It's a disappointing end to what looked to be an interesting project; Team Ninja's combat precision overlaid with Spark Unlimited's B-movie splatterhouse slasher, and the project overseen by ex-Dead Rising producer Keiji Inafune.
The result is an unbalanced hodgepodge; not quite excelling at one thing or the other. The game uses its namesake to try and nudge itself into the same exclusive sub-group of the action adventure genre as Bayonetta and Metal Gear Rising, in which tight mechanics, smart camera work and clear visual cues reign supreme. It misses the mark of the first, completely cocks up the second and finds that the cel-shaded approach working against its better interests in the end.
The story sees cyborg ninja man Yaiba on a revenge mission, chasing series hero Ryu Hayabusa, but he's forced to hack his way through a city of zombies first. With a few exceptions, Yaiba (and indeed, Inafune, who's also character designer on the project) draws its enemy pool from the undead. We've zombie brides, grenade-tossing troopers, fire-breathers, clowns... and all come with their own attack patterns. The game is quick to introduce each type, then shuffle them like a card deck to generate different group combinations. Packed like sardines between all these are your standard shuffling zombie types; singularly, a low-level threat. But the game tosses several hordes at you at any one time.
The idea for these, perhaps, is some brainless slash filler as respite between the more substantial threats. However, with the camera pulled way out, as it is at default, and the overabundance of black ink in the cartoonish visuals, it is all too easy to loose track of Yaiba in the throng. Down enemies to the end of their life bar and an exclamation point will flash above them to indicate a cutscene execution (which also spawns some health pickups) is available. These red markers inadvertently are the only thing to anchor your eye to your whirling dervish of a swordsman.
Yaiba's combat isn't excessively complex, nor the multi-branching combo chains too long. You've a standard sword attack, punch and a roundhouse flail move. The upgrade system on all three is relatively simply and flirts its wares all too quickly. Arguably most clashes aren't built for a multitude of moves. The pattern for anything other than the horde is short combo attack, dash away. Block, await an opening, dash in, repeat. There's a real zip to the combat, and we rarely if ever had a problem directing Yaiba to which enemy we wanted to tackle next. Some of the game's peers can't even get that fundamental control issue right.
But the difficulty of these clashes feels slightly unbalanced. Aside from the fact that you can miss the split-second visual cue of an enemy winding up a special attack amidst the muddy chaos on screen (even if you're sure where you are on it), there's sudden difficulty spikes even buried within a tough-but-bearable one-on-one clash. Speedy and accurate projectiles become your nemeses (we never worked out the correct timing of countering helicopter missiles).
Hard to counter, harder to dodge when you're getting battered windmilling undead creatures. The game continually slams you with close range attackers and one or more long ranger aggressors, and the arenas aren't big enough to free up some breathing space between either sets of foes. Again, this is partly due to the camera and visual style. In cutscenes, the cel-shading works well, but during actual gameplay the colour-coding doesn't fit.
Between the hacking and slashing, you've got the odd smattering of almost-QTE platform sections, and the occasional light puzzle. They break up the action, but are little to write home about. There's a few collectables dotted throughout each level. Some offer character perks, but others are just text files that you'll likely be uninterested in reading through.
As stated, it's a real shame. Yaiba doesn't come across as a likeable lead and there's some questionable content that'll add fire to the sexism row in gaming. It's not an overly-long game (one of our colleagues clocked it in five hours), but even that seems to drag.
At its best, it's low-brow gory fun, but in light of not only its peers, who it can't match in any department, but in comparison to some of the great games releasing at the moment, it's definitely one of the poorer titles of 2014.