Subtlety, performed correctly, is an art form that can take the most nuanced motif and turn it into a scathing critique, or turn an innocuous phrase into a wondrous parable. Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, a stylistic twist on the once classy series, knows subtlety in the sense that sometimes it requires subtlety to harpoon someone's leg from 15 yards. This is its strongest asset, but symptomatic of many flaws that leave the player with little sympathy for its problems.
Floored by the criticism of Ninja Gaiden 3 (some deserved, some hyperbolic), Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is a drastic re-think for a series that boasts the original Ninja Gaiden, one of the greatest action-adventure games ever. Stylistically, Gaiden Z is superb; it features a stunningly artistic cel-shaded post-apocalyptic world. The soundtrack is apt also, a mixture of balls-to-the-wall stomp metal and J-Pop. Areas look great - the graphics are beautiful (in a sense) and detailed. The art team deserved better.
They deserved better, because the people who were designed to fill this world are nothing short of a disaster. In a twist on the series, Yaiba is seeking revenge on Ryu Hayubashi, the normal hero of Ninja Gaiden. Yaiba, part-cyborg, part-crime against humanity, is nothing short of odious; a hulking, slavering tribute to exaggerated frat-culture and bad penis gags. You play as him, but he is no anti-hero; not an ounce of your being wishes for him to succeed in his quest. Yaiba is aided by Tits McGhee - her real name does not matter, as she is all breasts, no character, and absolutely symptomatic of gaming's inability to sell women as anything other than sexual objects.
Tailing Yaiba across the apocalyptic zombie ('Stiff') strewn landscape, she compiles his compendium and compounds the crippling tedium that affects much of Gaiden Z. The narrative, it need not be said, is awful; the only satisfaction provided is when Yaiba is cleaved in half within the game's first thirty seconds. Strewn with woeful innuendos and asides with the subtlety of Hiroshima, the writers either think they are hilarious or the gags are deliberately bad. Either way, this joke isn't funny anymore.
Nevertheless, a game ought to be judged on its gameplay, and Gaiden Z at least improves slightly here. On the surface, it appears a shallow if fun hack and slash arena game with a few mildly decent free-running sections in between. Scratch that veneer and it soon becomes apparent just how shallow Gaiden Z actually is. The God of War-style flail is fun, as are the exaggerated counters (when they work), but there is little of the skill and flair that made Ninja Gaiden such a brutal but rewarding affair a decade ago. Difficulty here comes in the sheer number of enemies rather than any sense of risk-and-reward. Death does not lead to revelation; rather, it is not a lack of skill or knowledge that will see you fail in Gaiden Z, but merely being overrun by re-spawning enemies. Death just leads to frustration.
A few stages into the game, the formulaic linearity begins to grate; arena to parkour to arena to boss to parkour and repeat, ad nauseum. Too slow, too boring, too predictable. Even bosses barely help the affair - although at first they offer a welcome change to the gormless slashing, when they appear for the tenth time in ANOTHER pun-named arena you begin to lose the will to live.
This is perhaps the crux of the problem. Stemming from a conceptual disaster, one just cannot care for Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. The characters are disgusting, the plot is woeful, the gameplay is weak, and the thrills are thin. There is really little to like, or tolerate, let alone invest any sort of interest in. There can be vitality in crass games – Conker's Bad Fur Day and South Park: Stick of Truth testify to that. Gaiden Z takes this originally satirical baton and attempts to bludgeon humour to death with it, probably while making a joke about vaginas (because women don't play games, right?).
In short, Gaiden Z is a disaster. In an attempt to re-think the series after the third recent installment, the creators have swung so far conceptually the other way that it is almost unrecognisable. Gone is the grace and beauty of combat; now thuggish death slams and high-fiving are in. Gone is the charm and likeable hero; instead welcome Yaiba, the epitome of all that is wrong with gaming design. At every stage, except for the wonderful graphics, Gaiden Z has been horrifically misjudged. Don't make the same mistake.
This review is based on a retail copy of Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z for the X360, provided by the publisher.