Two Japanese titles feature main characters with cyborg arms and katanas. Both were presented at the same event (GDC), and with only a brief gameplay glimpse of each we felt it necessary to sort out the similarities and differences in a head-to-head.
Killer is Dead is the latest psychedelic murder spree from Goichi Suda (better known as Suda51) and Grasshopper Manufacture. While it's a brand new title, fans familiar with Killer 7 and No More Heroes will feel right at home. Stylish, over-the-top, and tongue-in-cheek, you play an executioner in a supernaturally-infused modern day setting.
The origins of Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z are a bit more complicated. Turns out former Capcom man Keiji Inafune had a real thing for the franchise and wanted to get involved as he started out his new company Comcept. He gave Team Ninja a call, Hayashi-san picked up, and the wheels were set in motion.
Interestingly it is neither Inafune's Comcept nor Hayashi's Team Ninja who are doing the actual development. Instead it is L.A.-based Spark Unlimited (Lost Planet 3) who are handling the programming with Comcept and Team Ninja sharing creative responsibilities.
Killer is Dead features Mondo Zappa, an executioner whose job it is to take out supercriminals powered and corrupted by biomechanical implants that standard law inforcement cannot handle. How he handles it? Well, he is aided by his biomechinical arm that is capable of both crushing melee attacks and transforms into a gun for ranged attacks.
Mondo is an employee of Bryan Execution Agency - a sort of special government endorsed agency. He also wields a katana in his human arm. For Suda51 it was important to portray Mondo as just doing his job. It's not a calling - he just takes care of business as he wastes his days away with beautiful women, with his past being something of a mystery. Much like Quentin Tarantino, Suda51 seems to revel in toying with clichés and Mondo Zappa looks capable of delivering a one liner or two.
"I didn't want to feature a killer, more like a high ranked person with the occupation of executioner," said Suda51.
That takes us to Yaiba - the zombified and cybernetically enhanced ninja who stars in Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z. Having been killed by Ryu Hayabusa, the protagonist in the main series and occasional Dead or Alive cast member, Yaiba is looking for his executioner. While Keiji Inafune stayed fairly mute on the relationship between Yaiba and Ryu Hayabusa, this is likely going to be the central theme of the game. Given the visuals and the overall style, perhaps the game won't emphasis the story as much, but this personal vendetta is what makes it a Ninja Gaiden title so expect it to play a major part.
"The word Yaiba in Japanese means blade, so it's a very appropriate name for this game," said Keiji Inafune. "When we first set out to introduce this character I really focused on who the character is as I believe this is key to the project. Even now when we are talking about the game we are constantly looking back, revisiting who this character is."
Suda51 and Grasshopper Manufacture have been the poster boys of mid-sized independent development studios in Japan for a longtime, but these days the studio actually belongs to GungHo Entertainment. However, this isn't likely to change the mindset of Suda - Killer is Dead looks just as strangely alluring as Killer 7 and No More Heroes. It's got a more serious tone than Lollipop Chainsaw, but we expect some hilarious moments nonetheless.
During the first look event of Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z at GDC, Yosuke Hayashi felt a bit out of place. He didn't say much and left Keiji Inafune to do most of the talking. Perhaps Team Ninja is in more of a support role on the project, or perhaps it's just how their personalities mesh. It would appear that the game was mainly Inafune's idea, and Team Ninja are there to make sure it doesn't stray too far from the Ninja Gaiden ethos while adding their own touch. Of course, early word on Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z was that it was Ninja Gaiden meets Dead Rising, but even if it's Ninja Gaiden with zombies this seems overly simplified to the point where it really doesn't describe the game in any meaningful way.
"A lot of people know me for my zombie games, the major one being Dead Rising, I believe Dead Rising has a little bit of a comedic element in it. It's not just about killing zombies, but there are situations that make you laugh and smile," said Inafune. "And I think zombie games need that sort of atmosphere and in this game you'll see things that you'll think are a little bit funny."
Suda51 referred to the visuals of Killer is Dead as High Contrast Shading. He's not shy about the fact the the look of the game is as important or perhaps even more important than the gameplay. He considers this a piece of art, and the visuals are key to the identity of Killer is Dead. The high contrast shading is similar to cel shading, but it also uses shaders and textures differently creating a rather unique look. Perhaps it can be seen as the culmination of a long line of visual experiments from Suda51 and his team.
"The visual are something that we put a lot of effort in for this title," said Suda51. "I didn't want to go for a photo realistic look nor a toon shader look, and I really wanted to come up with something unique and original."
Yaiba appears to feature a more traditional cel shaded style with lots of colours and black outlines. It's difficult to say much based on the brief look we got of actual gameplay, but the first thought that entered my mind was Jet Set Radio - and that can't be bad. What was interesting was that some of the artwork shown featured a radically different, more somber look - so perhaps there is a broader range here than what first meets the eye.
Killer is Dead - Gallery
Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z - Artwork
Killer is Dead is closer to its release date this summer, and we were given a more complete look at that game. Meanwhile, Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z holds potential, while there are still a lot of unknowns. As far as Killer is Dead goes, don't expect to blown away by the mechanics - they seem standard fair and will see you repeatedly mash buttons for combinations even if the cyborg arm will offer a wider range of alternatives to the player. The boss encounter we witnessed featured multiple stages as the Capitol Records-inspired building was tumbling down as the demented demon-like music afficionado was taken down by Mondo.
This boss fight's with Victor, who has been stealing the abilities of musicians all over town to power his beastly transformation. It is a great example of what fans have come to expect from a Suda51 game and it reminded us of some of the boss battles in Lollipop Chainsaw. The fight is an encounter where Mondo is on his own, but apparently he will team up with other members of the agency in specific places - although the player will control Mondo through the entire campaign.
As for Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z we only got a brief (a minute or so) glimpse at the gameplay. It may not be very close in proximity to previous Ninja Gaiden titles - seemingly taking a more arcade approach, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. While, Inafune underlined Spark Unlimited's experience with action games - it should be noted they have worked mainly on first person shooters, and for them to try and pull off a traditional Ninja Gaiden sounds like a potentially disastrous idea.
Thankfully, it looks very different, and the perspective (mainly seen from the side, but camera angles were a bit all over the place to be honest) paired with the quick intense action and cel-shaded visuals gave off a very different vibe compared to Ninja Gaiden 3 - it also seems more reliant on quick time events or some sort of similar mechanic. Once again the inclusion of both katana and cyborg arm provides variation, even if the exact nature of the mechanics remain a mystery.
Killer is Dead is vintage Suda51 and will no doubt appeal to his established fanbase. The stylish visuals could potentially introduce his particular brand of game to a wider audience, but perhaps that's not the objective. The visuals delivered even if the dialogue felt a bit flat in the sections we witnessed, perhaps the understated voice acting is a conscious move. We'll find out when we get our hands on the full experience.
Keiji Inafune has always produced titles that appealed to Western audiences and with a U.S. developer on board it would appear Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z has wider appeal, this also goes with the seemingly arcadey look of the game where you switch from what can almost be said to be a 2.5D perspective to visceral close ups of zombie murder. Spark Unlimited have yet to produce a break out title since forming the company after defecting from EA and the Medal of Honor series a decade ago. Or perhaps the direction from Inafune and Hayashi is just what they need to rise to glory. Time will tell.
Both games are targeted for release on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, with Killer is Dead set for release this summer and Yaiba: Ninja Gaiden Z tentatively targeted for release late in 2013. Keep your eyes peeled on GRTV for an entertaining interview with Suda51 where he talks about the need for good looking shoes and the vision for Killer is Dead.