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Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword
Systems: DS :: Rating: Teen :: Players: 1
Genre: Action :: Released: 25 March 2008

By Damien Wilkens
23 April 2008 I've been rather torn on the action genre lately. It seems as if the games are struggling over their identity. Devil May Cry 4 was a fun, though inconsistent and repetitive experience. And No More Heroes was too busy being sexy / cool to actually be a good game. Which means that God of War and Ninja Gaiden are the only two series that still offer that wonderful mixture of skill-based gameplay and visual satisfaction. Naturally, with gamers to please and money to be made, the move to handhelds was simply a matter of time.

While God of War: Chains of Olympus for the PSP stood true to the console source material, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword for the DS clearly needed to reinvent itself for the comparatively underpowered portable, while at the same time, taking advantage of the unique properties of the hardware. From that standpoint, Tecmo's efforts can be considered a success, though the finished product is a bit of a mixed bag.

Knowing that they couldn't directly translate the console experience, Dragon Sword is almost entirely controlled with the stylus. Making lines across the screen leads to sword attacks, and tapping an area causes our hero Ryu to throw shurikens at it. Early in the game, it works surprisingly well, as holding the DS sideways and erratically slashing across the touch screen is a satisfying experience; the first hour really turns you on to the controls. The issues begin to creep up when the new attacks come pouring in. Oftentimes, you'll find yourself missing inputs or doing certain attacks by accident. The inherent problem is the nature of the controls; they're going to offer a level of leniency, but since certain attacks and combos require a bit of precision, it can sometimes feel as if the game is fighting itself while you're trying to rip through demons with your blade.

Most of the game consists of your standard hacking and slashing fare: enter room, room fills with enemies, open can of ninja whoop ass, enter next room, repeat. There are mild puzzle elements sprinkled throughout, but most are so simple that they're really not worth mentioning. Aside from the expected offensive enhancements, Ryu gets an array of new Ninpo attacks, in which you fill in a Sanskrit character with the stylus to unleash some elemental fury. You can also buy a longer health bar and some similar effects, but it's nothing we haven't seen before. Shortly after the first boss you'll realize that, from a difficulty standpoint, this game doesn't even begin to approach the near-masochistic nature of earlier iterations. It's almost insultingly easy on your first playthough, as random button mashing stylus wiggling is much more effective than it perhaps has any right to be. About two hours into the game you earn the Ultimate Technique, which you can use as often as you want with no penalty other than a short charge-up state, that is. From this point forward, you'll most likely be spamming the UT nonstop until the end of the level, as it's the fastest way to clear a room of baddies.

You can block in Dragon Sword by pressing one of the face buttons. This is worth pointing out because I repeatedly forgot about blocking. I almost never had to use it. Perhaps even more underwhelming are the boss encounters, which had the potential to be epic and completely intuitive given the controls, but all follow the same pattern of attacking, occasionally dodging, then attacking some more. To be fair, after your first completion, you can unlock a harder difficulty, but that's still five to seven hours of work just to earn some level of tangible challenge. The only time I ever died was when I needed to use my platforming ability to avoid environmental hazards, mostly because all jumping and platforming is still done with the stylus, and it's about as effective as it sounds.

The story in Dragon Sword is what you'd expect. There's a kidnapping, a village in peril, a Dragon Blade, a Dragon Sword, Dragon Stones and about a million other Dragon-related MacGuffins to advance the plot. While it's not exactly Lost levels of complexity, the narrative gets the job done, aided by storybook-style cutscenes that lend an air of grandeur to the proceedings, though the lack of voices sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. Where the story becomes annoying is when it takes precedence over the action sequences, as you'll often have to run through the village talking to old men and children until your next item / objective is revealed. (While on the topic, why is the village only populated with old men and children? Eww!)

Where the game really gets things right is in the visuals. The characters look like they belong on a PlayStation the first one. Though that might not sound like a positive, when you consider the hardware, it's an impressive feat. Helping matters are some gorgeous pre-rendered environments that make this perhaps the best looking game on the DS right now. The stages run the expected gamut: ice level, fire level, etc. But they're so well-done that it's a joy to see Ryu interact with the scenery. If only the battles were as interesting and engaging as the backdrops that frame them, this could have been a great game, as opposed to merely being the good game that resulted.

It may seem as if I'm being overly critical here, but I still suggest you give Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword a look, if for no other reason than because there's nothing else like it on the DS. Despite the controls, which serve to both help and hinder the gameplay, it doesn't really break any barriers, but on the DS, you can do much worse with your $35.

Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword gets a 7 out of 10.

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