Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword DS
No matter what way you slice it Ninja Gaiden does not seem like it is best suited to make an appearance on the DS. In fact, shrinking down such a taxing hardcore game to any handheld platform is a complex job to say the least. Nevertheless, the guys at Team Ninja seem to have done a fantastic job and have crafted quite the respectable game, and arguably the best of the series since Ninja Gaiden Black.
Interestingly, this has been achieved by ridding the game of the Ninja Gaiden staple of thumb blistering button mashing, instead using the touch screen for just about everything in the game. So, if you gave Phantom Hourglass a go a few months back then you should feel right at home after a few minutes of play, as both games are of similar ilk. There are some changes though, as unlike that game Dragon Sword is played by holding you DS vertically (akin to Brain Training and Hotel Dusk Room 215 amongst others).
So, with your DS in said position the game kicks off, detailing some story that you don’t really care about. You’ll then see that a map will appear on the left screen, and the action will be on the touch-screen. From there a rather good job is done to acquaint you with the new combat system. For the most part it is very instinctive, with a differing selection of touches and slashes with your stylus letting you move around and attack. The most basic command of walking is preformed by simply touching where want to go and Ryu will walk there. If you touch and hold Ryu will run instead. Then an upward stroke over Ryu with your stylus will make him jump.
Once enemies start appearing on screen things start getting a bit more complicated, but still remain intuitive. If you want to attack an enemy with your sword you draw a line through him on screen. If you want to throw shurikens at him you tap on him instead. Then, if you want, you can start to take things to the next level and use a selection of combos. For example, if you do an up stroke with the stylus you can knock an enemy up into the air, then immediately do a downwards one to pummel him into the ground below. This can then be expanded on further for even more elaborate combos. Of course, Ninpo makes an appearance as well. It is activated by tapping an orb at the top of the screen, and then tracing out the pattern given to unleash the magic.
Presentation is rather nice as well. Thankfully Team Ninja didn’t use cut-scenes to detail the plot, instead the story of the game is told via comic-like artwork (similar to the Ouendan / Elite Beat Agent games) as each chapter passes. This is a great move as the scenes on show are much more watchable in this form rather than the polygonal mess they could have been. On the other hand the mix of 3D character on flat 2D backgrounds does not make for the most beautiful looking game, but it is serviceable when taken into account the platform the game is appearing on. Also, when in the midst of the action you won’t really have time to look out for graphical flaws.
Of course, with something so unique there is bound to be teething problems, and Dragon Sword does indeed make a few missteps. Firstly, the game is highly combat based, with only sporadic appearance of any of the platforming sections seen in other games in the series. This could initially be seen as disappointing, but could also be a blessing in disguise as the touch screen controls don’t compliment that style of gameplay.
Another little niggle is that some of the latter sections throw a few too many enemies at you at once. As a result you can easily lose track of what to swipe at on screen, and start to make a few mistakes as you try to do too much at once in an effort to make some space for yourself to get some time to think. Thankfully, this only occurs a few times throughout the game. Finally there is also the problem of blocking and rolling to look out for, as they have been mapped to a button push (block) and touching the screen while holding the button (rolling). While the idea of pushing buttons to perform these tasks may not sound that bad in theory, it is in fact not very instinctive in reality with the DS held vertically.
So there you have it, even though the game has its share of nuisance I would have to say if you compare it to the recent Ninja Gaiden II, Dragon Sword honestly seems the superior title released this year. Don’t get me wrong, it is not a pure Ninja Gaiden game (I don’t think that would be possible on any handheld), but it is still a hell of a lot of fun to play. For the most part the game is full to the brim with new ideas, clever strategic boss encounters and as a result is a breath of fresh air for the genre on the DS.