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DS Fanboy Review: Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword

Click for more screens from Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword

As you can imagine, many were worried when Itagaki showed off the DS entry in his beloved Ninja Gaiden series. Would the groundbreaking new control scheme set the bar for action games on the system or would it be an unresponsive and unrefined mess, causing you to contemplate throwing your DS against the wall? Well, I'm happy to report that none of these fears ever pan out in Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword, which is a pretty great game overall.

It turns out, the game is pretty much everything we hoped it would be: a benchmark for how to do an action game on the DS and how other developers can create a great DS entry in their own respective franchises.

The game takes place 6 months after the events in the Xbox game Ninja Gaiden. Ryu's village has been rebuilt, and all seems well. After an opening cinema describing the origins of the Dragon Sword itself, we see Ryu training his young apprentice, Momiji. After a brief spar, Ryu leaves and we're left to control Momiji throughout the brief tutorial chapter.

After taking over, you're put through a series of small tests, involving both combat and some light platforming. It's here that you'll be instructed on how to perform maneuvers, block and just overall kick ass. And, thankfully, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword does not disappoint in this area that has been so important to the series so far. It's easy for you to dispatch enemies by the dozen, as well as duck and dodge and block any incoming attack. For the most part, the combat feels like you're playing a AAA title on a console system.

Combat is surprisingly intuitive and easy to get a hold of. What amazed me even more was that, compared to the console versions of the newer Ninja Gaiden game, Dragon Sword has you handling just about the same load and features a startlingly similar amount of polish. You're often fighting several opponents at once, which are usually a mixture of close combat bruisers, archers and other projectile-chucking jerks. Whereas the DS might have received games that released on other consoles in a dumbed-down, stripped format, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword plays like a console game on a smaller device.

This is another thing that absolutely shocked me: the controls are fantastic. Sure, you might miss a jump or a slash now and then, but, for the most part, the touch screen is amazingly responsive to your inputs. Jumping about, slashing at enemies in the air and performing special maneuvers are a snap. I don't know how you could possibly improve on something as simple as pressing a button, but it feels like Dragon Sword has. In every way it has maximized the features of the touch screen to create a game that has tight and responsive controls.

That isn't to say the controls don't have flaws, though. Platforming can be a bit of a pain, since pixel-perfect precision jumping is fairly difficult. On top of that, every single button handles block. If you're right-handed (like me), then choosing which button you will use as block while holding the DS as book is a no-brainer: the R button is the best solution. The only other solution, really, is the L button, but holding the DS from the bottom like that can get tiresome. So cradling it with your left hand and using the R button to block is the way to go, but still can cramp your hand up some over time. Of course, you could use the d-pad, but holding the DS in that manner and using it to block mid-fight can be kind of difficult. I actually dropped my DS once while attempting just that.

But, as said, those are fairly small flaws. The game really doesn't have any more issues than that, aside from the fact that it's a fairly brisk game, as well as very easy compared to the other games in the franchise. As a DS title, though, this all may be seen as good things. We all like the pick-up-and-play nature of the handheld, as we can take it anywhere and at anytime to play, so maybe the shorter play time is a good thing. As for the ease of the title, that makes it more accessible to the wide range of people that enjoy the DS, so perhaps that too is a good thing.

Another area the game excels in, much to my surprise, is in its graphics. It takes the hardware into account for everything, combining narrative over illustrations as cutscenes, while also running at 60fps and featuring fully 3D boss battles (which feel absolutely like Ninja Gaiden boss battles). The act of actually playing, which has all in-game characters as polygonal models pasted over top of pre-rendered backdrops (think Resident Evil), is also a smart move on the part of Team Ninja that helps the game run on the DS's arguably restricting hardware, yet helps give it a unique visual style.

I could go on praising this game for days, but know that even with its few flaws, it's an overall great game. Any fan of action titles or the Ninja Gaiden line-up of games needs to own this. It also shows what a careful approach to the hardware can do, as Team Ninja took into account everything the DS had to offer and used it to create a fun and exciting product. We're hoping that this is the first of many Ninja Gaiden games on the DS, and we can't wait to see how Team Ninja improves upon what they've built here. Hopefully, other developers will take note of how to do an action game correctly on the DS, because Team Ninja has done just that.

Final score: 9/10

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