one of all — Ryu Hayabusa — in order to gain the glory that would come from killing him. This is where the game begins.
After that unfortunate accident, he wakes up again but this time with some cybernetic enhancements and arm. Yaiba’s now pretty pissed off at Ryu for killing him and at the mysterious organization for bringing him back.
I was told that the events of this game aren’t really related to the main plot of Ninja Gaiden and as such, can be taken as an alternate universe. It’s obvious at least that this title is a great departure from the main series, with its over the top visuals, ridiculous and dark humor and villain protagonist.
From there, Charles goes through the level with ease as he showcases the movement system, which is based on momentum and allows players to mimic daring acrobatic feats. Two other major systems in the game involve Yaiba being able to use anything as a weapon (from zombies to body and machine parts) and an elemental system that has Yaiba able to combine elements zombies are infused with. Elements include bile, electricity and fire and when combined they create something entirely new.
The level itself, as stated above, is Canyon and takes place after Yaiba blows up a generator powering a train Ryu was suppose to take. He is currently on the trail of a now “de-railed” Ryu (I have no regrets).
Miss Monday, Yaiba’s support for the level and game, is sadistic and tends to put him in incredibly dangerous situations such as directing him to areas with multiple zombie hordes. Naturally she’s a wise-cracker as well and frequently makes pithy remarks throughout the playthough.
Charles shows us how distractor zombies work while demonstrating an element puzzle. Basically distractors are the zombies that can be picked up and used as a weapon, thrown, etc.
Some of these guys are imbued with an element that needs to be used for a puzzle. These puzzles are scattered around and are meant to reinforce gaming mechanics that have been introduced. One puzzle had Yaiba combine an electrified zombie with bile to turn a gate into crystal. That same zombie (which always respawned at the same place) was then used to power a train in another puzzle.
Zombies can also be cut into lower and upper halves. The upper half will latch onto Yaiba and damage him continuously until you pry it off. Lower halves can still attack but they can be easily dispatched with a single kick to the groin.
Finally, Yaiba can receive physical enhancements and new skills through an easy-to-use skill tree. This allows players to customize Yaiba as they see fit such as additional and stronger combos, more health, etc.
When I played the first level of Yaiba for myself, I was surprised at how easy the game was to pick up and how close it felt to Ninja Gaiden. The controls were smooth, the camera surprisingly focused and his various weapons were each assigned their own button, which made switching between them a cinch.
In the actual game, Yaiba can’t unclench his fist yet, as revealed by the gorgeous comic book-inspired cutscene, so he doesn’t have access to his flail or punch until later. But the preview build I played had everything unlocked.
Yaiba can choose between three weapons: his powerful and slower punches, the long-range crowd-control flail and the lightning fast but weak sword. Each weapon has clear advantages, disadvantages and are well-balanced. For instance, the flail is great for keeping large amount of enemies at a distance but is wildly inaccurate and has another issue. Remember how you can cut a zombie in two halves? Well the flail does that but doesn’t destroy those half parts well so the upper halves can and will often attack Yaiba.
The movement system is surprisingly easy to pull off and I was soon running, jumping and swinging like a skilled Ninja in no time. Time even slows down between jumps to allow players to see how they need to move next.
Yaiba must not only face off against zombie hordes but challenging mini-bosses and even harder bosses. The first boss required me to quickly attack him with a series of punches, but then dash out the way of an incredibly punishing kick. I also had to time my blocks or face serious combo damage. Like a true Ninja Gaiden game, timing, patience and strategy is key.
There are also other gameplay mechanics that prove more than useful. Executions are flashy finishing moves that can be chained and give players extra health, which is a godsend. Blocking is an important part of gameplay and must be mastered, with precise timing giving Yaiba a chance for a counterattack.
Another addition is Rage Mode, which is activated once the Rage Gauge has been filled (accomplished by killing zombies). This results in a Bullet Time effect that lets Yaiba go crazy without retribution for a while. A cool effect is that the foes’ blood stays suspending midair until the gauge has been depleted, then it all gushes down at once.
There’s a really cool extra mode call Ninja Gaiden Z (featured in the video above) that’s unlocked once you beat the game. It’s not only a homage to the original NES Ninja Gaiden games (complete with original music) but to other classic games such as Golden Axe, Street Fight, Gauntlet, etc. There’s hilarious Engrish cutscenes, Final Fight style side-scolling action, overhead sections from Gauntlet and an overly simple plot about Yaiba tracking down his missing sake bottle.
The reference to Golden Axe can be found with a glowing treasure zombie that randomly appears, while the Street Fighter homage features a car that Yaiba needs to total in order to progress (I wish a zombie would run out and freak upon seeing his ruined car).
All in all, I had an excellent time with Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. You can look forward to the full game’s review later on.