One shall stand, one shall fall
How many enemies have you dispatched during your time playing video games? Hundreds? Thousands? Tens of thousands? How many lives have been cut short so that you could make it to the next stage? How much blood has been spilled for a minimal bump to your high score?
When I sat in the crowd of people gathered together in the heart of Tokyo’s Shibuya district for the unveiling of Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z, I was fascinated. For so long, Ryu Hayabusa had taken out countless foes in his many adventures. Now, one of those that he had killed—a ninja slayer named Yaiba—was coming back to try to settle the score.
If nothing else, it’s a fascinating concept—and somewhat shocking that it hasn’t been tried more before now.
It’s been over a year since that initial reveal event, and in that span of time, pieces of the game have been shown, picked apart, praised, and criticized. The visual splendor of Yaiba’s stylish art style. The unapologetic roughness of its main character. The potentially misogynistic undercurrent of its story and presentation. In the middle of all of the commotion and commentary over what Yaiba might or might not be, I’d had a few opportunities to go hands-on with the game—but they were always very brief, fleeting moments of gameplay picked from here or there.
This week, I had the chance to head down to the Los Angeles offices of Spark Unlimited, the Western development studio heading up Yaiba’s creation. Lead designer Cory Davis sat me down with the game, showing me a selection of key moments before letting me go hands-on directly with two chapters from the main storyline.
One of the first things Davis wanted to talk about was Yaiba himself. Unlike the stoic and serious Ryu, Yaiba’s titular character is more concerned with his own amusement and pleasure—two things he seems to be getting from the zombie outbreak that plagues the game’s world.
I got the sense that we aren’t meant to feel sorry for the fallen ninja slayer, nor the fate he received at the hands of his killer. Getting to experience more of his personality through cutscenes and in-game dialog, Yaiba seems a foul, uncivilized jerk of a man. Being honest, I had had some concerns about his demeanor and how he came across as a character, but those have been lessened some by my better realization that we aren’t supposed to like Yaiba. (Or, maybe we are, and my judgement is way off base.) Sure, we control him and help him achieve his goals—but that doesn’t have to include rooting for him to do so. Sometimes, it’s okay to be the bad guy, even when they’re not the stereotypical bad guy with a “heart of gold.”
One element of Yaiba that I’ve no mixed feelings over are its visuals. The cel-shaded design finds a place somewhere between Western comic book art and traditional Japanese anime stylings, and the blend is a welcome change from the glut of games out there content with chasing the most “realistic” graphics possible. Everything feels alive and full of color, and some really impressive visual effects come into play—such as how, at certain times, the minute details of textures will momentarily wash out, replaced by only solid colors and gradients.
Sometimes, it’s easy to imagine that going the more cartoony route would make a game’s graphical elements easier to craft, but Davis explained that the opposite can actually be true.
“It’s easy to get to probably 70% with this art style, but it’s then very difficult to get to where people think it really looks good, and consider it a proper replacement for realistic rendering,” he told me. “You get to the point where you’re really fine tuning every line in the game, and at the same time, fine tuning the way it renders on different devices and screens. You end up with a lot of problems with aliasing and things like that if you’re not very, very careful with the way you create this type of art style.”
Of course, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is a videogame—and above narrative or characters or visual splendor, gameplay is the first and biggest priority. While the game shares some similarities with the series it spun off from—Ninja Gaiden—it also manages to have its own sense of identity. Yaiba’s tale is more over the top and grandiose than Ryu’s, feeling more along the “stylish action” lines of a DmC or Bayonetta in terms of how combat flows. At first, our anti-hero’s move set is limited, but an RPG-esque skill tree will allow players to unlock new abilities, longer combo strings, or other character-boosting options.
Yaiba also feels more nimble than his rival. In my relatively short hands-on time with the game, I encountered a few level sections where I had to bounce between walls or grapple onto scenery to swing myself into the next relevant area. Unfortunately, these sections were a bit of a mixed bag in the build that I played. While they serve as a break from combat and add some extra bits of platforming-style drama, the placement of target jump points or the camera itself made navigation harder than it should have been at times. Talking to Davis, the team is still working to fine-tune much of what’s currently presented in Yaiba—so I’m hoping any roughness in this regard is smoothed out by the time the game goes final.
It won’t just be killin’ and swingin’ on tap for players however, as moments of puzzle solving will also be sprinkled throughout the game. I got a chance to check out some of the elemental-based challenges, where zombies of different properties must be used (and abused) in order to continue chasing after Hayabusa. In one, a bile-type walker was thrown into a chain link fence, with the impact causing said fence to instantly crystalize—making it susceptible to being destroyed. Shortly after, a zombie who had gotten too close to a running generator was used to restart a train’s engine via the sparks emanating from his (her?) body.
That last solution provided a sampling of the light-hearted nature the developers are trying to keep for Yaiba. Once the train kicks back on, a zombie wakes up at the controls. Donning a trademark conductor’s hat, he throws open the train’s doors, allowing a flood of fellow undead to climb aboard before whisking them away into the distance.
“It’s a contrasting philosophy,” noted Davis. “We want to have the sort of over-the-top, gonzo visual and thematic side, but also have that technical side to Yaiba. We’re walking a razor’s edge here—but at the same time, there isn’t a single part of this where we weren’t having fun with these themes, or using them to our advantage to wink at the player or have a good time.”
While Davis might be trying to explain to me the virtues of having “fun” when developing a game, there’s something very serious at the core of Yaiba’s development that I take issue with: the fact that we’ve got a bunch of Americans working on a game about ninjas.
“Well, I think Yaiba’s a very different type of ninja,” Davis assured me. “He’s the guy who sort of fell out of this whole hierarchy of very strict ninja training, ways of behaving, and things like that. In a way, Yaiba’s almost our development team here. When you think of the perspective, [and his interactions with] the ninja realm, he’s bringing something that’s entirely different. Something that they’ve never seen before. So, that’s sort of our philosophy.”
So—something with the same accuracy of, say, Beverly Hills Ninja, I ask, still unconvinced.
“Something like that, definitely,” said Davis between laughs.