Ninja Gaiden is a series I am not at all familiar with. My extent of knowledge is that it’s about ninjas, there’s a lot of blood, and it’s very, very hard. So I was completely void of all expectations when I was given the opportunity to play Team Ninja’s/Spark Unlimited’s/Comcept’s upcoming sort of spinoff Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z.

Would it be hard? Would there be blood? Would there be ninjas? I played the first three levels of Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z and can tell you all about it.

The story begins with our antihero Yaiba sharing a drink with the main series’ protagonist Ryu. Shenanigans occur, as they do when you have ninjas and alcohol, leaving Yaiba half the man he used to be. Yaiba wakes, alive and rebuilt, in the care of a totally not sinister at all corporation. He’s then tasked with doing whatever the corporation says, in exchange for the details on Ryu’s location, so that he may exact bloody vengeance. It’s all completely arch bunk, serving as a blunt catalyst for whatever you’re about to get up to next.

Luckily, what you’re about to get up to next is gratuitously killing a city full of zombies using sharp bits of metal. That Yaiba gleefully embraces this bloody bloody violence and forgets any logic or narrative complexity is actually a good thing, as it lets the player focus on what’s important – ultraviolence.

Combat is clearly the core of Yaiba, and thankfully it does this rather well. Violence comes thick and fast, with copious decaying enemies all scrambling for Yaiba’s brains at the same time. It’s satisfying to become the human blender in this situation, feeding wave after wave of dumb shamblers into the sword and steel living meat grinder. Yaiba has three types of weapons, which roughly segment into combat styles. Sword attacks are lightning fast light attacks and great at racking up high combo scores. Yaiba’s cyborg hand acts as a slightly slower heavy attack, packing powerful hits. Finally, a flail – which is essentially a long ball and chain – gives Yaiba range and an arc attack, dealing light damage in a wide area. Yaiba can also dash around to avoid attacks, performing a blindingly fast short range teleport that can be useful to escape an inconvenient mobbing.

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Damage and scoring is determined by combos, with the mix of sword, punch, and flail attacks racking up numbers quickly. Finish a combo and that last attack will stun a zombie, allowing you to execute them with a trigger press and dropping a health pack. This can become vital in some of the bigger battles, as all the small damage can add up quickly. There is a block and counter mechanic too. Hold down R trigger and you’ll block, press it at the right time and you’ll reverse the attack and deal massive damage. Although I didn’t find it too useful in regular skirmishes, it was, however, invaluable against bigger enemies. Yaiba also has a special “Bloodlust” meter that charges up as you kill, allowing you to activate Bloodlust mode for a short amount of time, dealing more damage quicker.

Success in combat among normal zombies is largely elementary, with Yaiba cutting a swathe quite easily. Variety comes from special creatures. For example, there is a clown zombie that will take more hits and deal out heavier damage, while dancing around and making life difficult. Heavy gorilla-like zombies, on the other hand, can block attacks and hit hard. It gets very interesting when enemies the bride zombie comes into the mix, with her electric shield which can only be broken by flail attacks, and her teleportation and range attacks, or the fire zombies that shoot exploding fireballs and can set Yaiba alight. Mixing different special types in combat scenarios adds a depth and strategy to the generally blitzy battles, ensuring a richness to approach.

To enhance the experience, special zombies “drop” special weapons when executed. Executing a tough brute zombie will make Yaiba rip off their arms and use them as “numb chucks”, which hit moderately fast and heavy. Killing a bride will rip out her spine and use it as an electric whip. Eliminating a fire spitter will tear off its head and use it as a fireball shooting mortar. You can only carry one special weapon at a time, and for the duration it will replace your base weapon of the same type, but these timed powerups definitely help out in a pinch. You can also, at any time, grab a regular zombie with R2, picking them up and using them to bash the unliving stuffing out of other enemies.

The combat isn’t perfect, though. I found that it was sometimes difficult to work out where Yaiba was on screen due to some camera angle vagaries. He does tend to get lost in the fray often. Causing stuns for executions were occasionally difficult to pull off, and the visual cue that it had happened can be difficult to see, leading to missed opportunities. Executions themselves happened way too fast, with animations flashing past quickly, making it difficult to see what actually happened. While it’s nice that it doesn’t interrupt the flow, it could have been shown for a little longer to let the player see the impact of their actions.

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Graphically, Yaiba certainly embraces its quirky comic book style. Stylised cell shaded graphics suit the brash approach. Colours are vibrant, and the lavish lashings of blood are especially copious. It isn’t the most technically good looking game, but the cell shaded flash and pomp suit it. Unfortunately, I experienced some quite severe frame rate issues, with the game frequently slowing to a shudder. This could be attributed to me playing on unfinished code from a few months ago, though, with future optimisation potentially bringing better performance, but I can’t make any guarantees. We’ll have to see if performance issues clear up closer to release.

There are a few other features, like a scoring system that ranks your performance in each battle area. It’s generous and frequent enough to be rewarding, but also unobtrusive enough to be ignored. You can use points to upgrade skills and buy new abilities, like longer Bloodlust duration and quicker recovery from burning. It looks like there’s an opportunity for players who want to break high scores and blitz areas, which I imagine fans of the genre would appreciate. I didn’t get a good look at this system, but it seemed adequate. Interspersed between combat areas are some interesting environmental obstacles to jump over and swing around too, sometimes using your flail as a sort of grappling hook in predefined areas, adding a little variety to gameplay.

There are a few letdowns. Combat is fraught with some quite severe difficulty spikes, especially when boss battles or multiple big enemies are put into play. I don’t mind the difficulty per se, but the increase in difficulty of the last boss I fought was frustrating. I imagine some balancing might occur between now and release, and my short hour and a half playtime might not have been conducive for me to learn all the mechanics in depth, but unfair difficulty spikes did dull the enjoyment somewhat.

And the plot and characters. I mean, it’s not supposed to be Shakespeare, but some of the writing can be pretty dire. It’s full of crass humour and cliched remarks, and it embraces this approach unapologetically. For every genuinely (often darkly) funny moment, there are others that seem blunt and immature. I can appreciate that it’s Yaiba’s approach, and I suppose it suits the game, but a little bit of class wouldn’t have hurt.

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Do I like Yaiba? So far, it hasn’t grabbed me. While there is a strong core of enjoyable brawler combat here, and it will scratch a certain itch, the current rough state of the game and crude humour prevent it from being as enjoyable as, say, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Luckily, the strength of the combat pulled me through it and allowed me to ignore some of the less elegant parts. Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z isn’t bad, but I’m not immediately in love either. We’ll see how it ends up when it gets released next month.

Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z is being developed by Team Ninja, Spark Unlimited, and Comcept. It’s being published by Tecmo Koei. Yaiba is being released on PS3, Xbox 360, PC, and iOS on February 27th in Australia, 28th in Europe, and March 4th in America.