Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z – Fragmented Momentum
There was a moment in Charles Babb’s (Senior Producer, Spark Unlimited) playthrough of an early level in Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, in which a smile slowly crept across Tom Lee’s (Creative Director, Team Ninja) face as he let out a quiet phrase of satisfaction: “there you go.” The significance of it reverberated through the small hotel suite. Babb had just strung together a whirlwind combo, springing from shambling corpse to still-animated legs, culminating in an arcing motion of Yaiba, rocketing skyward, slashing an enemy up with him, before the law of gravity drew him back down, sword first, with greater velocity than his ascent. The subsequent shock wave of force the impact generated rippled outward, shredding limbs and fountaining viscera. Yaiba’s cyborg arm whipped through the carnage seemingly simultaneously with his feet cresting back to the ground. It found purchase on the shoulder of a fatigue-dressed zombie, dazed from the explosion of kinetic energy, and ripped its body forward, slamming it groundward as it trailed just behind Yaiba, scuffling along the ground like a fish on a line. With a flick, the captive soul careened through the crowd, bludgeoning hapless stragglers and waylaying the advancing, murderous brood. The speed of it bordered on the absurd. The brutal efficiency with which it was done was palpable. This was the moment in which the imminent Killer is Dead comparison first found contrast.
Yes, the two protagonists bear similar mechanical appendages and wield katanas, and neither are particularly likable ((likely purposefully) In wholeheartedly embracing the grindhouse aesthetic, canned characters come with the territory)). Yes, the manga-esque graphical style of Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is more similar to Killer is Dead than the photo-realistic earlier entries in the series. But in reality, the titles are worlds apart. Early on in Killer is Dead, Mondo feels…plodding. His attacks are simple, his movements stilted; he is headstrong but surprisingly physically feeble. The combat feels more perilous with the burgeoning ranks of foes as the player is beset by the knowledge that Mondo is relatively average. The moments of feeling as though you’re watching the sheep shepherded towards the slaughter are few and far between. Even as his skills mature, most encounters still need to be approached strategically in order to come out unscathed. But Yaiba has both a practiced ease and a sense of sadism in dispatching his opponents that the detached Mondo never possesses, evident in the violent flourishes that end his movements and the scale of their destruction. Likewise, Mondo’s moments of bravado are posturing, carefully crafted to both illuminate and entrench his ego, a leitmotif on the true emptiness of conflict and identity that permeates much of Goichi Suda’s work, and in this case, one that deepens what would otherwise be a superficial plot. Yaiba is that narrative’s antithesis. Motivated by revenge, wielded by others with common goals (on the surface, at least), Yaiba fits the stereotypical B-movie antihero hand in glove, gruffness included. That simplicity was the goal. In subsequent exchanges with Lee and Babb, it became clear that they were weary of the de rigeur ‘overly serious’ protagonists, and wanted to get out of the way (from a plot standpoint) and let the players “have fun.” It is natural that in tacking so far from the track Ninja Gaiden series established with Ryu Hayabusa (stoic, self-sacrificial protector of order), certain clichés would be encompassed in the endeavor. It’s safer to build from proven commodities (zombies, extreme violence, badass if flat protagonists) than break the mold entirely. Lee himself admitted that there was a large degree of risk in leading such a stark departure. But the risk is warranted. Ninja Gaiden 3 was neither commercially nor critically successful, plagued with a problematic, incohesive story, and QTE riddled combat dragging down Team Ninja’s first attempt to portray Ryu from a new perspective. Rather than return to the success of the Ninja Gaiden: Sigma iterations, they decided to proceed to the logical conclusion of characterizing Ryu: establishing a completely external perspective. To further distance this entry from what most consider Ninja Gaiden canon, aside from the drastic shift in artistic direction, they also ratcheted up the tempo. They seem to have done so with confidence.
Lee’s second smile came moments later, and also involved Yaiba’s cyborg arm, though in a more expedient role. A conductor limped into the commotion described above, recognizable by his pinstripe hat. With a fluid, boomeranging snap, the conductor was hurled into the front car. He donned his toppled cap, wrenched the door lever to open, waited a few seconds for one pitifully crawling upper body, and hurtled the train off the ruined tracks. The half corpse didn’t make it aboard.
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is slated to be released on March 18th, 2014.