Friday, March 21, 2014

Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z (PS3)

Ninja Gaiden has always been a hardcore series. It's been hardcore in regards to it's difficulty, and in regards to it's required mastery. From it's early days on the NES to it's more modern debut Tecmo has kept the series faithful to the ninja theme that it's all about. Devotion, and consistent practice are a must if you hope to survive the many challenges contained within. If you've ever played, and completed any of the Ninja Gaiden games as I have you'll no doubt have felt accomplished when it was all said, and done. The same could be said for this latest spin-off about one of Ryu Hayabusa's longtime enemies, if you choose to take it on. While the gameplay in "Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z" is unlike any Ninja Gaiden game before it it still holds true to the hardcore formulas of the past. You will face insurmountable odds in the form of zombie hordes as well as larger than life bosses as you try to avenge your death, Kill Ryu Hayabusa, and do the bidding of the shady individual who revived you.

When the game opens up you'll find yourself sitting in awe as two of the greatest Tecmo ninjas ever created face off against each other in a final fight to the death. Yaiba, who thinks he has the ability to defeat Ryu ends up falling victim to Ryu's Dragon Blade. With a life ending slice across the head, and abdomen Yaiba utters one last crude remark before falling to the ground in a dismembered bloody heap. Upon reawakening this once dead assassin finds that his body is not like it was, and that cybernetic parts now replace his chest, arm, and half of his head. With these newly gained tools of death Yaiba embarks on a mission to not only end Ryu's life, but to also free himself from the control of his re-creator.

In order to accomplish the tasks at hand Yaiba has to learn all about the various environmental elements, as well as the various zombie types that now plague post-apocalyptic Russia. With his new bio-mechanical weaponry, and gadgets as well as his lust for blood he is more than well equipped to handle the job at hand. Only one question remains though. Will this man of death succumb to a second death, or will he deal death to the one who ended his life in the first place? Questions, questions, questions ...

In "Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z" you'll find that you have certain tools at your disposal which can be used to end the undead infestation before you, or help you to traverse the ever changing landscapes with ease. Yaiba's new eye, for example is equipped with cybernetic vision. By pressing the (L1) button you'll be able to see highlighted points of interest, accessible areas, and even take a gander at the cybernetic trail that Ryu, and Momiji left behind. Aside from this secondary function you'll find that a lot of your new abilities are geared towards visceral combat, and fast paced travel. A huge part of the game deals with Yaiba's ability to dish out brutal life ending combos. His attacks, which are assigned solely to his arms come in three different varieties. For a basic slash you'll simply need to press the (SQUARE) button. In order to use a more brutal punch that doubles as a mean of attack, and a way to clear obstacles you merely need to press the (TRIANGLE) button. Lastly his cybernetic arm which is now the equivalent of the Bionic Commando's grappling arm can be used like a whip to attack enemies at a distance as well as swing like Tarzan via hooks in the environments. To perform this action all that is required is the press of the (CIRCLE) button.

Combos in the game, as you might imagine can be strung together to form longer, more devastating chains. Each combo which is listed in the appropriate "START MENU" section comes complete with a name, and button specific diagram that lays out exactly what buttons must be pressed in order to execute the chosen combo. This reference which can be accessed mid-battle can also be seen on the game's onscreen display as you perform the combo in question. By repeating combos you will rack up points, and improve upon your level completion score.

Battle in "Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z" comes in waves, or as the game calls it, "Arenas". Once Yaiba is placed in a certain area a mini-cinematic scene will follow leading into the action. Once the camera is set for your applied actions you will be able to take out the enemies before you by any means necessary. Within the game you'll discover that Yaiba will sometimes use environmental hazards, as well as elemental projectiles (Fire, Electricity, Bile) that are thrown his way as a means to return the favor. Different elemental combinations will of course result in different reactions. Sometimes these chemical reactions will end the arena battle quickly, and other times you must simply continue to attack the enemies before you with your basic combos in order to kill them off. Aside from elemental attacks, and basic combos you'll also find that Yaiba has a nasty habit of tearing off parts of the enemy's body in order to create a make-shift weapon. These make-shift ninja, and military style weapons come in the often times hilarious forms of things named after the nature of the undead creature Yaiba has slain. Things like "Numb-Chucks", "Rigor Mortar", and "Hagpipes" are some of the inventive weaponry ripped straight from the undead.

There are a handful of ways to end an undead creatures life in "Yiaba: Ninja Gaiden Z". You can whittle away at them with your basic attack combos (which may take a while), you can use environmental hazards and projectiles against them, you beat them with their own body parts, or you can use a special filled meter to unleash your "Blood Lust". Any which way you choose to dispatch an onscreen enemy you must always mind your health, and your elemental status. Your health, which is limited can only be refilled in one of two ways. One way is to "Execute" the enemy, and another way is to complete the current arena battle. In order to execute your enemy you must first stun them with a combo, and then follow up with the pressing of the (L2) button. You'll know you have stunned the undead creature once a white & red exclamation mark appears above their head. Always keep in mind though that you must act quickly in order to perform the execution. If you do so a red glowing box of health will be dropped, and can be picked up as soon as the execution animation has ended. In the case of stronger enemy types, or bosses (the ones you can rip the make-shift weapons from) you will have to take the execution one step further into a button mashing mini-game in which you must press the appropriate button repeatedly until a circular bar fills up. Killing off boss enemies in this manner will reward you with three health refills, and the enemy specific make-shift weapon.

Blood Lust on the other hand is a limited use mechanic that basically sends Yaiba into a fit of rage. Once your meter is filled through applied combos you can unleash this quick death dealing frenzy, and rid yourself of the more difficult enemy types. By simply pressing in (L3 & R3)Yaiba will go into an exaggerated cinematic sequence that lets you know you've just activated "Blood Lust". Once activated, Blood Lust only lasts for a short while, but greatly increase the speed, and damage outputs of your basic attacks. You can literally slice harder enemy types to shreds with simple repeated combos. It's a proper means for making it out of the harder fights alive.

Aside from attacks, and executions you'll also find that Yaiba can evade, and block incoming attacks. In order to evade/dash you'll simply need to press the (X) button. This evasive maneuver comes in handy for getting in, and out without receiving damage. While the game is combo oriented you'll find that most of the time lengthy combo strings aren't viable due to the enemy's attack patterns. Getting in, dealing a few hits, and then dashing out is usually the best way to go. As far as blocking goes you can outright hold the block button (R1), or hit it at the exact moment the enemy makes contact in order to "OverClock". Overclocking slows down the fight animations, and will immediately cause Yaiba to perform a counter attack. In a way it's a lot like parrying, and will come in handy if you can execute the defensive move properly.

For those of you wondering about character upgrades Yaiba does carry with him (START MENU) a skill tree that can be upgraded as you earn perks through combos, and battles. This skill tree will enhance certain weapon, and defense based features that are found within the game. Different combo strings can be learned, evasion can be improved, and even the length of time you can wield a make-shift undead weapon can be enhanced. In regards to health, and elemental resistance you will find that it's necessary to find specific hidden items throughout your playthrough in order to build them up. Finding these groups of four icons will definitely test your mettle, but are worth it in the end. Health is a precious commodity in "Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z", and as such the game itself forces players to keep a lookout for hidden items within the games 7 intensely long levels. In the way of hidden items you'll also find data bits which included detailed summaries of Yaiba's past, as well as journalistic entries written by different individuals on his behalf. Like the rest of the game's behind-the-scenes content you'll have to access the gained extras via the (START MENU).

Traversing the landscapes of post-apocalyptic Mother Russia can be a daunting task if you are ill prepared for the journey ahead. Luckily for you though you will find help in the form of tutorials, and pop-up advice given by the voluptuous red-haired assistant named "Monday". It is Monday who ultimately guides Yaiba from mission to mission through MGS-like (Think Otacon / MGS) transmissions as her Spanish speaking boss dictates the rules. With your grappling arm, and your ninja blade you'll be able to swing through the air with the greatest of ease, slide across platforms like Sonic the Hedgehog in order to reach your next objective, and crash through walls with your metal fist like the Incredible Hulk (Yaiba SMASH!!!). Games like 'Assassin's Creed', and "Prince of Persia: Warrior Within" definitely come to mind in regards to Yaiba's means of acrobatic travel.

While there's multiple requirements to get the job done you'll find that your accomplishments do not go unrewarded. The game has in place a leaderboard that incorporates per-level/per-difficulty scores with your PSN ID at it's side. Also at the end of each battle arena (wave of enemies) you'll find that your actions, or lack thereof are tallied up according to four different attributes. This end tally takes in account your numerical point based score, the time it took for you to complete an area/level, collected items, and the number of deaths you had. According to each standing you will be rewarded a certain type of medal (Wooden - Platinum), and those medals will then be tallied up to give you your final medal (Wooden - Platinum). After you've completed a level you can always go back for another playthrough via the "Missions" option in the main menu. This option is in place for all those perfectionists out there. Keep in mind though that once you choose to replay your best scores/medals will not be saved, and instead will be replaced with what you earn next.

About the Graphics & Sound ...

Team Ninja Studio, and Tecmo Koei decided to go an alternate route from the previous Ninja Gaiden installments in this latest action adventure. The graphics chosen to go along with the Yaiba tale are less realistic in nature than their Ninja Gaiden counterparts, and lean more towards the comic book appearance. Everything from the characters to the environments themselves feature a wholly cell-shaded art style. In a way it reminds me of what Suda 51's "Killer is Dead" had to offer. Being the uber-violent game that it is "Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z" also uses animated blood to paint the battlefield, and keep the onscreen action grisly. With dismemberment via the execution finishers you'll find the screen constantly filled with bloody gore. It is after all, a game about zombies.

For those of you expecting a soundtrack filled with modern-day twists that include old Japanese instrumentals you will not find that here. Instead a pulse pounding techno tune fills the air as you lay waste to the enemies before you. The intro battle sequence between Ryu, and Yaiba in particular comes of as being more "Badass" with the type of music that was applied. Seeing Yaiba fall to the ground in mutilated bits, and the bass heavy electronic music kick in immediately after definitely set the tone for the rest of the game. Yaiba in essence is a badass experience throughout, because of the developer's option to include such art styles, and music tracks. The fact that cuss words are not censored, and the language included is meant for adults further adds to the badass nature of the game.

Now on to the Verdict ...

Yaiba is a game that takes the traditional hardcore difficulties of past Ninja Gaiden games, and throws in on-the-fly, and easy to understand tutorials while leaving the gamer to either adapt, or die (... repeatedly). To say this game was simple, or short in length is a falsehood. Even though the seven levels are small in design the waves of enemies you face within them more than makeup for the lack of environmental content. The game is, in essence all about the fight. Even so you will still find that there are plenty of action-adventure puzzles to deal with in the environments, as well as plenty of innovative fight mechanics to use against multiple enemies/bosses.

Humor is also a very big part of what makes Yaiba so impressive. When it comes to Team Ninja's, and Tecmo's brand of adult humor I found myself digging the way they incorporated it all. Yaiba, the foul-mouthed ninja that he is comes off as being creative with his slang terms. He often times says something that makes for a good laugh, or chuckle. His most impressive shining moment though lies in the intro's cinematic sequence during the fight against Ryu. After losing, and receiving the fatal slice he says "F*CK!", laughs maniacally, and then falls apart in a bloody spectacle. This in turn reflects what Yaiba is all about, a care-free, kick-ass murderous fiend with an insatiable blood lust. The added comments that are tossed in after each time Yaiba dies also reflect his devil-may-care attitude, and helps him to maintain that badass persona throughout the visual telling of his story. Yaiba is the epitome of "Badassery".

While the game definitely had it's plus side I still found some aggravating issues that many other journalists have found. The worst of these issues, in my personal opinion lies with the stiff camera angles. Unlike most 3D action adventure games you cannot rotate the camera, and must at all times follow the intended path. While this is alright in regards to traveling since the path is given it's less so in regards to combat. Often times in a combat scenario keeping track of Yaiba amidst the growing horde of zombies gets frustrating due to the inability to zoom in, or rotate the view. Yaiba himself often times looks like a zombie at a distance making it hard to keep track of him. This makes for many missed attack opportunities, and failed evasive maneuvers.

Other complaints include the uncertain amount if attacks that it takes to take down a single foe. Usually in a game like this the developer will go for weapon, and character upgrades instead of ability upgrades. In the case of "Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z" though they did the opposite. What you have is a series of equally hard fights (Think Dark Souls) that are not made any easier as you progress. The only real way to end a fight quickly is to masterfully blend attacks, defense, and the elemental hazards that are thrown into the fray. If you simply hack, and slash your way through a fight it will take you forever to move on, and the added fact that the very real threat of  death is there due to the blend of multiple boss-like enemies makes the task all the more unforgiving. I do understand that Team Ninja, and Tecmo were going for the essence of the fight with their applied combat mechanics, but dying unnecessarily because of bad camera angles, and unfairly organized swarms of enemies makes the experience less than inviting to return to.

There are ways to improve upon such issues though. Knowing how much life an enemy has would definitely help you better decide which enemy you should be attacking at what time. Having to dash in and out while applying a few short combos here, and there does not help the player at all, especially if you don't know how much you've weakened them. If you are going to incorporate a detailed combo system at least make it viable. I found often times that I was unable to get past dealing only a few slashes, punches, or whips at a time due the the enemy's quick tempered reactions. Also having to dodge projectiles while more aggressive types of enemies came at me made for an unfair, and overbearing situation. Having numerous weaker enemies, and maybe a couple of similar boss types would have worked out much better. Also don't go heavy on the projectile zombies as that also negates the whole combo system application.

Aside from those complaints I found my playthrough of "Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z" to be alright. The game definitely has some significant plus sides to it, and is a fun escape from the traditional 3D Ninja Gaiden game. While it mimics a lot of other games it's still original enough to make most Team Ninja, and Tecmo fans happy. If you like your combat rough, and you like your protagonist even rougher then "Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z" might just be what you are looking for. It's a whole lot of whoop-ass in a decently rounded package. Badassery is literally oozing out of it's every orifice! Officially, I say this game is worth a rent, or a buy at a discounted price due to it's unpolished presentation.

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