Your stylus slash through demon like blade of katana!
Let me say right off the bat that Tecmo’s Ninja Gaiden (and its remakes Black and Sigma) may very well encompass the most difficult gaming tasks I’ve ever attempted. Even Devil May Cry 3, which kicked my ass up and down, was a slightly easier endeavor. Gaiden’s normal difficulty is akin to God of War’s God mode, and I cannot begin to imagine what the harder settings are like. The DS arrival of its sequel, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, had me fearing that I was in for the same kind of ownage. Thankfully, Dragon Sword is a much less punishing experience, and despite minor flaws is a very fun title.
The game kicks off six months after Ryu rid the world of the Dark Dragon Sword in the first game. One of his students, Momiji, is captured by a clan of evil ninjas, and it’s up to Ryu to find her. While on his search, Ryu discovers that the Fiends (demons) have returned to stir up trouble, and seem to be looking for the Dark Dragon Stones, which, which gathered together, will unleash a powerful ancient evil which once threatened to overtake the world. The story is told through slide-show cutscenes which are extremely well-drawn and directed.
The most unique aspect of Dragon Sword is its control scheme. You hold the DS book-style (like Brain Age), and you can reverse the screens based on whether you’re left or right-handed. The action takes place on one screen, and a map is displayed on the other. Ryu is controlled almost exclusively with the stylus, and all of the DS’ face buttons are used for blocking except the Start/Select buttons, which open your inventory.
Otherwise, it’s all stylus, all the time. I didn’t really like this technique in Phantom Hourglass because it made the player take on a very passive role; here, Team Ninja has managed to create fast-moving combat of which the player is an active participant. Tap an enemy to launch a throwing star or arrow at them; slash an enemy to attack with your sword; slide the stylus upwards to jump or double jump, or jump off the wall! While still in the air, slide the stylus left or right to do a flying swallow attack! Slash an enemy vertically to launch it upwards, then tap it again to do a skull bash attack! Block, then tap somewhere to evade! While this may seem like stylus overload, it quickly becomes second-nature, and you’ll be slicing demons apart like a pro within your first hour of play.
In addition to slicing and dicing, Ryu gains access to a host of magic attacks which can be used to kill enemies and access otherwise impassable areas of the map. There’s a big rock in your way? Hit it with lighting. See that spiderweb blocking your path? Burn it with fire. These magic attacks are activated by tracing a Japanese symbol with your stylus, which is fast, easy, and actually kind of awesome. You then generally use the magic attack by tapping specific enemies, although the coolest attack has you guiding a giant ball of fire around the room. Enemies drop health, magic, and money orbs (which allow you to buy new magic attacks and sword/health upgrades back at your village between missions).
True to form, Team Ninja has crafted a beautiful game. The backdrops are 2D, but they blend in extremely well with the polygonal characters. The character models are well-built, animate smoothly, and feature a wide array of particle effects. There is a wealth of enemy types which differ not only in look but also behavior. Each encounter requires a different kind of strategy, be it the cat-like demons or the hulking armor knights. The boss characters are especially impressive, often taking up a large portion of the screen (Fire Dragon FTW!).
There’s also a host of awesome sound effects and some limited voicework (mainly on Ryu’s part), although you’ll grow tired of its repetitious sound cues after learning the skull bash attack. Enemies aren’t really tough to deal with once you learn how the combat works, and the bosses don’t get really brutal until the last few areas of the game. Of course, this isn’t the case on the unlockable higher difficulties.
Despite its novelties and beauty, Dragon Sword does falter in a few areas - most notably (and perhaps ironically), combat. Battles are brutal and satisfying, true, but there’s entirely too many of them. The basic formula for any individual level goes something like this: enter a room, kill a bunch of continually-spawning enemies, go to the next room, kill more continually-spawning enemies, repeat until the boss fight. This gets kind of old, especially since all enemies respawn when you re-enter a room. There are also some oddly-placed save points. For example, in the second mission you save your game and then go into a new room. A gate closes behind you, and you’re forced to fight about twenty enemies and then the boss. If the boss kills you, you go back to the save point, and have to kill all those enemies again…and then fight the boss, again. There aren’t too many instances of this kind of bad save point placement, but when they do occur they’re frustrating.
A neat yet odd feature is the “ranking system” that utilizes Nintendo’s WiFi Connection. The server exists only so that you can see how you’re ranked compared to other hardcore players after you beat the game. Ranked players are people who’ve beaten the highest difficulty level using nothing but Ultimate Techniques (a difficult-to-set-up combat move) without dying once. While it’s kind of cool that you can see how well you stack up, it’s also self-defeating. Unless Dragon Sword becomes your favorite game of all time and you want to play it over and over and over again, this ranking system poses no benefit.
There’s plenty of unlockable content in Dragon Sword. The highest difficulty throws another boss at you, and if you can beat Ryu with Momiji in the first scene then beat the first boss, you unlock her as a playable character. Playing with Momiji is cool, and also makes for a tougher game. There are also wooden tiles that you pick up during the game which unlock little things like concept art and character profiles.
Despite its repetitive combat and occasionally cheap save point placement, there’s very little wrong with Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword. It’s stylus control done right, and it’s a beautiful game to boot. It’s relatively short (seven or eight hours), but the unlockable difficulty levels add some significant play time. You might want to get a screen protector for your DS, though. If you thought Phantom Hourglass scratched it up, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet!