If you’ve ever been a fan of anime and manga, then odds are you’ve come across Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto at some point or another. Inevitably, a string of video games accompanies such a successful franchise, and since Naruto is a story about ninjas, these aforementioned games have a very heavy fighting bent to them. Happily, I am a huge fan of the Naruto series, so I was quite pleased to get a chance to play through one of the latest games in the series, Ultimate Ninja Storm 2.
Find my full review after the break.
Welcome, me hearties, to the world of Naruto
For those readers who haven’t encountered the amazing creation of Kishimoto-san, I’m going to give a very brief outline of the story. Naruto is story about a young boy, Naruto Uzumaki, who aspires to be the supreme leader of his village. The leader, known as the Hokage (pronounced “ho-ka-ge”), is also acknowledged in the village to be the most skilled ninja in their community. Initially, Naruto was shunned by the inhabitants of the Hidden Leaf village because of a 9-tailed demon fox that was sealed up inside him. The demon fox, Kyuubi, caused a lot of devastation around the time that Naruto was born. Naruto, however, gradually got the people to accept him, and even acknowledge him as an incredibly talented ninja. Eventually, a rogue group of ninja, known as Akatsuki, come seeking Naruto in order to extract Kyuubi from him and wreak havoc on the world again. In an effort to keep him safe, his sensei, Jiraiya, takes him on a two-year training journey. The game starts with Naruto and Jiraiya returning to the village after two years.
Of course, this leaves out much of the plot subtleties and many of the characters, but if the story interests you, you can always go hunt for the manga or anime.
It’s all about ninjas, savvy?
The main problem, of course, with any such intellectual property, is that it caters very heavily toward fans of the series. If you don’t know the characters or the back story, you might initially have a harder time following the game’s plot than, say, the plot of War and Peace. Or Finnegan’s Wake. It’s not impossible, however, to be brought up to date purely by playing the game. In fact, during the installation screens, a précis similar to the one above displays on-screen. Several times, because the installation will take at least ten minutes. Not a big issue, but the lengthy install does need to be mentioned. However, I managed to finish War and Peace by the time the installation was over, so it wasn’t a complete loss. Bits of back story and past events can be found during the course of the game that will quite capably keep you informed, so it’s not a big worry. However, if you’re not familiar with the series at all, be prepared to be slightly confused for a while.
Yo ho! Yo ho! An RPG’s life for me!
The majority of the game takes place in the adventure mode, which tells the story of Naruto’s return to the village after his two-year hiatus. My first impression of the view of Konoha village was that the backgrounds were beautifully presented, with vivid colors and bright, colorful people walking around. Much of the game is visually beautiful, and seems to evoke a feeling that you were playing the anime. The game screens are mostly static, however, so you have very little in the way of camera control. One of my biggest gripes is that the sections that include a non-controllable floating camera have it very badly implemented. So in areas where you’re traversing a narrow passage, for example, the camera follows along about as laconically as a disobedient dog; it’s there only because it has to be. It’s the kind of dog that has scuff-marks on its underbelly from being dragged around. Yelling “heel!” doesn’t help much, either, so I’ve saved you the trouble of trying that. There’s also no way to flip the axes in sections where you can control the camera, so if you’re backward like me and prefer your x and y axes inverted, be prepared to learn to operate the camera their way.
Neither the battles nor the RPG sections of the game feel like afterthoughts, and flow quite seamlessly and naturally into the narrative. Typically for RPG games, there are shops to buy items from, treasures to collect, fetch quests to perform, the odd mini-game to beat, and the odd character to beat up. None of them are mandatory toward completing the main story, but they do flesh the world out nicely, and the items you get even help in some of the harder battles later on.
Man the cannons, me gallant crew!
Although the majority of the battles are pretty standard fare with regards to the button combos (physical attack, long-range attack, jump, block, activate ninjitsu powers, throw controller across room in frustration, etc), the battles themselves are glorious, lush, and gorgeous to watch. The environments are fully 3D, so you have reasonable space to run around and pull off attacks. Or in very many cases, run off and avoid attacks. Usually unsuccessfully, as I soon found. Some of the environments are quite destructible, and change as the battle progresses, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically.
One great battle aspect is that you can enter a fight with allies, and summon them when their respective support meters fill up. Summoning allies to help you fight fills up a team gauge, and as this gauge fills, the allies start appearing automatically. If you manage to fill the team gauge and perform a special attack called an “ultimate jutsu”, your allies will drop in for some amazing damage to the enemy. Usually, it’s enough to send any enemy directly to the “KO” screen without passing “Go” and without collecting R200.
The boss battles, which are some of my favorite battles, are suitably epic and destructive, giving the feeling that you’ve really dealt the kind of blow that will shatter the bones in Chuck Norris’ eyeballs. These battles are usually broken up about halfway with a cinematic quick-time event (QTE). How fast you input the button presses determines how many stars (up to five) you get for each button press. Get enough stars, and you get to view a little video clip of the back story of the battle (known as a “secret factor”). It’s impossible to lose the battle because of the QTEs, because if you fail the button press, a short cinematic showing the result of your failure plays, and the last bit of the QTE starts again. This is a good thing, because failing a whole battle due to a QTE screw-up could have broken the game in the most controller-breaking horrible way. The end of the battle sometimes also sees a QTE scene, ending the battle on a very satisfying, bone crunching note.
One aspect of the battle system that I’m not quite sure is bad or good is the fact that there’s very little variation in the button combos needed to pull off the various attacks. On the one hand, it makes the battle system very accessible to new players, while remaining complex enough for experienced players to pull off certain attacks consistently. Given that during the course of the adventure mode you’ll get to fight as most of the good guys at least once, it’s a good idea, since it means that you’re not scrambling to figure out what the attack combos are and randomly mashing at buttons like a spider having an epileptic fit. On the other hand, it means that the battle system lacks the kind of complexity that would draw in players used to the kind of 15-fingered intricate actions needed to play a dedicated fighting game such as Tekken.
The sound! And the fury!
There’s one aspect to the game that I have to applaud Namco Bandai for: the voice-work. They’ve included both the English and Japanese voice tracks with the game, and they managed to get the original voice actors as well. There are few things worse in a game than jarring voice-overs, especially with a game that has characters with established voices, so kudos to Namco Bandai. Because I understand a small spattering of Japanese, my personal preference is to listen to the Japanese voices and follow along with the English subtitles, since I get a better feel for what’s actually being said that way. For fans of the English version of the anime, though, the original voices are all there, and enabled by default.
It has been a while since I’ve kept up with the anime, so I’m not sure if the music is from the show or not. Either way, the music is pleasing to listen to, and the themes that were chosen for each area suits the game nicely. Incidentally, you can spend in-game cash to buy the soundtrack at one of the shops, if you like it that much.
Make them walk the plank!
This review wouldn’t be complete without a discussion of the other two game modes: Free Battle and Online Battle. Free Battle mode lets you brawl it out as any of the characters that you’ve managed to unlock during the Adventure Mode, and settle your vendetta against either a second player, an AI controlled player, or watch two AI players fight. This mode is identical to the battles that take place in game, minus any restrictions that might have been placed on the battle.
Online Battle lets you take your fight to the masses to show how well, or in my case, how poorly you fight. I was impressed with how little lag there was once a fight had loaded. If you don’t feel like fighting with someone you know, you can pick a fight with someone you don’t know. The system lets you search for players based on either connectivity or skill. I’m going to assume that a search for one doesn’t necessarily preclude any of the other parameters, but there’s no way to check this. The online battles are fun, brutal, and I suggest you try these only after you’ve been through the majority of the adventure. Going up against anyone who has already played the adventure usually means sheer failure, so best of luck.
All in all, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is a surprisingly deep action game with more than just a few RPG elements. I never played the original Ultimate Ninja Storm, so unfortunately I have nothing to compare it to. However, I found that this game was highly enjoyable and makes a good effort at trying to bring you up to speed on the story, especially if you are a lapsed fan. There were very few points in time where I found I was plodding aimlessly around—as so often happens in RPGs. All in all, I’d recommend this game highly not only if you’re a fan of Naruto, but also if you enjoy either fighting games or Japanese-style RPG games. There’s something for almost everyone here.
The game is rated 12+ for animated violence.
Final score: 9/10 (The missing final point is hiding in the shadows and ready to attack.)