Reviewed: April 22, 2008
Released: March 25, 2008
Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword is the best DS game I have ever reviewed. How’s that for beginning with a bold statement? That’s not to say it’s the best DS game I've ever played; only the best one that I’ve ever got to review. Obviously, some of the best DS games out there are the first-party titles from Nintendo, but even after 8 years in the review biz GCM is still unable to review those games, so until Nintendo deems us worthy to review their games Tecmo will reign supreme (at least on our website) as the creators of the coolest and most addictive DS game I’ve played in the past year.
This is the DS title I’ve been waiting for. My DS has been lying around collecting dust for so long I actually had to charge it from scratch just to start playing Dragon Sword. The battery was totally dead. But once I got my DS powered up and ready to go I couldn’t believe the game that was unfolding before my eyes.
Dragon Sword is a totally independent adventure from the stories we’ve seen and played on the consoles, but it does deal with familiar characters, locations, and concepts. The story that unfolds in Dragon Sword complements the entire franchise and gives us a greater knowledge of the game world that Team Ninja has created.
While the story is new and the gameplay is perhaps the freshest the DS has seen in over a year, the core motivation for playing the game is rooted in the grand tradition of good vs. evil, boy meets girl, evil kidnaps girl, boy rescues girl, defeats evil, and saves the world…at least until the next game comes around.
The first thing to know is that Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword is played with the DS rotated 90-degrees, so you end up holding it like a book. This won’t be too much of a shock for people who have played the Brain Age games, but for me, it took a bit of getting used to…about 15 minutes. Ultimately, I found the game worked best when you just set the unfolded DS on a table.
The buttons are unused for the most part . The D-pad acts as the block button and when used in conjunction with the stylus will allow you to roll and tumble around in evasive and defensive moves. The face and shoulder buttons are unused and the Select button will bring up your inventory screen. Other than that, the game is entirely played using the stylus and the touch screen…and the microphone.
Since all the input is touch-based the game is played primarily on the right screen while the left screen is used for a real-time map view that shows your location on a crude map. As other points of interest are discovered, like a save station, they will appear on the map as well. While the levels aren’t entirely huge or complex, and there is no way you could ever get lost, it was nice to know the layout of what lie ahead. Note: Southpaws can rotate the DS the other way and use the face buttons for blocking and the map will appear on the right (non-touch) screen.
Stylus input consists of touching the screen and moving the stylus to make Ryu follow your lead…sort of like dragging him around on an invisible leash. To jump you merely swipe up and stop on the ledge where you want him to land. There are even some tall vertical bat-infested shafts you’ll need to wall jump, Prince of Persia-style, by rhythmically swiping up on the screen.
Things heat up when the enemies start appearing. To attack you simply slash with your stylus to slash with your Dragon Sword. These can be fairly random movements, horizontal, diagonal, vertical, or any combination. Later in the game you will unlock advanced techniques that allow you to do special attacks with specific up and down movements to flip an enemy into the air and drive him back into the ground, or launch upward and strike down sending out a shockwave to stun your opponents.
You can also tap the stylus on the enemy to fire ninja stars or use your bow. Later in the game you will gain explosive-tip arrows that do serious damage, but the bow has a longer reload time, so if you need faster attacks that do less damage, the shurikens are the way to go. In fact, there are even a few switch puzzles that will require some time shots with these ranged weapons.
Ryu also has another technique up his sleeve, the UT or Ultimate Technique. This is sort of a preloaded attack that requires you do rub the screen vigorously on Ryu to power him up. The longer you can slide the stylus back and forth the more power you will unleash, as long as you aren’t interrupted by an enemy while powering up. So it is a bit of risk vs. reward, and with two levels of UT, the explosive attack and resulting damage is often worth the risk. UT’s are vital in defeating the numerous boss fights in Dragon Sword.
And finally we come to Nippo magic. These are powered by Ryu’s Ki (spirit power), which is refueled whenever you visit a Dragon Statue (health/save station). It can also be refilled during combat, but this only happened twice in my entire game, so you really need to know when and where to use this, because it is a very powerful and limited attack. There are seven types of Nippo magic that you will unlock by the end of the game. Most are attack magic with the exception of the one that generates blue essence to refuel your health bar. Thankfully, the healing Dragon Statues are frequent enough that you almost never have to waste Nippo magic on health.
To cast a Nippo attack you touch the icon to the left of your health bar. This brings up the currently selected type of magic. You can change the default spell in your inventory or you can change it at the time of casting by clicking on a different colored orb. Once you pick the spell you have a limited time to trace the Nippo Incantation Symbol that appears. Obviously, the more powerful the spell the more complicated the symbol, but the entire process is still far too easy. I’ve cast hundreds of these and never failed. You have more than enough time, even for the hardest symbols, and you don’t even have to make continuous motions…just quickly fill in the outline like you’re using a paintbrush.
Once summoned you will have various elemental powers at your disposal like a giant fireball you can steer around the battlefield, or how about 5-8 lightning strikes, great for stunning a boss and killing everything else. You can summon a twister and send the enemies flying to their doom or create a fire wheel around yourself that damages or kills anything that gets close.
Dragon Sword is all about the combat and you will face thousands of demons and other hideous evil creatures on your way to saving the girl and the world. There are a few puzzles tossed in but nothing that will test your brain nearly as much as your reflexes. I did enjoy the clever integration of the microphone, used to blow out torches, power windmills, and even wake up a sleeping shopkeeper.
Speaking of shopping, between chapters you will visit this trader in the village square who will offer useful items and power-ups in exchange for the gold essence you have been collecting during combat. If you are remotely diligent in collecting this stuff you will have more than enough gold to clean out his shop. I highly recommend purchasing the upgrades to extend your health meter above all else, followed by special attacks and Nippo magic.
Normally the name "Ninja Gaiden" sends people screaming into the hills or to their therapist. The title has become synonymous with difficult, if not downright impossible, gameplay. The Xbox and PS3 games are still some of the hardest games ever created, but thankfully this DS title, at least on the normal difficulty mode, is not going to have you snapping your DS in half in frustration. If anything, I might venture that the game is too easy, but perhaps I am just scarred from the console games and was expecting more.
I finished the entire game in 7h:23m with a pretty decent rank of Master Ninja. The majority of the game just assaults you with overwhelming numbers that has you rubbing the screen so fast that onlookers might think you are trying to start a fire. Soon, the game combines close combat with flying Beholder-style creatures and ranged archers, so you are forced to prioritize and mix up the sword and shuriken (or bow) attacks.
The bosses are cake, well all but two of them, but even the hardest of the bunch seemed to get easier even when I kept fighting them over and over and over again. It was almost like the game was lowering the difficulty because it felt sorry for me...either that or I was just getting better and didn’t realize it. Yeah…that sounds better…I’ll go with that.
Finishing the game unlocks a new Master Ninja mode that I can only assume is going to terrorize anyone who attempts it. I will likely give this new mode a shot once my DS screen stops smoking and my carpal tunnel fatigue subsides. Despite the repetitive slashing gameplay and easy boss fights, I haven’t had this much fun playing a DS game in a long time, and the sense of accomplishment during the beautiful closing credits was worth the time it took to finish this quest.
WOW! That is what I said when the game first loaded and that is what I kept on saying as the game progressed. Each and every scene in the game is breathtaking. The game starts off with a little training scenario set against a giant waterfall. The rotation of the DS is put to perfect use to capture heights, and there is a lot of vertical travel in all the levels. When you do start moving sideways the backgrounds will scroll by smoothly.
Dragon Sword uses 3D characters and monsters set against 2D screens, and these painted backgrounds are rich in color and detail. Ryu looks and moves great, with blinding speed and smooth animations, all punched up with flashy effects. The Nippo attacks all have amazing special effects and I loved the symbology and layout of the incantation screen. Even the inventory screen was setup nicely and it was easy to switch off between bow and shuriken, or change the default Nippo.
The boss battles really steal the show. For as easy as these fights are, the creatures themselves are massive and dominate most of the screen, dwarfing the poor Ryu who is forced to tumble and evade while waiting for the perfect moment to strike. You’ll fight giant dragons, evil demons, and even a multi-clawed beast that looks like a distant cousin to Jabba’s Rancor.
And finally, the best part of the visual package has to be the story presentation that makes the most out of the book-style orientation of the DS as well having the art divided into comic-style panels. There are panoramic scenes that span both screens as well as sliding panels and scrolling pages that convey a sense of motion and action, despite the still imagery. And kudos for choosing and using a nice font for the subtitles that was easy on the eyes.
I loved the music for Dragon Sword. It was just as epic as the game and the story with plenty of intense music for the battles, and sinister creepy music for the suspenseful moments leading up to those battles. The closing theme song was spectacular. The music really fuels and complements the gameplay.
Sound effects were excellent with a lot of slashing and swooshing of the sword and the tink-tink of the shurikens or the twang of the bow. Each of the monsters had their own noises but you were always fighting so many of them and there were often more than one type on the screen that it all became an insane orgy of growls, grunts, and death howls.
Speech was non-existent, which is probably best since import titles almost never do well in the dubbing processing. Instead you get a lot of vocal effects like “huh” or “grrr” or unintelligible murmurings that don’t even qualify as Sim-speak. There is even support for the microphone, but this only requires you to blow into the mic despite a VERY misleading puzzle hint that had me yelling the name “Muramasa” into my DS.
Dragon Sword took me just over 7 hours to finish. During that time I collected only 16 of the 45 wooden talismans used for redeeming prizes at the end of the game. You’ll find many of these by revisiting previously conquered chapters and fighting in a special arena battle, but other talismans are hidden and you will have to reveal Sea Swallows to earn them.
Sometimes, after a big fight, you’ll hear the chirping of the Sea Swallow and you'll need to blow into the mic to scare it out of hiding and then tag it with a shuriken to get it to drop a talisman. Most of the talismans are only available when you replay Dragon Sword on the harder difficulty setting, so you have some incentive for replaying the game at least once more.
You can also link your DS to the Ninja Gaiden leaderboards and see how your karma score compares with everybody else who has played the game and linked their scores. It adds a nice competitive touch in the absence of any true multiplayer.
I truly loved this game. Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword is without a doubt, the best game I have played, probably since Mario Kart, and it is easily the best game I have ever had the privilege to review. Tecmo is really putting the pressure on the rest of the third-party developers to step-up their game and start offering some original and creative content for the DS.
Dragon Sword makes the most of the touch screen, not just as a gimmick but as the sole method of input and gameplay, and it does it perfectly. At times I really felt like I was swinging and slashing a sword - Ryu’s motions and attacks were just so in sync with my stylus moves. Even the mic was integrated in a limited but entirely fun and believable way. Blowing out torches and powering the windmills was great fun.
If you own a DS then you owe it to yourself to pick up Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword. It is a milestone achievement in DS game design and a vision of what will hopefully become a new generation of interactive touch-based game design.