"Dragon Sword sports a three-dimensional feel that is one of the game's most striking elements. Ryu ventures through a variety of hauntingly beautiful environments. Team Ninja does here what Capcom did with the Resident Evil games and that Square did with its PlayStation-era Final Fantasy efforts. You're simply wandering across static backgrounds with points of interactivity."
If you had been away from the gaming scene for a few years and you came back to find someone talking about Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword for the DS, your first assumption might be that it's a two-dimensional platformer. “There's no way they'd attempt anything more than that,” you might think. You'd be wrong, though. Team Ninja may have been making a DS title, but that didn't stop the famous development team from churning out an ambitious, full-fledged new entry in the beloved series. Some people will appreciate that and some won't.
Dragon Sword sports a three-dimensional feel that is one of the game's most striking elements. Ryu ventures through a variety of hauntingly beautiful environments. Team Ninja does here what Capcom did with the Resident Evil games and that Square did with its PlayStation-era Final Fantasy efforts. You're simply wandering across static backgrounds with points of interactivity. Twisting corridors are broken into multiple areas, while more expansive and open arenas simply pull the non-existent camera further back, so to speak. It's all just artistic trickery, but the end result looks excellent. Most players won't care how things got to that point, just that they did.
Environments are varied, too. There are mountain paths, villages, temples, caves and more to explore, all rendered with enough attention to detail that you'll be every bit as immersed as you were by the Xbox title a few years back. Enemies go a long way toward achieving that. Monsters skulk about, glide through the air, crouch and pounce. You have to pay careful attention to their movement animations to survive. Then, if you manage that for long enough, you'll get to fight some truly impressive boss creatures. Even the first one, a crimson dragon that glides ponderously through the air before landing to unleash a swath of flames, feels like something out of a high-quality PlayStation 2 game.
If the visuals feel like something from a console project, though, the control scheme most certainly does not. It's the one thing about the game that wasn't possible in the past. It's also what makes Dragon Sword such a mixed bag.
You don't control Ryu as you might anticipate, or even hold the DS in its usual configuration. In fact, the handheld has to be flipped on its side like a book, with the touch screen positioned vertically on the right side and with the former top screen now serving as a map to the left. Pressing 'left' or 'right' on the d-pad simply will make Ryu block, as will the other face buttons. Instead of going the conventional route, Team Ninja decided that it would be neat if the player could do nearly everything with the stylus. Movement is handled by dragging the stylus along the screen toward a point of interest. A jump is initiated by swiping the stylus up along the screen, ending where you wish Ryu to land. Dodges are utilized by making swipes while blocking. Tapping enemies will send a few throwing stars their way and a slash across an enemy will generate the same behavior on-screen. Finally, special moves are usually airborne in nature, so that you have to make a few quick scribbles to manage a Flying Swallow or other similar assault.
That above seem like an awfully technical paragraph, but there's a reason for it: you have to keep all of that in mind as you play. Newer gamers will likely find that to be a bit much. Sometimes, it feels like you're just swiping randomly and hoping good things happen (the stylus-driven equivalent of button mashing, you might say). Sometimes, you'll be certain you executed a move perfectly but what happens on screen hardly resembles what you had in mind at all.
Because the control method--though unique--isn't always precise, the game is developed primarily around combat. This was the right choice to make, certainly, but it can also get slightly tiresome. You'll battle a lot of the same goons at various spawn points placed consistently across the maps. They just keep coming and it seems like every battle lasts longer than it should, even if you're dispatching beasts with the most efficient moves in your arsenal. Then, just when you start wishing something more would happen to keep you entertained, it does and Ryu gets slaughtered. The “Game Over” screen looms.
You don't even have to progress far into the game to encounter points like that. My first brush with disaster came in only the third chapter. After working through a village, I found myself transported to another location filled with monsters. I made my way deep into its depths, solved a puzzle, then started to backtrack toward a gate I had opened. That's when I met a pack of werewolves. They swarmed around me. I fought well until one pounced on me and my life meter started rapidly draining. I broke free just in time for another creature to strike. Then I was dead. Disgusted, I resumed my adventure from the nearby save point, which at least wasn't so bad. A few attempts later, I had conquered those creatures with a series of airborne attacks. Onward I pressed, through a few more monster groups, to the next save point.
Save points, which also refill your life and magic, are a welcome sight in Dragon Sword. Unfortunately, they aren't always placed where they're most needed.
After the save point, I headed through the gate I'd opened, where a swarm of more monsters attacked me. I spent a few minutes beating them down and then, in my slightly weakened state, found myself facing another pack of werewolves. They killed me. Effortlessly. So I tried again, and that meant a tedious fight with another group of simpler enemies before dying yet again at the hands of the werewolves. A few attempts later, I did beat the troublesome canines. Then I was taken directly to a boss battle, without the chance to save. The boss won. Moments like that will surely cause some gamers to throw in the towel, particularly if they feel that their loss in combat was due to the control scheme.
So the game goes like this: if you're not particularly skilled at swiping the stylus around the screen like a maniac, you'll probably have a tough time. If that happens, then it stops mattering that everything looks so spectacular. Battling one horde of beasts, dying at the hands of their fellows and then having to face both mobs again with nothing to show for it--a frequent occurrence--gets old far too quickly. More than it really should, the game starts to feel like a job. Yet if you take naturally to the stylus controls (or if you just stick to it long enough that mastery eventually comes), the game can become more immersive than you'd ever expect of a DS outing.
Despite the time I spent harping on a few of its deficiencies, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword is simply one of the most complete packages available on the system. That's especially true for the hardcore gamer. There's no way to know how you'll respond to the game unless you try it for yourself. If you've been wondering how close Nintendo's innovative handheld can come to a full console experience, wonder no more and take Ryu Hayabusa out for a spin.
Staff review by Jason Venter (April 14, 2008)
Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.
If you enjoyed this Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!