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Up until now, holding the DS sideways like a book has triggered images of brainy minigames or self-help software meant for mommy dearest. After spending five chaotic hours with Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, it's now become synonymous with nut-busting action on par with Devil May Cry or God of War.
Developer Team Ninja has seemingly done the impossible - create an adrenaline-drenched action title that's totally stylus driven. Slashing an enemy with the pen makes Ryu attack, stroking up makes him jump, tapping an area fires an arrow, etc. These controls are obvious, and that means a lot for a system that holds such a tight grip on the casual audience. Literally anyone who owns a DS could dive in and start dicing demons within minutes. It does take a few to learn the ropes, but Dragon Sword is much more accessible than its console counterparts and, more importantly, a lot more forgiving (they're known for being infuriatingly difficult).
Above: Even the first level is loaded with enemies. Better learn your UTs...
Ryu's move set is a little smaller than the Xbox/PS3 original, but there are still plenty of ways to kill. Air attacks, sword combos, Izuna Drops (a giant spinning pile driver, basically) plus crushing Ninpo attacks make any player more than a match for the various ninjas and towering bosses lurking in the shadows. Pulling off successful Ultimate Attacks in a row (as seen in the video) is a thrilling sensation - scribbling furiously then letting go to unleash a devastating, multi-targeting assault isn't just fun, it feels like a bad ass accomplishment when done right.
As much as we've praised these controls, however, there are issues. Dodging, done by blocking and then sliding the stylus away from the enemy, doesn't always move you in the desired direction. More than once (hell more than 10 times) we rolled right into an attack instead of away, and some of the jumping commands didn't listen properly either. The aforementioned UAs suffer occasionally as well, as they're done by quickly scratching back and forth on top of Ryu. Sometimes you get the UA to charge, others he just slashes wildly. Everything works for the most part, and no one's bothered to try something this grand before so we're willing to look past a few weird moments, but the fact remains you'll have some angry, "I didn't do that!" shouts.
Visually, Dragon Sword doesn't just hit a home run, it blasts the ball into orbit. We've said it before and we'll say it again - parts of this look like a PSP game, and on a system that routinely sees some of the worst graphics of the modern generation, that's incredible. The action stays smooth even with such impressive visuals, but we wouldn't expect anything less from a team known for its technical prowess. Audio is up there too, with crisp samples, appropriate grunts of rage and fitting sound effects.
In fact, the only area Dragon Sword doesn't excel is length. We tore through this ninja side-story in five hours, ranking Master Ninja on nearly every level. Actually, we checked our stats with the Wi-Fi Connection's global ranking, and as of this writing, we're number three. In the world. Not sure what that means, but realize we struggled through the original like everyone else. That means series regulars will eat this game alive on standard difficulty. There are, of course, much harder settings to try.
Beyond beating the game, there are various trinkets to collect and power-ups to purchase, but most will be found/bought in one trip. So, it's a short ride, but like any quality roller coaster, it'll rattle your senses and challenge your reflexes. On DS, Dragon Sword has no equal, no fitting comparison, and for that we applaud Team Ninja. Only slight control issues and the general feeling of sameness after 13 levels of hacking keep it from soaring even higher.
Mar 12, 2008