Review by bluej33

Reviewed: 05/12/08

While it starts out slow, Ninja Gaiden DS quickly shows you how much it has to offer

Ninja Gaiden has a long and storied history -- much of it involves punishing combat and infuriatingly difficult boss fights. I’ve missed out on all that, however, and instead the DS iteration of the Ninja Gaiden franchise, subtitles Dragon Sword, is my introduction to the series. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in, but having beaten the game and seen all that this awesome game has to offer, I’m now on the hunt for ways to play more Ninja Gaiden.

The premise of the game is quite simple: you play as legendary ninja Ryu Hayabusa (and occasionally Momiji, a female ninja of the same clan). Dragon Sword occurs sometime shortly after the Dark Dragon Sword Incident which, to the best of my knowledge, is the story arc chronicled in Ninja Gaiden Black for the Xbox and again in Ninja Gaiden Sigma for the PS3. Momiji, the sister of the fallen Kureha, has been kidnapped by the sinister Black Spider Clan, and as Ryu, you must track down the clan to rescue Momiji and, along the way, uncover a far more sinister plot put in place by the fiends Ishtaros and Nicchae (familiar names to veterans of Ninja Gaiden).

Of course, this being an action game, the story certainly doesn’t take front and center in Dragon Sword. That said, it is fairly intriguing. I personally had a bit of trouble following it and found myself piecing it together once the credits rolled -- however, if you’ve played this series a lot and understand the references to past events, as well as all the many characters you’ll come in contact with, then you’re going to really love this. The game lacks any cut scenes, but the story is instead told through creative use of comic book-like panels with sparse animation. The art direction in these storytelling sequences is fantastic.

Which brings me to the game’s visuals: to be short and to the point, they’re really fantastic. I’d say the Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword is certainly one of the best looking games on the DS. It’s about on par with Final Fantasy III (to me, possibly the high-water mark for graphical achievement on the system), which is even more impressive considering the constant action going on in this game (compare it to the slow, turn-based combat of Final Fantasy III). The environments are varied and detailed, the animation for both Ryu and his numerous enemies is fantastic, and the game moves along at a very steady clip even when there is lots of stuff going on at once.

Actually, the boss fights are probably the most impressive graphical showcase in Ninja Gaiden DS. Bosses are big, ugly, and (in a technical sense, of course) look great -- and the battle to down them is always epic. But these fights go far beyond simply “looking good” -- they’re a heck of a lot of fun as well. If you’re used to boss fights that are over in a few minutes and where you’re consistently dealing large amounts of damage to the boss…well, then Ninja Gaiden DS is going to be a bit tough for you to get a hang of at first. You’ll have to be patient, attacking only when the time is right and being content with dealing pitiful amounts of damage. While the biggest baddies of Ninja Gaiden DS are certainly no pushovers, from what I hear they are noticeably easier than those of past Ninja Gaiden games.

However, I’m leaving out a fairly important part of the game and as a result have rather got ahead of myself. The biggest draw of Ninja Gaiden DS, aside from its expectedly stellar gameplay, is the way it takes advantage of the touch screen to have you, the player, control the game. Simply hold the stylus down to have Ryu walk in that direction, a la Animal Crossing or Phantom Hourglass. Tapping will make Ryu attack with his projectile, while slashing in various directions on an enemy will have Ryu attack with his sword -- for the most part, you’ve got 1:1 control of Ryu in combat. Sliding upwards makes Ryu jump, and pressing any of the buttons on the DS will put Ryu in block mode. Because you hold the DS on its side like a book (think of Brain Age 2 or Hotel Dusk), you’ll end up using one of the shoulder buttons to block, as tapping a face button during the heat of all this combat is highly unrealistic -- especially considering that you’ll have to use the block a lot.

Why? Because, frankly, the enemy AI in Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword is fantastic -- so much so that in the credits, a man is listed as responsible for the “enemy AI”, as if it were a position like “Graphical Direction” or “Executive Producer”. Enemies are tough, smart, and work together to bring you down. There’s not a whole lot of variation in the foes you’ll face, sadly -- there are only about 10 or 12 different foes that you’ll face throughout the course of the entire game, excluding bosses. However, that’s actually a good think because they all have a number of unique attacks and strategies that you’ll have to observe and exploit if you want to beat them.

While the enemies you’ll face are fairly tough, Ryu has a couple of tricks up his sleeve to help him take care of business. Throughout the game, you’ll learn new combos that can be deadly when used correctly. For example, there’s the Cicada Drop, in which Ryu slashes an enemy upwards, jumps up and grabs him, and then smashes him back down to the ground for an instant kill. There are other techniques that can be bought or found that have similar effects. The other source of ammo Ryu has against his foes is ninpo -- essentially his magic. Again, you’ll have to find or buy ninpo scrolls, but it’s usually well-worth the money. To activate it, simply tap the ninpo icon, select which attack you’d like to use, then trace the symbol that appears on the screen. Ryu will unleash an elemental attack that is devastating against both regular enemies and bosses alike. Finally, there’s what’s called the Ultimate Technique. Quickly scribble around on the touch screen and then hold down the stylus and Ryu will begin charging up a massive attack. It’s useful for shaving off chunks of health from bosses or just taking out a room full of underlings.

The game’s focus is on combat, so it’s forgivable that the puzzles suck. They’re laughably easy, and there’s very little variety. There are a few instances where you’ll have to use the microphone to wake somebody up or blow out a torch. Otherwise, the puzzles just involve using ninpo to open up passages (you’re directed how to do so by some very generous hints) or using your projectiles to hit far off shiny objects. Honestly, these puzzle solving instances seem to be thrown in more as an after-thought to the full-fledged combat, and while it shows it doesn’t really prove detrimental to the overall gameplay experience.

Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword is a fantastic game, but that’s not to say there aren’t a few problems. Firstly, the game has this air of cheating that the development team labels as “difficulty”. For example: to solve one of the game’s insanely simple puzzles, you may have to use your ninpo to light a torch. Afterwards, you’ve got to face off against a massive horde of respawning enemies, followed by another horde of some different respawning enemy, and then face off against a boss. Without saving, and without healing. And because ninpo can only be used once (you’ll have to save to restore its use), that little “puzzle” was just a barely-disguised way of stealing your ninpo, which happens to be a very effective weapon against bosses.

Secondly, there are some occasional issues with the touch control, although considering how comprehensive such control is, it’s not a major complaint. For example, sometimes moves will get a little confused when you’re going through a sequence of attacking multiple different enemies in a row, or the game will read a slice upward (a jump) instead as a tap (projectile attack). Also, the other problem that I had consistently was with the Ultimate Technique. Often my scribbling just wasn’t enough, apparently, to activate the attack, and so I watch as Ryu is slashing back and forth rather than charging up, after which he is promptly grabbed by the boss, chewed up, and thrown back to the ground. Ouch. Finally, one last problem mentioning is that the level design really isn’t all that great, and fighting hordes of respawning enemies can get a touch monotonous. The various rooms and corridors are basically just “places to fight”, and the game doesn’t have a sense of these well-designed, intricate locales. Additionally, at the beginning fighting enemy after enemy after enemy seems a bit boring -- however, this problem is gone by the end of the game when you’ve got tons of abilities and you’re having fun chaining together massive combos that take down underlings instantly.

Aside from these truly minor shortcomings, Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword is a great game. Of course, it would have been great if it were longer (I beat the game in just six hours), but on the other hand there are some seriously awesome unlockables and you’ll have plenty of reason to play on the harder difficulty settings. Ninja Gaiden DS is a fun, satisfying, and difficult gaming experience that really needs to be played to be understood. At the very least, you’ve got to find some way to play this game -- rent it, if you must. However, picking up this title certainly isn’t a bad idea, and Ninja Gaiden DS is easily the most impressive action title on the DS to date.

Rating:   4.5 - Outstanding

Product Release: Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword (US, 03/25/08)

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