*Hi, RayCarter again. This is the third and second last installment of Ninja Month, where I review two Tenchu games and two Ninja Gaiden games. With the Tenchu games all wrapped up I am venturing into Itagaki territory, where I play two games from the franchise that stars one of the video game's most beloved ninjas: Ryu Hayabusa. This week I'm reviewing Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword for the NDS. Hope you can see my other works for Ninja Month as well.
Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword has been praised, acclaimed, and awarded with good reason. Its combat system was amazingly one-of-a-kind at the time (and still is) while it pushed the graphical limits of the DS. Not that the product isn't entirely perfect, but those defects don't overshadow the fun and fast fighting that this game provides.
Let's first get out one minor gripe I've had; The plot that drives the game is an afterthought. It's in essence a "Ryu saving a damsel in distress from evil” scenario. The premise is weak, but what probably hurts the story even more is that we know so little about all the characters, from both sides. When character Muramasa talk about Kureha (who makes a spiritual appearance) and how dear she was to Ryu Hayabusa, and others cry in front of her grave I was pressing for details: WHAT made her special? HOW did Ryu feel about her? WHAT did Kureha mean to the rest of the community? I've been given no explanations whatsoever, and the characters, while all cool or lively, feel boring as a whole. I've been given no reason to like Ryu other than he's looks awesome and he can fight with the best of them. The villains are boring and uninteresting to say the least... sort of.
Now on to a much more positive aspect of the game: The combat. Unlike most action games Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword is stylus heavy. You hold the DS sideways, giving orders to Ryu on the touch screen while having a map on the other. Basic attacks are dictated by drawing a line on an on-screen enemy, while certain moves like the Izuma Drop requires specific orders (slice downwards, upwards and upwards again). Nimpo, the magic to call down fireballs, hurricanes and other elemental forces are cast by filling in Japanese characters that appear on the touch screen, while arrows or shuriken are fired by tapping on a foe. The controls largely feel intuitive and work well most of the time, resulting in enjoyable, fast-paced combat that mimics the Ninja Gaiden games on the XBoxes. The unique combat mechanism is probably the main reason you would want to play this game, mostly because it makes the player really feel immersed and alike the skillful ninja Ryu is.
That's not to say that the gameplay is perfect; in fact I believe that many reviewers slightly overvalue that part of the game. For one thing the camera angles are very questionable, failing to give the best possible vantage point for the gamer to watch the action half the time. Too often I find Ryu too far away from the camera, obscuring the view of the fighting and rendering me unable to give the best inputs. Furthermore, when enemies are clustered on top of one another it’s difficult to issue commands again since you would still be gliding your stylus on more than one enemy, resulting in Ryu flailing at the wrong foe.
Another main issue with the game is that it only favors a few select moves rather than encouraging players to use the full arsenal. For instance, the aforementioned Izuma Drop is effective on 95% of the enemies. The Ultimate Technique, which requires quick up-and-down scribbling on the stylus, is effective on most if not all enemies. Since they are the tried and true moves to kill everyone I felt like I needed to use those moves all the time to advance through the game. Predictably the combat doesn't evolve all that much after the initial introduction, which in a way reminds me of Dynasty Warriors in a negative sense.
Finally, boss battles are for the most part laughably easy. All of them usually require some imprecise dodging here and there then finally the spamming of either an Ultimate Technique or arrows to get through.
All problems understandably, but neither of them are game breaking by any means, and the gameplay is still very unique and fun, a very difficult feat in the gaming industry, even with the problems.
Also worth noting: The game has a very linear structure. You are given a map of the stage and you proceed from Point A to Point B. Sometimes Ryu does need to take a detour to open a door but beyond those brief moments the game is self-explanatory. At the end of each stage you are transported back to the Haybusa Village where you can chat with other villagers and more importantly shop for upgrades or other Ninpo. Do this for about 14 missions that will last for roughly seven hours and the main part of the game is done. It's hard to say whether this game has replay value or not, because although there are multiple difficulty levels and other trinkets like info cards, I felt like I've seen most of what the game has to offer during the first go-around.
Graphically the game is as good as it gets, from its artful 2D anime-like cutscenes to its 3D character models. While the latter might look a little blocky up close but from a distance they look fine. The 2D cutscenes are vivid and colorful, even though character design as a whole is looks a little generic. However, on the audio front dialogue is sparse beyond the small laughing and gasping, while the musical score is not memorable in the slightest.
It sounds weird that I spent more time in this review talking about the issues rather than the strengths, but Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword is all in all a very competent action game as a whole. The minor problems are not enough to detract potential purchasers. The combat is tight and exciting, all camera and repetition issues acknowledged, and the game is a visual treat. It probably isn't the best Ninja Gaiden game in the revered franchise, but it is certainly better than most NDS action games (and NDS games period) in the platform’s collection.
Fast paced, flashy innovative combat
Visually appealing, both in 2D and 3D
Lots of trinkets and bonuses if needed
Too easy bosses
Minor camera, control issues
Final Verdict: 4 stars
All problems aside, Dragon Sword is still a great action game that mimics the fun combat of its console brethren, an achievement given the DS's limitations.
*Hope you enjoyed this review and installment of Ninja Month. Please comment and recommend (or not) this review. In the finale I'll be back next week to tackle one of Team Ninja's most divisive and hated creations: Ninja Gaiden 3 for the XBox 360. Ciao!