An Abbreviated But Perfect Counterpart To Its Console Brethren
Know, reading this review, I haven't actually played another Ninja Gaiden game before this one (well, I did play the old Ninja Gaiden on the NES, though it's quite different from what we now have with the series), but I am a lover of this sort of action, and the DS is sorely barren when it comes to serving up this type of excitement. So, when Dragon Sword was officially revealed quite a ways back, I was all over it with both feet.
If you're reading this review, you likely know the Ninja Gaiden basics. If you don't, well, think God of War, Devil May Cry, Onimusha-style, mature action, and you'll be on the right track to understanding where this game is coming from. But it's on the DS! Not only on the DS, but Dragon Sword makes perhaps the very best use of the system of any game I've yet played. Everything, except blocking, is done using the stylus…and it feels great!
You play as Ryu, and he's a ninja who doesn't hide in the shadows waiting for an easy kill. Rather, Ryu is the type of ninja who's fast and furious, and fast and furious is what Ninja Gaiden seems to be all about. (That's probably why the two series – Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden – are often compared.) You command Ryu to move by simply pointing on the touchscreen where you want him to go, much in the same way as moving Link in Phantom Hourglass, or moving your character in Animal Crossing: Wild World; it's simple and works great. Equally simple – and incredibly rewarding, I might add – is commanding Ryu to attack and jump. Simply slash over enemies to attack, slice up to jump (or slice up twice to double-jump), and perform various combos and special techniques using a certain combination of touchscreen scribbles and commands. As mentioned, the only thing you don't do with the stylus is block, and for this you simply press any button on the DS. You can then roll while blocking by tapping in any direction on the touchscreen. The controls are very "intuitive" and a ton of fun. The action has you feeling like you're in Ryu's sandals in no time.
You'll actually begin the game playing as Ryu's ninja student, Momiji, and while playing her in the first chapter, you'll learn all the basics. Soon thereafter, Momiji vanishes, and Ryu takes over. The start of the game takes place in Ryu's home village, but soon moves into a netherworld of sorts, with Ryu's village playing game hub for the duration of the story. You'll be fighting demons and demon ninjas, as well as other various baddies, and there are plenty of bosses along the way. The game's broken into chapters, and the level progression is spot-on for a game meant to be played on the go.
That doesn't mean, however, the game doesn't come close to the epic quality of its console counterparts, because it does. The story is told through dialogue, of course, but also using gorgeous storyboard artwork and cinematic direction. It's a wonderful presentation from start to finish, and not something most folks are likely to expect from a DS action title.
Which brings us to: the production values…
Wow! Double Wow, and FTW, triple-freakin' wow! This game isn't just impressive in terms of technical quality, but the art style is just sky-high with love and attention to detail. The 3D character models over lush 2D backgrounds allow the framerate to zip along and Ryu to glide like the lightning-fast ninja he proposes to be. The storyboards are woven into the gameplay so wonderfully, you just can't help but simply get lost in this game.
The sound, too, is no less exciting. Authentic Asian instrumentals one minute, hard-rockin' tunes the next. Everything fits the visuals and actions onscreen perfectly. As an entire production package, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword rivals anything Nintendo or Square Enix have yet to do on the DS. The game is simply beautiful.
Beautiful but short. Yeah, it's as short as you've heard (or may not have heard). About eight hours the first time through, but what a glorious eight hours it is. That said, there are a ton of cool unlockables, including difficulty settings that should offer extra challenge to Ninja Gaiden vets. I found the game to be a nice challenge the first time through, though many of the bosses were relative push-overs. The bosses, however, were still all very fun to fight and amazing to look at, regardless of the difficulty setting.
But the second difficulty setting was pwning me fairly quickly. On the harder difficulty, spamming moves won't get you through (most of the time). You'll have to learn the enemies' attacks, and map out an appropriate strategy to defeat them, all on the fly. There isn't nearly as much combat variety in Dragon Sword as I've seen and heard about in the Xbox Ninja Gaiden game, but the enemy attacks are also not as varied, either. So, the difficulty matches up well with the skills both Ryu and the enemies he faces possess. From what I've watched and read about regarding Xbox Ninja Gaiden, the harder difficulty in Dragon Sword offers a comparable combat challenge for players. There are no easy enemies.
"Wait, so you've really nothing negative to say about the game?"
Only one thing, really, and it's in regards to the controls. Yes, the controls are easy to use, and yes, they're fun as all hell. But occasionally, Ryu will do things you don't intend him to do. I attribute this to the touchscreen's sensitivity, coupled with the way certain level areas come in and out of scale. Ryu might be right up toward the front of the screen one moment, but then make his way toward the rear of a room the next, and this can cause the DS to misread your touchscreen command. That said, it's kind of rare and negligible, since it never really hurts the overall experience.
Well, there you have it. To sum up: buy this game! The DS has seen its share of quality titles among the hordes of shovelware, but we haven't seen many good action games of this sort on the system. Dragon Sword goes beyond good and carves a new paragon for quality on the DS. Thanks Team Ninja!
One last thing…
This is a DS game, not an Xbox game. When I review a game, I consider it in the context of the system it's on, as well as everything else that's on that system. So, I won't compare a DS game to every other Xbox game available, nor rate a PSP game poorly because it doesn't offer touch control. For the system that it's on, as well as everything else currently available on the DS, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword is a masterpiece. Keep that in mind when approaching this game. I've watched video reviews of Ninja Gaiden for Xbox, and the game looks out-of-this-world amazing, but Dragon Sword is not that game. Dragon Sword is an abbreviated version of what you would get from its console brethren, and that's fine by me. Itagaki (the creative director) and Team Ninja (the development team) made art on the DS, and that's all that should matter.