When Ninja Gaiden DS was announced by Team Ninja last year some new fans to the franchise may have turned their noses up in disgust that one of their favourite games would be coming to the DS, in apparently reduced form. I myself was sceptical also as to whether you could recreate sufficiently some of the console game experience on the humble little DS. Ninja Gaiden in it's modern form away from it's spiritual home on Nintendo NES concentrates very strongly on fast paced combat of the highest calibre, it is a game filled with depth that requires you to block attacks in a rhythmic fashion and to also attack so. Watch a newb play and it seems like just another slasher, but watch a expert play and it can be wow worthy enough to drop your jaw, also add in the fact it is notoriously hard. Trying to replicate that level of intensity depth and difficulty on the humble the DS must have made some weary of it all, not solely because of the machines technical limitations but also because of the DS user base and how it's populous would take to the game, especially given what they are well use to.
Ninja Gaiden DS is made by Team Ninja, not a second string team, but in fact the real deal headed by Tomonobu Itagaki himself, that fact alone tells you how important they see this title. So the question is has their commitment been worth it, and in turn does it mean the DS has got a great action game, well that will be answered in the conclusion of this review.
The Ninja Gaiden DS story is set 6 months after the one told in xbox game which was based around the Dark Dragon Blade incident. It revolves around the story of Kureha and her sister Momnji in regards to the Eye of the Dragon, the jewel that will transform the Dragon Sword into it's true nature. The game opens to a beautifully drawn Anime style cut scene, cut scenes of which there are many in this game. You see a village elder Muramasa calling upon Kureha at her grave, she then appears to him as he then reminisces about how she and Ryu were once inseparable. He tells her little sister Momiji and Ryu are practising now....
The game starts with a degree of novelty, it sees you involved in a interactive cut scene with you actually in control Momnji, a beautiful female Ninja who is Kureha's little sister. You spar against the main protagonist Ryu Hayabusa in the Forest of Shadows by the foot of a waterfall. This area of the game acts like a tutorial teaching you the very basic combat techniques using stylus strokes. It's actually really more of a play around before the actual tutorial takes place when you set off on a journey and are attacked by monsters. The tutorial works well enough but ideally I found that if you find a quiet area and actually take the time to practise as you learn new techniques it's a lot better.
The game as you will know requires you to hold the DS in book format, all attacks and movement and selections are controlled by the touch screen, all the buttons on the DS as well as the D-Pad act as a block, and block only. It all works very well and efficiently. I found it to be very comfortable to play in such a way and am sure others will do also.
The Ninja Gaiden series is about being able to employ defensive and attack manoeuvres seamlessly, Ninja gaiden DS does this also, and it does so very well. There is certainly a learning curve but once accomplished the degree of skill you will display really shows itself truly, especially within the hard difficulty setting.
Basic movement of your character is done via the sword-stylus, when you touch close to your character with the sylus held down on screen your character can be moved around the screen in the directions you guide the stylus. Slashing across enemies with the stylus causes Ryu to attack them with a series of swipes which is dependant on the number of times you slash across them. When you slash across a enemy while at distance Ryu charges over towards them with a sword swipe. When slashing upwards with the stylus, you see Momiji or Ryu jump upward. You can also double jump with two well timed upward slashes and also initiate attacks while up there. When double jumping you create more time to plan a route of attack even it it is a mere milliseconds. It comes in very handy when playing the game on the hard difficulty which I thoroughly recommend this game is played at, *sighs*, but I will get to that later.
When performing a double jump, by slashing down on a enemy below while in mid air causes Ryu to charge down on the foes with a downward double handed sword slash. When you jump and slash horizontally across the screen it sees you perform a Flying Swallow attack. And yes, it looks as graceful as it sounds. Tapping on enemies directly at distance causes your character to throw Shurikens at them, while jumping and tapping on enemies while in mid air sees you float down gently while continuing to throw at your selected foes.
There is also the powerful Izuna Drop that adds some depth into your attacks. By slashing downward on enemies then twice upward it causes Ryu to thrust up his sword at a foe making them fly up into the air, he then grabs them while in mid air and slams them to the ground with speed and jumps back into combat stance immediately. It all looks very cool and stylish and it's a hallmark of the series. When you play Ninja Gaiden DS you will know you are playing a Ninja Gaiden game, all the small subtleties are there like the stance Ryu takes as he enter a new area, it's all looks great and will be appreciated by all regardless to whether you have played a previous game or not.
The Dragon Sword is your primary weapon in the game, Shurikens and a Bow act as distance weapons, as well as that you also have "Ninpo", that's Ninja magic to the ill educated Ninja. By tapping a Sanskrit icon in the top left of the screen when you have the required energy you go into a character input screen as Ryu shouts "Nin-po!", you are then required to fill in a Sanskrit character with your stylus to initiate the special move. It works well. The first Ninpo you get in the game is a large fireball which can be moved around directly using the stylus in order to take out enemies. Ninpo is also used in the game in order to solve physical puzzles and open new areas.
The controls in the game work very well for the most part, however, their are some issues. Due to the nature of some of the 2D environments and the way the playing field has been constructed with alternating playing angles there are at times where the accuracy diminishes. These areas tend to be when your character is in the far distance and you are expected to employ the same deft touch as required elsewhere in combat. I found that keeping my stylus locked onto the touch pad and drawing enemies out of distance was a way around it in heated combat. That is certainly as shame, it should not be a problem with clever level design to work around it. Thankfully though it does not impact the game too badly as the combat elsewhere is wickedly fun, fast paced and frantic. That's right, this game is very fun at times.
Combat can be blistering fast requiring you to perform series of attacks and combos in quick succession. Touch input, the DS working to it's strengths have in a way brought about a great Ninja experience where reflexes are paramount. Combat for the most part sees you drawn into what are essentially combat arenas where you have to defeat foes thrown at you via the dark portals that appear, only then can you move onto the next area. It's old school and cool, the core combat in the game is great fun and is akin to something like God of War. There are sections in the game where after missions you go back to your Ninja village and speak to Muramasa and other town inhabitants, while also taking the time to upgrade your basic abilities. It's a nice distraction for the combat and acts to add to the whole story. The combat is where this game really peaks though of course.
On the subject of how all this fast paced combat sounds coming through the DS speakers, well lets just say it will get some attention on the bus. It all sounds brilliant.
Itagaki as some of you will know has a liking for the ladies, some of the sounds Momiji makes at the start of the game sound suspiciously like little orgasms to me. That aside, the main combat sounds are great and aids the intensity of the game very well. The soundtrack is composed mainly of Edo japanic harmonies and the sound of Taiko drums that seem to try to persuade a degree of rhythm to your fighting style. There is speech, the odd line and murmur but it is nothing really note worthy even if cute and stylishly done. The game uses it's cool comic book style cut scenes which hark back to days of old with the NES games, the scenes in those games were well noted by many at the time also.
Sadly Ninja Gaiden DS is a easy game, especially for those that are seasoned Gaidenz. It will take six to seven hours or so in the default difficulty setting. It is understandable to some degree, but as I have said earlier Ninja Gaiden games previously have all been very difficult. The bosses in the game can be easily beaten when you apply any decent amount of attention, it's simply a case of working out their attack patterns and doing away with them, very rarely will you have to lose life. Also add into the fact the game molly cuddles you with save points that litter the game.
In the normal difficulty you can stylus slash like a maniac and get through to the near later stages of the game with rarely having to use your block that much. This is a first for the Ninja Gaiden series, and a disappointing one for the purists.
However, and this is a big however after completing the game once the the hard difficulty is unlocked and this entire game becomes a bit of a revelation, foes will now take a much harder beating in order to die and blocking is all important. The bosses also need a serious battering requiring the very best of your skills you are capable of. The game then will last nearly twice as long and the experience far greater. I cannot fathom why the hard difficulty was not selectable from the start for those that wanted it straight off, it is shame in my eyes as it would have made the initial experience of the game superior for the seasoned players. Itagaki has stayed true to his word though, there is much depth to be had in the hardest difficulty, so much so that in fact it's only WiFi functionality allows you to post your stats and high scores via Nintendo WFC, something which will please the purists with fast reflexes.
Ninja Gaiden DS is certainly the best action game of it's kind on DS, and it also acts as a shining light for other developers to be so bold as do something only seen here so far. Itagaki and his team have created a little gem, not a perfect one like the Eye of The Dragon gem, but one that still gleams all the same. It has excellent fast paced gameplay and excellent artistic direction and story well told for a handheld action game. Ninja Gaiden DS in my eyes is sure to return on the evidence of this game, it has laid down a perfect foundation to improve upon. I thoroughly recommend you all try before you buy, it's been on demo booths in both Japan and the U.S so far and will likely do the same here also. The demo may also even come via The Every body's Nintendo Channel via Wii- DS download if your lucky.
Scores sux, but what I will say is that this game really deserves to be played by all and I hope we all see many more titles of this nature in future. As Itagaki himself says "when you play this game for the first time you will wonder why nobody has made a game like it before" it's true. Do buy this game if it's your thing, heed my advice and see what this game is really about in the hard difficulty setting, you wont regret it.