The Ninja Gaiden series is synonymous with precise, razor-sharp action that rewards good reflexes and punishes a lack of skill by making you jump through debasing hoops, calling yourself a dog and making your badass ninja wear a pretty pink bow. It's fair to say that I have certain specific expectations about new Ninja Gaiden games, even spin-offs starring random mooks who get murdered by the series' main character in the first three minutes of a game. Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z carries the Ninja Gaiden tradition in some ways, but never fully succeeds at living up to the name.
Did you think I was joking when I said your character gets killed by Ryu Hayabusa right at the beginning? Not at all! Yaiba Kamikaze is a lethal assassin and tremendous dickhead who challenges cool, collected Dragon Clan ninja Ryu Hayabusa (of Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive fame) to a duel, and promptly gets his arm cut off. Resurrected as a cyborg (because cyborg ninja are actually pretty awesome) by a shady businessman, he's given a job he can't possibly refuse: kill Ryu Hayabusa. Of course, Yaiba has the excellent timing to try and kill Ryu during a zombie outbreak, so Yaiba will have to fight his way through hordes of zombies, massive mutated abominations, and the Russian army (?) on his crude, crazy quest for revenge.
Compared to the silky-smooth, fighting-game-precise action of the Ninja Gaiden series, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z actually plays more like Lollipop Chainsaw, and I mean that as a compliment. It has its own rhythm, but relies on piling on light, low-damage attacks before mixing things up with slow, higher-damage attacks and timing-specific finishers. In a way, it works for the character--Yaiba is rough and sloppy compared to Ryu's clean form, so you're dealing tons of lightning-quick slashes instead of single, powerful hits. You're also carving your way through large groups of enemies with the occasional miniboss, so fights become more about crowd control than tense one-on-several showdowns.
It takes a little getting used to at first, and it feels good getting comfortable with this system, but about 2-3 hours in, sadly the game loses a lot of its challenge. It becomes like a sequence of rock-paper-scissors matches, and instead of building upon the system and forcing you to improve, you just have to repeat a set pattern of attacks against two minibosses and cut your way through a bigger crowd of zombies. Boss fights are cool at first, presenting new mechanics and keeping you on your toes, until you realize that in many instances, you're just facing the first of a million recurring minibosses. Counter timing and attack hitboxes also feel a little off--the game will tell you to counter just as you're about to be attacked, but what it really means is to counter about a half-second before the enemy's attack will hit. For players used to more exacting countering and parrying systems like in Bayonetta or Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, this attempt at leniency just comes off as clunky.
You're usually forced to use Yaiba's three main weapons--his sword, his fist, and his flail--but occasionally you can tear off zombie limbs and use them as nunchaku. You're also put through short platforming segments that don't feel terribly out-of-place, but seem to be there specifically to kill time and draw attention away from the eventually-repetitive combat. Hunting through levels for life and strength-increasing collectibles also becomes kind of a drag, since few non-boss enemies are strong enough to require major upgrades, and with the way the game doles out experience, you end up earning new moves and perks so quickly that it makes an easy game even easier.
It's also important to mention how much of a tool Yaiba Kamikaze himself is. Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z constantly tries to present itself in the same vein as Bulletstorm, a violent and silly comedy with a jerk hero and punny finishing moves. While it can elicit a chuckle every now and then (cut off a zombie clown's arms and use them as nunchucks--NUNCHUCKLES!), the constant attempts to be cool and edgy come off as eye-rolling and irritating. You almost want to make it to the end of the game just so Ryu Hayabusa can cut off Yaiba's other arm (or maybe his head) and then you'll never have to deal with him again.
Despite its missteps, I think Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z means well. It tries to live up to the exacting, high-energy action of the rebooted Ninja Gaiden series, while trying to separate itself with a new hero and a fresh playstyle. Unfortunately, the new lead is a total punk, and the combat is mashy, repetitive, and unimaginative. There are times when it shines, but sadly those are few and far between. Like its lead character, Yaiba is a paper tiger--it talks the talk, and that's about it.
+ Gorgeous and stylized visuals really show off what creative developers can do with the Unreal Engine
+ Rather than copy previous Ninja Gaiden games, Yaiba really goes out of its way to do its own thing
+/- Simpler combat system is economical and has some depth, but battles very quickly wear out their welcome
+/- Taxing boss fights... the first time around. Get ready to fight bosses again and again as regular minibosses
- Severe lack of challenge compared to previous Ninja Gaiden titles
- Combat just feels off sometimes, with inaccurate collision detection and strange counter timing
- The game's humor tries to be equal parts crude and cool, but instead comes off as juvenile and obnoxious