|System: DS||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Team Ninja||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Tecmo||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: March 25, 2008||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: 1||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Teen||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Matt Cabral
February 27, 2008 - The folks at Tecmo and Team Ninja are just as stealthy as their star assassin, Ryu Hayabusa. Prior to GDC we contacted them, asking if they'd be at the event. They kindly responded saying they would not be attending GDC this year.
Well, technically, they were telling the truth, albeit somewhat cryptically; while Tecmo didn't have a "GDC booth" in the traditional sense, they did manage to sneak bad-boy developer Tomonobu Itagaki into the Microsoft keynote with a Ninja Gaiden 2 demo and have a playable build of Ninja Gaiden: Dragon Sword anonymously sitting just outside of Super Smash Bros. Brawl's spotlight at Nintendo's booth. We really wanted to be mad at the sneaky developer for clouding us in this smoke bomb of deception, however, we enjoyed our time with Dragon Sword so much we totally forgot we were angry--plus we're terrified of Itagaki.
So, while the Mario-loving masses got their brawl on a few feet away, we stood in the corner frantically hacking and slashing, via stylus, through Dragon Sword's first level. This portable powerhouse struck us immediately with its use of the DS; like Brain Age and Hotel Dusk, Dragon Sword has you holding the dual-screened platform like a book. This, at first, seemed like an odd choice for an action-driven game, but with the acrobatic action extending to all corners of the screen, we quickly realized a vertical display was the right choice to appropriately frame all the top-to-bottom fiend-slaying. Additionally, the set-up allows for one hand to comfortably hold the DS, freeing up the other for dedicated stylus slicing. And we certainly needed to favor that stylus-clutching hand as Dragon Sword gave us a workout with near 100% of its controls being delivered through the pen-like peripheral.
Not since Phantom Hourglass have we so appreciated Nintendo's touch-screen tech; moving, sword-swinging, shuriken-chucking, and ninpo-casting are all delivered intuitively through the responsive stylus-to-screen approach. Only blocking, which is executed by hitting any shoulder or face button, breaks from the stylus-directed control. Despite all the crazy power emitting from our nimble, ninja-controlling fingers, Dragon Sword did a fantastic job of teaching us how to harness our newfound deadly skills. The first level began with us playing as Ryu's young, female apprentice, Momiji. As the white-wearing she-ninja, we were introduced to the various attacks and moves that we'd later be pulling-off as Ryu through a tutorial-like progression. It's fitting--and a smart move on Team Ninja's part--that we "learn" in the boots of this assassin-in-training as it wouldn't seem right to have established bad-ass Ryu fumbling about like a tyke in Karate class. Moving Momiji along was as simple as the directional movements in Phantom Hourglass--move the stylus in a specific direction, and our on-screen assassin followed. When it came to learning a little demon slicing and dicing, helpful prompts walked us through the moves; green directional slashes appeared over enemies on the right screen, while the text on the left (also the map screen) read "Slide the stylus across an enemy to attack with the Dragon Sword." Simple as that. And super-satisfying too--delivering finishing blows via stylus was a visceral rush that had us jamming on the DS screen much harder than was necessary.
The tutorial-like level continued to unfold with similar simple-to-follow instructions: slide the stylus upwards to jump, tap an enemy to throw a shuriken, move the stylus up then down on an enemy to perform an upward slash attack, etc. Within minutes we were effortlessly stringing together sword combos, occasionally switching up to unleash a mad flurry of throwing stars and performing zig-zagging wall climbs to reach higher levels. It all felt fluid and surprisingly accessible. This is good, because you won't want your concentration entirely focused on the controls as there's lots to take in visually in Dragon Sword. Despite the fast-paced action, you'll really want to slow things down and and appreciate what Team Ninja has pulled off graphically on the modestly powered DS. Using an eye-pleasing blend of 2D environments and 3D characters, they've managed to create one of the best (if not the best) looking DS games to date. Lush jungles pop off the screen with green foliage and blue waterfalls, and even darker areas, like dingy mining tunnels, are dripping with detail such as weathered wooden beams and realistically lit rock walls. Of course, the backgrounds are just that--pretty scenery. But the foreground put on an even more impressive show as Wolverine-ish clawed monsters erupted from purplish explosions, only to be quickly extinguished by our blades in quick flashes of glowing blue light (sorry, no staple Gaiden blood-soaked gore in this T-rated title). Fully animated archers assaulted us with storms of arrows, and Ninpo magic--unleashed by tracing symbols on the screen--filled the screen with fiery destruction.
Despite the roar of the close-by SSB Brawlers, Dragon Sword's sound also made an impact (we imagine it'd be even richer with headphones). Clanging swords, fleshly slices, whizzing shurikens and demon grunts punctuated the action-driving score. Everything about Dragon Sword impressed us, and most of our time wasn't even spent with the master himself, Ryu. The short time we did get to spend with the black-clad baddie was similar to what we'd experienced with Momiji, only now we'd honed are skills to a level worthy of Ryu. Quick and deadly slashes led to multi-tiered combos as we bounced all over the vertical display with acrobatic finesse. Taking on all manner of demons and fiends triple our size, our stylus hand continuously dancing over the DS's dual screens. The only thing scaring us about Ninja Gaiden's DS debut is the job it'll do on our hands; the adrenaline-spiking action literally had us clenching the stylus as hard as we could. A lengthy session with pint-sized Ryu will likely have our fingers cramping, but it'll be worth the pain to experience this promising portable effort when it hits next month.
CCC Freelance Writer