By Greg Newbegin
For those who don't know, Naruto is a long running Japanese manga/anime, now on 14 years in publication, and 11 years animation. As a result, it has grown a large and passionate fan base, both within Japan and internationally, which in turn has resulted in a number of high-quality video games. Naruto Shippuden is essentially the second series -- a sequel, if you will, which focuses on an older Naruto character; the earlier series, Naruto has the lead as a trainee Ninja, whereas Shippuden sees him as a fully-fledged Ninja).
This, the third title in the popular Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm (NUNS from here on) series focuses on a very popular story arc -- the Fourth Great Ninja War. Here, the leaders of the five main Ninja tribes join forces to defeat an enemy attempting to collect the tailed beasts for ultimate power. As if they didn't see that coming.
Of course, this highlights one of the major problems with the game, and the series in general. There is so much backstory, so many different characters and so much lore in the Naruto series that it is not so easy to jump on board and be able to make much sense of the narrative. Fortunately, having been a fan of the original Naruto, I had a fairly strong grasp of the core story threads, so I was able to piece together what I had missed in the game's many cutscenes.
Having played several Naruto titles in the past, I can say that NUNS didn't blow me away immediately. By comparison to some previous titles (Rise of a Ninja, for example), the animation is less sharp and less detailed, and just feels less impressive overall. However, upon scratching its surface, I found NUNS to have a solid and engaging gameplay experience, mostly hinging on the wonderful narrative connecting the somewhat disparate components.
Playing primarily as a one-on-one fighting game with role-playing elements, the developers have really tried to insert the player into the world of Naruto (as in previous titles) -- to somewhat of a success. NUNS manages to recreate the feel and excitement of Naruto's Ninja battles, but the RPG elements seem out of place. Essentially, the player controls a character (the narrative switches between characters, allowing the story mode to cover the majority of playable characters) in third person, as they run from point-to-point, seemingly only to progress the storyline. There were points in the game where I had only moved the character 5 to 10 steps when the cutscene took over again, which was superfluous and frustrating as each section is joined by fairly lengthy loading screens.
The fighting is where it's at -- players assume control of one primary character and up to two support characters (pre-selected in story mode, and player choice in PvP matches), each with their own primary Jutsu (special moves) and Ultimate Jutsu -- various button and chakra combinations result in various support combos, so there's quite a bit to learn. Players can also activate an "Awakened" mode, whereby certain characters are stronger and have control over different Jutsu, allowing for further depth without compromising difficulty. Further slots can be used to utilise Ninja Tools such as Paper Bombs, life potions, and so on, but the usefulness of these tools is tenuous at best.
In fact, while there is so much you can do in a battle, I found myself relying on simple attacks -- a couple of basic Jutsu, shuriken (projectiles) and Ultimate Jutsu -- virtually repeating the same techniques over and over to defeat my opponent. Each character plays VERY differently, which is great, but it just didn't feel like there was much complexity in the fighting. Still, it's fun and visually engrossing at times, as some Jutsu are just spectacular (while others even contain storyline elements when triggered at specific times, which was intriguing).
Several times throughout the narrative, there are much larger battles, which are extremely well animated and include quick-time events to propel the battle. Whatever you may feel about QTE, these battles are tense and contain huge set pieces. Virtually every one is a joy to play. In addition, some major scenes within the narrative will allow players to choose a path: "Legend" or "Hero." This is more than just a difficulty spike, though, with the decision changing the inclusion of support characters, and in some cases, even slightly changing the story. It's an interesting addition that adds some interactivity to the narrative, although I'm not sure how my opinion of the game would differ if these options were missing.
Beyond this, there's not much depth. Battles result in money to spend on items and upgrades, experience points allow players to use more powerful tools and various types of Ramen can provide stat boosts prior to a match... but all of it feels tacked on and unnecessary. Rarely did I use tools in battle (and on the occasions that I did, I really only wanted to see what happened), and most of the time I had full health prior to battles and didn't require Ramen beyond the (completely unnoticeable, in my opinion) stat boosts.
I guess what I'm saying is, NUNS could have survived simply as a fighting game. Of course, there are problems -- the cutscenes are quite long at times, and without the run-about-to-waste-time RPG elements, things might get TOO lengthy, so in some ways, the third-person sections DO break things up a little, but it's a little boring. From time-to-time, there are "mob battles," which are essentially beat-'em-up sections, but these are so infrequent that they seem out of place. They're also fairly unsatisfying, as the opponents are easy.
I was also disappointed to find that this title did NOT include the Japanese voicework in favour of an all-English vocal track. Personally, I prefer to listen to the original voices and read subtitles, and on top of that, the voice acting in this particular title wasn't great. Then again, some of it was truly awesome -- Might Guy reminded me of Futurama's Zapp Brannigan, which is a good thing. And Killer Bee, who talks in constant (and consistently bad) rhyme? Gold. It was annoying at first, but won me over in the end. Overall, I guess I was happy with the voice acting, but I still missed the Japanese voices I know and love.
Multiplayer is fun, and there are MANY characters to be unlocked via Story mode. With so many options, it seems like a perfect choice for online; however, I came up against really good players time and time again, and gave up. In the end, though, my previous comments stand -- the fighting is a lot of fun, but it still feels too simple.
The Naruto series is ripe with emotion and depth, and this is no different. In fact, as this covers Naruto's birth and builds a relationship with his parents, it can be argued that this is the most intense storyline in the whole Naruto canon. In fact, there was at least one cutscene that had me weeping like a delicate little sooky la la -- the emotion was so intense I had no control over my reactions. Honest. In fact, if you are a Naruto fan, and don't know the story covered in the Fourth Great Ninja War, I would almost say that you MUST play this game.
For others, though? It's not such an easy sell. The gameplay itself has enough problems that can't be ignored, although overall it's a lot of fun to play. The biggest impediment for those new to Naruto is the lore; I'm not sure the game does quite enough to ease newbies in to the complex matters at hand (although the prior storylines are described during the mandatory install - at least on PS3). It's just so complex and whimsical that the character relationships just might not matter to anyone that hasn't grown to love some of these characters, as I had. Consider that a warning.