When I sat down to play Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z for the first time, the calendar told me it was 2013 -- but for all I knew, I could have been warped back to 1993. With the protagonist's garish, tattered outfit and arbitrarily assigned mechanical parts -- Kano called and he wants his red robo-eye back -- this reboot of the quarter-century-old series has somehow transformed Ninja Gaiden into an unmistakable facsimile of early '90s Image comics: The heavy metal, teen-friendly brand that sought to reinvent the medium by giving young creators control of their characters, adding a bunch of superfluous lines to everything, and never getting a book out on time.
It's not just Yaiba's visuals that flooded my brain with memories of wasting valuable money just to see Spawn give a cybernetic gorilla what for; from start-to-finish, my entire demo session was dripping with the same pissy, upstart attitude that once stood as the mission statement of the House Todd MacFarlane Built. Along with the heaving bosoms, shredded torsos, and generally Juggalesque designs, Yaiba has a real fascination with profanity -- that of the "mom's just a few rooms away, so let's not get too rowdy" variety. Characters spout curses with the naive glee of kids just learning that, yes, they can say these big people words, too. That said, it didn't take very long for me to understand I'm not exactly the ideal audience for Ninja Gaiden Z -- but with the game's 17-and-up rating of "Mature," I'm not sure who is.
Before I paint myself as a pearl-clutching prude, it's important to note that immaturity can be done right. 2009's The House of the Dead: Overkill -- and the recent, typing-focused remake -- completely committed to its offensive, low-budget goal of recreating the gore-laden '70s horror exploitation movie, and did an amazingly offensive job by pushing shocking absurdity to its absolute limits. In contrast, Yaiba feels kind of joyless; it wants to throw around four-letter words and blood-spewing body parts, but the madness seems low-key and reined in -- though, thankfully, the combined forces of Spark Unlimited, Team Ninja, and Keiji Inafune's Comcept were not cynical enough to slap on a film grain filter in an attempt to brand Yaiba as a half-assed tribute to grindhouse cinema.
Though its up-front edginess may struggle to give a different impression, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z has an extremely safe, focus-tested feel. Thankfully, it doesn't make the mistake of taking itself seriously, but, regardless, Yaiba's central premise feels like it was chosen based on the most popular trends in gaming over the last decade: zombies, Russians, and revenge. As a result, Gaiden Z never has to try that hard, since it's drawing from a pool of broad and overused ideas we've seen done to death in recent years. In our modern times -- and thanks to a certain billion-selling series by PopCap -- the "zombie joke" is now just as corny as your balding uncle explaining that skeletons can't reproduce because of their Hollow Weenies. The result is a production with the same sweaty desperation of a Count Floyd bit, but without any of the important self-awareness.
Yaiba isn't all that interested in veering from design trends, either; its action remains true to the style pioneered by Devil May Cry and riffed on by the likes of God of War, Bayonetta, and Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but Gaiden Z's fighting system feels a bit sloppy when compared to similar games, and Yaiba tends to disappear within the throngs of zombies surrounding him, making combos difficult to pull off. Chaining together punches, sword slashes, and flail attacks can feel good when it works well, but Gaiden Z falters when it asks you to do anything more complicated -- during the demo, I had an unexpected amount of trouble tossing an explosive zombie into a helicopter without instead targeting the enemies in front of it, blowing all of us to hell in the process.
And, on this note, some of the zombies of Yaiba operate under an "elemental" system -- the elements in the case being bile, fire, and electricity -- mostly used to solve dirt-simple environmental puzzles, like throwing an electric zombie into a nearby generator. If the solutions to these obstacles escape you, a simple press of LB brings up an overlay that shows you exactly what to do in any situation -- not the most elegant approach, but perhaps a sign that Yaiba knows its audience.
Tampering with such a long and storied (and at times troubled) series can bring its share of Internet outrage, so to bridge the gap between old and new Gaiden fans, Yaiba offers "Ninja Gaiden Z Mode," unlocked by either finishing the game, or, fittingly enough, by inputting a special code. This old-school variant focuses on retro gaming aesthetics and challenge, complete with a dialed-back story involving the search for a lost sake bottle -- one that also serves as a refreshing and brisk alternative to the game's typical wordiness. The level I played featured the same game play as the main campaign, but displayed in a perspective more like that of the NES games. I'm probably going to be a little harsher than most when it comes to judging whether or not something comes off as an honest tribute to classic gaming, but in this case, Yaiba's Ninja Gaiden Z mode doesn't really commit as much as it could.
And that's the sense I get from Yaiba in general: I'm sure people are working hard on it, but it doesn't attempt to be anything more an extremely safe reboot, build upon a foundation of bland, corporate "edginess." Granted, I've only seen a small slice of the game so far, but it's still disappointing to witness the forces of Team Ninja and Comcept -- two developers with a lot of history behind them -- pump out a game that would feel only a little less underwhelming in 2007 than 2014. If "embracing the West" entails resting on the same tired tropes seen endlessly throughout the last generation -- again with the zombies! -- I'm hoping these developers rethink their approach for future projects.