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Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword (DS) artwork

Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword (DS) review

"If you hold any ideas about a DS version of Ninja Gaiden being easy then they will be dispelled after the first level."

It seems to me that most DS games can be divided into two categories. There are those that embrace the stylus and those that treat it as a spare part, and there arenít an awful lot of the former. Stylus functionality tends to be a burden for developers who feel obliged to cater for it but really have no clue how to implement it. It usually ends up serving as an action button, which is hardly an innovation. Having to drag a finger across the screen to pick up a block in Lego Indiana Jones isn't the sort of intuitive control that the touch screen was supposed to provide.

Why do developers treat the touch screen in this way? Because itís easier.

Fortunately, Tomonobu Itagaki is not a man who likes taking the easy option. His relish for a challenge is evident in Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword. Itagaki places the stylus right at the heart of this adventure, asking you to hold the DS like a book and control the action almost exclusively via the touch screen.

Think Phantom Hourglass only far, far more advanced. Instead of chucking bushes around, here you perform the Izuna Drop, stunning enemies with the Dragon Sword before launching them towards the heavens and pile-driving them straight back into the depths of hell. To execute this move you must perform a combo with the stylus: swiping down then up twice across an enemy. It feels as natural as a button combo, perhaps even more so. Combos add depth and variety to combat, but simply dragging the stylus across a fiend will see Ryu tear into them with the blade of his mighty sword.

ďDraggingĒ is perhaps the wrong word. The touch screen never hinders Ryu: he lashes out at his enemies with lightning-quick precision the instant you pass the stylus across them. This is crucial. The pre-rendered settings are smaller and the control scheme is radically different, but combat is as breathless and demanding as it was in the original. Do not think that you can escape without blocking your enemyís attacks. Pressing any button will guard Ryu against the claws, swords and projectiles of his foes. Blocking and pointing at a space will launch him into an evasive roll.

These moves prove vital when you're thrown into combat against rabid, incessant fiends who are capable of reducing Ryuís health bar with violent ease. After struggling across a beach swarming with Ghost Fish, who latch onto Ryu and devour his health, you encounter an army of unrelenting monsters. These ravenous creatures operate in pairs, ambushing Ryu and mauling him with their claws. You could probably defeat them without blocking, but could you then survive the fearsome knights that materialise? These brutes are clad in Dragon Sword-resistant armour and wield massive swords. You must dodge their attacks in order to strike them down and emerge unscathed.

If keeping your guard up is advisable when dealing with these creatures then itís an absolute necessity when you come across the gargantuan beasts that serve as stage bosses. These monsters dwarf Ryu and possess the ability to devastate the health bar with one crushing blow. You need to evade their grasp before charging an Ultimate Technique and lashing out with the full blazing fury of the Dragon Sword. If you hold any ideas about a DS version of Ninja Gaiden being easy then they will be dispelled after the first level. Not only are the bosses formidable, the regular enemies are almost as fierce and NEVER seem to cease. Ninja Gaiden for children this ainít.

If thereís one slight chink in the armour, itís that the adventure is modelled heavily on the original Ninja Gaiden. This means that you visit familiar locations, such as the monastery in Tairon, the ancient temple, the Cavern of Ice, and so on. Certain sequences also recall moments from the original. Down in the underground temple you must tread carefully along a narrow platform while those lumbering skeletons bombard you with arrows from their over-sized bows. Fall from the platform and you must escape from a pit of irritating giant beetles before you can progress. Sound familiar?

This is not Ninja Gaiden Lite, but sometimes it can feel like youíre retracing your steps. Fresh stage design would have definitely pushed it far beyond the original, yet this isnít a massive issue because the stages are executed with all the finesse you would expect from Team Ninja. Instead of succumbing to dull, muddy textures, as lesser DS adventures seem to, Ninja Gaiden: DS is bursting with rich, evocative colour. Take the Tairon monastery. Obviously itís not as grand as the XBox interpretation, yet it still retains a mystical charm. Light streams in through the stained glass windows, casting a frosty emerald radiance over the altar and elaborate mosaic floor. The highest compliment I can pay is that this restrained yet artful use of colour and light goes a long way toward recreating the ethereal atmosphere of the original.

It sometimes seems as if Itagaki is deliberately recreating the original Ninja Gaiden on the humble DS as a sort of boast, as if to say to his doubters: "so you think I canít do it? JUST WATCH ME!"

And he has done it -- perhaps too well, in fact. The most common criticism of Ninja Gaiden: DS seems to be its length, which is around the five-hour mark. This criticism stems from people judging the adventure as they would judge an adventure game for the 360. Thirty-hour epics just arenít feasible on the DS and Itagaki understands this, which is why his adventure is comprised of short, self-contained chapters that can be completed in one sitting. This is the ideal format for the DS. Thereís no chance of me returning to a thirty-hour adventure, even for a tougher challenge, but with Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword I can repeat stages on different difficulties without it destroying my wrists.

Itagaki and Team Ninja should be applauded, for they have done what very few have managed to do. They have produced an action game that wouldnít have been anywhere near as good had it not been on the DS.

Now that's an innovation.

JANUS2's avatar
Featured community review by JANUS2 (August 12, 2008)

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