Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword Review
When I wanna train my brain or a virtual puppy, I know the Nintendo DS has got my back. However, if I'm craving a more action-packed portable experience, one where I can lock and load with guns and grenades blastin' or maybe lop off some limbs, I'm forced to power up my PSP. With the arrival of Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword on Nintendo's quirky portable, that's finally changed; thanks to its slick, stylus-driven controls and can't-catch-your-breath action, Ninja Gaiden has made the DS a go-to platform for those who love slaying demons just as much as they enjoy cooking with Mama. Seriously, in one fell swoop Ninja Gaiden's portable debut offers what few developers have been able to deliver in the years since the platform's release: a system-selling action title.
The secret behind Dragon Sword is a double-whammy of amazing visuals and fluid, stylus-focused controls. The graphical presentation is the best to ever grace the DS's dual screens; utilizing a mix of gorgeous 2D backgrounds and equally eye-pleasing 3D characters, it crafts a stunning visual showcase that'll have you questioning why it's taken so long for a DS title to look this good. Playing as franchise favorite ninja Ryu Hayabusa, players will witness an array of impressive acrobatic animations--running, jumping, sword-slashing and shuriken-tossing all look great. And smaller touches, like Ryu's tabi boots splashing through water or his mask's sash flying in his wake, serve to complement the overall presentation. Levels come to life with realistic fire, water and foliage--often just green smudges in other DS titles--and enemies look and animate just as well as the man in black. In fact, the many boss battles are the game's graphical highlight; screen-towering monstrosities such as fire and ice dragons, a lumbering slug-like troll ,and a wicked sorceress that makes Snow White's nemesis look like a muffin-baking granny will keep your eyes poppin' and stylus twitching.
As pretty as Dragon Sword is, you won't be able to stare too long as the action comes fast, furious and without mercy. Thankfully, the stylus control is super forgiving and equally satisfying, so you won't suffer any cheap deaths, nor mind tolerating the occasional hand cramp. Like The Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass, Dragon Sword proves you can rock the pen-like peripheral just as intuitively as buttons and a directional pad. Similarly to controlling the Hyrulian hero, players simply drag the stylus in front of Ryu and he will follow. Slash up and he jumps, slash up-and-down or side-to-side on an enemy, and they disappear in a dynamic flash of blue light. Speaking of that stylized blur, fans of Ninja Gaiden's console outings should know this blue flash replaces the series' staple blood and gore. This is, after all, a T-rated DS title so if you're looking for entrails and decapitations, you'd better wait for Ryu's 360 debut this summer.
Aside from his simple move set, Ryu pulls a few combos like the pile-driving Izuna Drop where a quick down, up, up stylus input on an enemy will bring you and some unfortunate soul flying into the air right before crashing to the ground (not to worry, Ryu fares much better than the bad guy). Additionally, by pressing any shoulder or face button--the only time they're used--players can block and, in conjunction with the stylus, quickly evade enemy attacks. For the most part, hacking and slashing get the job done, although you will benefit from learning the trickier moves when coming face to face with a boss and its seemingly endless health bar. Regardless of your approach, though, controlling the ninja action feels amazingly intuitive and fun; throwing a haze of shurikens, from mid-air, at cliff-perched archers--all while midway through a ground-based battle--is pretty damn entertaining.
Of course, a ninja is little more than a glorified swordsman without his mystical Ninpo magic. Dragon Sword delivers here as well with multiple attacks including the expected fire- and ice- based spells as well as room-clearing hurricane attacks. Unleashing magic requires you to trace a symbol before a timer expires, but seeing as the symbols generously fill-in with a few frantic taps, rather than accurate tracing, you'll never worry about missing an opportunity to cast death on your enemies. Once the symbol mini-game completes, you'll again use the stylus to maneuver your fireball, electricity, mini tornado etc. to carve a path of death and destruction through relentless hordes of Fiends and Black Spider Clan ninjas. Ninpo, like health, is rejuvenated by collecting colored Essence (orbs) from fallen foes.
Despite the inclusion of the above mentioned baddies, as well as the mystical Dragon Sword and Dark Dragon Blade, the title isn't exactly brimming with narrative brilliance. It supposedly fills the gap between Ninja Gaiden and its upcoming sequel, but it's mostly a bare-bones rescue tale existing to support tons of sword-slashing action. But honestly, if you're considering this title, it's probably not with the hope of discovering the next great video game story; more likely, you're looking to tear into some crazy-ass ninja action, and Dragon Sword delivers that in spades. You won't find much in the way of puzzles or platforming, here, either. There's a few simple door-opening games and jumping challenges, but nothing that'll get the brain or acrobatic juices flowing. Dragon Sword's developers were clearly focused on delivering an action-heavy experience driven by the DS's unique control capabilities. Piling on complicated puzzling, platforming or RPG mechanics would've defeated this purpose and likely spread the game's best parts too thin.
Like Brain Age, Dragon Sword requires you hold the DS horizontally, like a book. This seemed a strange fit at first, but soon made sense when I witnessed Ryu bouncing from screen top to bottom like a Red Bull-fueled Mexican jumping bean; a vertical set-up just wouldn't have framed the action properly. The only issue with this design choice is some of the screens, being so narrow, have you doing little more than trekking a few paces to the next one. Also frustrating, were the handful of times I slipped into a previous screen and was re-subjected to a room full of hungry, spawning enemies. In addition to its book-like design, Dragon Sword shares something else with the brain training sim in its ability to embarrass. Brain Age pegged me as 20 years passed my actual age, and Dragon Sword similarly pulled no punches in humbling me; performance is rated at the conclusion of each mission, and I fell into the "Lesser Ninja" category more times than I care to admit. Despite this harsh kick to my ninja pride, I had a blast with Dragon Sword and look forward to diving back in with hopes of achieving the "Greater Ninja" status. Dragon Sword has really raised the bar not only for DS action titles, but portable games, period. Here's hoping other developers take notice.