Publisher: Tecmo Koei | Developer: Spark Unlimited | Out: 21 March
We honestly can’t remember the last time we tried so hard to like something as much as we did with Yaiba. And we honestly can’t remember the last time a game did so much to avoid being liked, either. The art style and attitude were enough to make us sideline any fears about what serial 5/10 production line Spark Unlimited might be doing tinkering with the Ninja Gaiden franchise, but the doubt has been benefited from enough now – at this point, we know for sure that as much as we may love the look and feel of the game, the fundamentals of Yaiba are so far wide of the goal that we swear we saw one of them bounce back into play off the corner flag.
It all starts so well, too. The suitably awesome intro sets up more than the game can ever deliver and even though its relatively tame opening chapters are enjoyable enough, you can see the seeds of disappointment sprouting even then – not one of the ‘boss’ zombies is enjoyable to fight alone, and the crushing inevitability of them turning up in packs shortly afterwards is terrifying. And then realised. And then just as terrible as you expected. With Team Ninja still involved in the project (even if only in a supervisory capacity), it beggars belief that Spark has been given the freedom to expose its lack of expertise in this genre to quite this degree.
As much as he may come across as an arrogant, chauvinistic prick, Yaiba is a dab hand with a blade – he has the genre staples of a mid-range sword attack, powerful close range fist blows and weaker ranged chain swipes to mix up. Well, once you’ve unlocked the ability to do so, anyway. So much of your arsenal is initially locked away behind an arbitrary barrier that you’re left no option but to mash out the few combos you have, but even finally getting access to the big boy strings doesn’t mess with the mashing agenda all that much. This is not a technical game, not by a long shot.
Platforming is simplistic and, until additional obstacles come into the equation and ruin everything, about as taxing as an Assassin’s Creed game. QTEs barely work, so input speed isn’t accurately reflected in how the swingometer swings. Story is basically nonexistent, to the point where the design notes for the game presumably amount to a single napkin with ‘revenge’ scrawled on it in biro. And the camera – dear lord, the camera – must be among the worst examples of the art we’ve seen, deciding which areas to stick on while offering minimal player control to budge it from its useless perch.
But the worst offenders of the piece by far are the undead hoops Yaiba has to jump through on his adventure. The slow build of enemy presence is actually pretty cool, with waves of useless deadites slowly joined by elemental variants, stronger boss versions and unique zombie types to murder to bits. Some of these are frustrating enough when they’re first introduced, so when they start to appear in pairs or packs a chapter or two later, the real design problems start to bubble over and spill everywhere.
Yaiba is stupidly tough, but not in a good way – in a way that suggests a developer spotting a trend for challenging games and populating areas with loads of its toughest nuts without actually planning how these encounters would play out, or if they’d even work at all. And they don’t. Despite the interesting elemental system and the passable (if mash-friendly) combat, bigger battles frustrate more than they excite – it’s just a random bunch of enemies dropped into a room with a camera that hates literally everybody. We can’t say we like those odds.
The galling part of all this is how close some aspects of the game come to being awesome. Stylistically, it’s great and while better in stills than horribly confusing motion, the comic book aesthetic is definitely cool if not amazing. Easy mode combat isn’t a problem in and of itself either, the issues here being that slicing through hordes of grunts gets old real quick and the mechanics simply aren’t strong enough to support dealing with more powerful foes, let alone bosses. Executions, too, play out like Mortal Kombat fatalities – they’re badass the first time but lose impact after the first few viewings, a fact not helped by the fact that chained executions simply play out as a series of stock animations rather than having any kind of flow to them.
Yaiba is an ‘almost’ in many regards but a ‘sweet Jesus, no’ in the ones that really matter, resulting in a game that is frankly just a bit of a mess. Try as you might to like it – and we really, really did try – its numerous flaws will prevent you from ever truly enjoying what could have been an interesting take on a troubled franchise. We tried so very hard to love you, Yaiba. You just refused to let us.