Can the stylus be mightier than the sword?
Maybe not in a real battle, but it serves as a formidable weapon in "Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword" (Tecmo, $34.99), a visually stunning fighter that pushes the Nintendo DS console to its graphical limits.
The game literally turns the action genre on its side, requiring players to rotate the DS 90 degrees so it resembles an open book.
Its unique control scheme involves slashing villains with the stylus while using any of the console's buttons to block. You might be able to get through earlier chapters by randomly slashing away, but you'll need to better time your attacks and mix in some blocks as the enemies grow tougher.
The game reveals its back-story much like a comic book, using a compelling musical score and beautifully drawn dual-screen artwork to set the scene.
As in earlier "Ninja Gaiden" titles, this installment centers around clan leader Ryu Hayabusu, but you actually begin Chapter 1 playing a young female Ninja trainee named Momiji.
The characters are rendered in three dimensions, but they explore and do battle within two-dimensional backgrounds that are so well drawn, you won't even care that they're 2-D.
All of the action within "Ninja Gaiden Dragon Sword" takes place on the touch screen, while the non-touch screen side provides a map of the current level.
The controls are surprisingly intuitive.
Run or walk to any point on the screen by touching that spot with the stylus. Jump by swiping the stylus up, repeating the action consecutively to scale the walls of a shaft.
Villains can be slashed with the stylus, and slashes can be combined with blocks or jumps to perform special attacks. Take down more distant bad guys using shurikens (throwing stars) by tapping them with the stylus.
Killing an enemy releases one of three forms of essence. Blue essence replenishes your character's health meter, red essence restores Ki power and yellow essence is like money, allowing you to purchase items from the old shopkeeper.
These glowing essence orbs float in the air when you're heavily engaged in battle, zipping into your character once the action dies down.
Your character throughout the game will receive Ninpo magic spells, which can be activated by touching an icon next to the health meter. Doing so reveals a large Sanskrit character, which can be colored in with the stylus to perform the spell.
Depending on your skill, the game can be completed in 10 hours or so, but finishing it unlocks higher difficulty levels.
The case sports a "Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection" logo, but don't expect any multiplayer action. It just lets players upload scores to compare them to others. That's perhaps the game's only disappointing trait.
Three-and-a-half out of four stars.