In the eternal battle between ninjas and pirates, stealthy assassinations and quiet kills have always given ninja an edge against their debaucherous, scurvy-ridden opposition. Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword throws that advantage out the window, shattering the silent slinking of the assassin with percussive taps and slashes of the touchscreen. No stealth, then; just kills in this straightforward slide 'n' slash action game that possesses as many drawbacks as fresh ideas.
Playing as renowned ninja of the Dragon clan Ryu Hayabusa, the game sets you on a quest to protect the titular weapon from the ill-intended Spider clan and its army of demonic fiends. Preventing the Spider clan from enshrouding Japan in total darkness requires tracking down eight dragonstones that fuel the dragon sword with magical power. Only by imbuing Ryu's inherited blade with the essence of the stones can he wield enough strength to send the Spider clan and its fiends into oblivion.
Putting Ryu's enemies in their place demands lots of tapping and scribbling on the touchscreen. Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword controls exclusively via the touchscreen, with every attack, jump, and evade handled through use of your stylus. Unusually, the game is also played with the handheld turned on its side, the top (now left) display housing a map of your current location and the touchscreen depicting all the action.
Sliding the stylus over an enemy triggers Ryu to unsheathe his sword and execute a slashing attack, with consecutive slides resulting in combination strikes. Tap an enemy instead and Ryu throws a shuriken. Later on, you're free to switch between throwing stars, a bow and arrow set. Those are the basics as far as combat is concerned. Hacking up foes is easy enough and, in fact, it's what makes Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword enjoyable.
What the touchscreen controls lack in depth, a gesture-driven magic system makes up in sheer cleverness. Through the course of the game, you acquire ninpo magic attacks such as a hurricane directed with the stylus or lightning that zaps tapped enemies.
Certain simple puzzles can only be solved using ninpo – for example, getting through sticky spider webs takes a fireball blast. You're also able to use ninpo against enemies. Although never too difficult to invoke frustration, they certainly throw out a good challenge and used as a last resort can get you out of tight situations.
When it comes to movement, however, the game begins to show weakness in its stylus-only control scheme. Holding the stylus on the screen instructs Ryu to move in that direction. That works fine, which is more than can be said for the jumping gesture. Sliding the stylus upward makes Ryu jump, see, but unfortunately that frequently doesn't register properly with the game. Sometimes the slide is taken as an attack, whereas other times Ryu doesn't do anything at all. This becomes a serious problem when you attempt to avoid an enemy strikes through jumping and the game fails to register the jump.
Evading attacks by rolling usually works better. Pressing down any of the buttons (face buttons, D-pad, or shoulder buttons) instructs Ryu to block. Tap anywhere on the touchscreen while blocking and an evasive roll is performed. It's an effective move, but holding down a button with the DS held sideways is cumbersome. Returning the handheld to its original orientation could have easily addressed this issue, especially since there's no clear reason to why the game benefits from the sideways presentation.
Thankfully, what appears on those sideways screens is awfully pretty. Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword sits among the best-looking games on DS, right up there with Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings and The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass. Most of the game leads you through lush 2D levels brimming with colour and detail, whereas a few 3D boss battles show off the handheld's rendering power. Sadly, the camera is sporadic during these fights and blurry textures occasionally give it an muddied look. Stellar sound effects help make up for the few graphic shortcomings, though.
Perhaps the biggest sticking point is the awfully short playtime: it'll only take you five hours to complete the game. That's not such an issue when the experience is stellar, but becomes less forgivable when less so. There is some incentive to play through multiple times in order to unlock bonus materials, but you'll need to have the motivation and skill necessary to tackle the game's advanced difficulty levels. Realistically, you're probably going to be finished with the game the first time through.
As long as you make peace with its short campaign, Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword deserves a play. While not all of its elements come together in an ideal fashion, it can be appreciated for attempting to innovate in the action genre and there's little like it on DS. It may not settle the debate between ninjas and pirates once and for all, but it's an argument most will enjoy spending a little time playing through nevertheless.