Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword Review

Live By the Sword, Die By the Sword.

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It's been a long time coming-- over a decade to be exact-- but the Ninja Gaiden series has swiftly slashed its way onto a Nintendo platform with Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword for the Nintendo DS. When you have a successful and established franchise such as Ninja Gaiden, it's a gamble to experiment with an entirely new way of play. Most third-party developers wouldn't take such a risk. However, that is exactly what Tecmo's Team Ninja set out to do, and for the most part, this risk paid off.

Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword takes place a half year after the events of the Xbox rebirth. Fittingly, everything revolves around the mythical Dragon Sword and an ancient evil wanting to take advantage of its unspeakable power (hey, actions speak louder than words, right?). You actually don't begin the game playing as Ryu Hayabusa. Instead you take the role of a new character, the female ninja, Momiji. Not only is the gameplay device of starting off as Momiji imperative to the story, but it makes sense as the player is new to the non-traditional control scheme used in Dragon Sword so to learn the skills necessary to survive, you play as the less experienced Momiji. So essentially you're training alongside the rookie ninja as you play through the opening chapter. When she gets overwhelmed and subsequently captured, it's up to Ryu to rescue her. It's a simple, cohesive story that's all told in still-frame cutscenes and accompanied by the occasional voice sample.

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My, you look familiar...

Playing as Momiji, you learn the basic in and outs of Dragon Sword, but then you swiftly take over as your main man Ryu. Hayabusa Village is the main hub of the tale, and you'll be frequently returning to it after each linear mission. You enter a mission, go from room to room eliminating enemies, solve very uncomplicated puzzles, take on the big bad boss of the area, and return to Hayabusa Village for some R&R. This, by no means, is a formula that sets the action genre on fire, but it works. Inside the village you can chat with fellow ninjas, or talk to the elderly shopkeep Muramasa who will sell you health and attack upgrades, new abilities,and ninja magic. Once you're fully ready, you then enter the portal into the next mission ready to slice and dice.

And oh, how you'll be slicing and dicing. As stated before, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword utilizes a very untraditional control scheme for players to learn. Thankfully, the tutorial mission as Momiji nails everything down for the player to pick up on. To play this title, the player will hold the DS like a book; this is the same way the film noir-inspired text-adventure Hotel Dusk: Room 215 was played. Just point to an area of the screen and your character will move toward. Flick up with a stroke and your character will jump. Flick again for a double jump. For attacks, your stylus is Ryu's sword. To attack a given enemy, draw horizontally with your swipe, and Ryu will slash his enemy the same way. Conversely, slice down, and Ryu will likewise attack. As you can imagine with an attack method like this, there's a lot of swiping to be had on the touch screen, but it all is fast, fluid, and most importantly, fun. With a quick tap to an enemy, you'll throw out a shuriken or launch an arrow to take care of those pesky flying fiends and foes from afar. As you upgrade your techniques at Muramasa's shop, you'll open up new sword skills and combo abilities such as the Flying Swallow and the grab-your-opponent-in-mid-air-and-crash-with-him-to-the-ground Izuna Drop.

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Slice, slash, hack, and attack all with the stylus.

If your blade is needing some cooling off time, you can choose to attack with your ninja magic or ninpo. Just tap the top left corner of the screen next to your health, trace out the symbol shown, and summon Hell on your opposition. These can be used to score huge damage on bosses or to clear an area of minions, or are simply useful for solving puzzles. Regardless of all these moves, the one you'll most likely desire to master is the Ultimate Technique which is invoked by rapidly sliding your stylus side-to-side to power it up. Once unleashed it can tear through a mob of monsters quite easily. Some may go out and spam this for all this is worth as it actually improves your score in the online leaderboard rankings.

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Each mission ends with a climactic boss battle.

But the best offense is a good defense which is where blocking comes in which is performed by pressing any of the buttons on the DS. Minor attacks can be shrugged off in battle, but even blocking the strike of a boss can still do some damage so rolling out of the harm's way is a better option. This is done by holding down a button and tapping on the screen in the direction you wish to tumble. I found that the directional pad was the most comfortable button to use for blocking and evading attacks.

There's plenty to unlock in Dragon Sword to give the six hour quest some legs. There's wood amulets to find which unlock biographies and character journals in the main menu. To collect them all you'll need to play through all four difficulties, and even on Normal the last few bosses certainly beat me into shape!

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One boss down, countless more to go.

Dragon Sword's pre-rendered backgrounds are very impressive for the DS, but sometimes going from room to room where the camera changes focus suddenly are a little befuddling. Zoomed out views (while infrequent) can sometimes hinder what the hell is even going on in battle. Regardless of these camera complications, the awesome 3-D action of Dragon Sword is a small price to play for it. Unfortunately, however, there's a lack of blood. Now this was probably to cater more to the Nintendo fanbase, but it's a notable omission as the game feels less serious without it. It sort of has a different personality than what I'm used to seeing from the Ninja Gaiden series.

Overall, Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword is a serious gamble that paid off for both the developer and gamers in general. The fast and flawless 3-D action all controlled by the stylus is quite an impressive feat all on its own. Couple that with a sometimes unforgiving difficulty and bonus modes to unlock (even one to play as Momiji) to make up for the pretty short quest, and you have a package that is hard to ignore. Those yearning for some quality Ninja Gaiden action can now strap themselves in and start slashing fiends and foes with the best of them.

[SuperPhillip Says]

Story: An ancient evil is after the power of the fabled Dragon Sword. They kidnap Momiji, and now it's Ryu Hayabusa's duty to save her.

Graphics: Pre-rendered areas with nary a bit of slowdown or a drop in framerate. It's very impressive all-around.

Gameplay: All controlled with the stylus save for defensive maneuvers. The action is swift and snappy-- just the way most action gamers like it.

Sound: The music fits the areas and boss battles quite nicely. Small voice samples are used sparing throughout the game.

Replay Value: While the main mode is approximately only six hours, there are multiple difficulty settings and wood amulets to hunt for the adventurous gamer.

Overall: 8.5/10 - Great. Recommended. Just wish the main mode was a little longer.

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