If you're in the market for an action game that wrings the most out of the Nintendo DS's visual and sonic capabilities, you need look no further than Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword. It is possibly the most technically proficient title available for the system, brimming with superb, smooth-as-silk visuals and sword-slashing sound effects that make the action practically spring off the screen. It's impossible to imagine how Dragon Sword could have better captured the overall look, feel, and flow of the console games, from protagonist Ryu Hyabusa's midair acrobatics to the dramatic Eastern-hued soundtrack. And while it may have its problems, the gameplay does a pretty good job of keeping up, matching most of this brilliance with a compelling adventure and stirring, combo-stringing stunts that are thick with thrills and kills.
Dragon Sword looks and sounds amazing.
To play, you'll first need to flip the DS sideways. Every bit of the action takes place on the touch screen, with the top screen relegated to cutscenes and the minimap. The touch screen also holds the key to your controls: Every move you make as Ryu, from running and jumping to slicing and dicing, is done with the stylus. The only time you need to touch a button is to block, which can be done with any button--even the D pad. It's a pretty comfortable setup, and we found that keeping our thumb on the D pad for this purpose worked out just fine (if you're a southpaw, you would use a face button in a similar manner), though using one of the shoulder buttons is also a viable solution.
Even if you're a series aficionado used to doing your dirty work with a standard controller, it won't take you long to get used to the controls. Using the stylus is remarkably intuitive, since your flicks with the stylus are met with a more or less equivalent action on the screen. If you want to run, just slide the stylus in the direction you want to move. If you want to jump, flick it upward; to attack, swipe through the enemy you wish to target. It's simple, and it may not afford you the kind of complex combinations and wall-jumping gymnastics you can perform on the Xbox and PlayStation 3 titles, but there's still a remarkable array of interesting techniques to pull off. For example, you can double-jump toward the heavens by flicking upward twice, and then slash through a nearby fiend, which will cause Ryu to zoom toward his enemy and slice into it. Scratching rapidly will unleash a powerful attack that varies based on how long you scribble, while tapping an enemy will cause you to throw a shuriken or shoot your bow. It's all pretty effortless.
Rest assured, the stylus controls aren't just the touch-screen equivalent of random button mashing. You need to maintain control over the attacks you want to perform, especially in the later stages, since some enemies are far more susceptible to some assaults than others, while a poorly chosen move on your part can leave you vulnerable. Nevertheless, compared with other games in the series, Dragon Sword is relatively easy, and is made even easier with its plethora of save points--and the fact that those same save points completely replenish your health and ninpo magic energy. The diminished challenge is most obvious in the game's boss fights. The bosses themselves are intimidating and exciting to look at, but most of them are a cinch to take down. If you're a Ninja Gaiden fan, it's a bit disappointing to realize that on standard difficulty level, you'll be able to take the majority down in one try. Even some of the attack patterns are practically the same among bosses, which is disappointing.