These days, you can’t turn your head in a video game store without bumping into another Naruto game. The long-running manga/anime series came stateside a few years back, and even an awful initial dub on Cartoon Network couldn’t keep the fanboys from flocking. Animated ninjas fighting other animated ninjas? Sign me up!
Some Naruto games are great and some are awful, but for the most part nearly every game with that little Kyuubi host grinning on the cover like a fool is just mediocre. With Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm on the PS3, developer CyberConnect2 changed that trend by putting out one of the most gorgeous-looking games on the market, and a shining example of what licensed anime games should look like.
Watching Ultimate Ninja Storm in action is to see just how far gaming has come in a few short years. While we had plenty of cel shading years ago, this game looks particularly magnificent. It looks and feels like an actual episode of Naruto, and the fights that unfold on the screen are sometimes much more entertaining than their television counterparts. I dare you to at least watch the gameplay trailers for this game and not find yourself being amazed at how it looks.
Oddly enough, the biggest weakness of the visuals isn’t anything technical; it’s the underuse of cutscenes. Several times in the story mode you get treated to a very nice animated clip rather than the usually displayed animated avatar with text. Sadly these cutscenes are hard to come by, and their quality and entertainment value makes their rarity all the more obvious.
Unfortunately, the time spent developing the awe-inspiring graphics and animations may have taken away some precious time that could have been used to fine-tune the yawn-inspiring single player mode.
The story in Ultimate Ninja Storm’s single player Ultimate Mission Mode is comprised of the first 135 episodes in the Naruto series, and ends just before it enters filler territory and then Shippuden. It’s an odd cut-off point before the big Act 1 wrap-up of Naruto, the Sasuke chase. But hey, it leaves fans wanting to see more — assuming they haven’t already seen up to the current episodes fan translated, that is. What’s even odder is the complete lack of several well-loved characters, most notably Zabuza and Haku. I understand how it may be easy to cut them out streamlining purposes since their story arc doesn’t mean much in the overall series plot, but what CyberConnect2 forgot is that despite their short time in the show, those two are two of the most popular non-mains from the series. So their omission will definitely displease a lot of fans.
The game is ultimately a fighting game like CyberConnect2’s other Naruto efforts, yet the Ultimate Mission Mode attempts to blend in a large amount of adventure in the form of non-combat missions, and the result is less than satisfying. Most of the missions are repetitive mini-games (a majority of which involve jumping to and dodging tree branches), and there is lots of running around from Point A to Point B while in the central hub of Konoha. Even key elements in the story are represented by glorified mini-games rather than cutscenes, and while it would work if the mini-games were unique, even some of the most integral story moments are just another rehash of the same ones you’ve already gotten bored with — except they’re longer. It becomes a chore to finish the story and complete the missions, which is unfortunate because you really need to in order to unlock all of the characters. Some truly awe-inspiring boss fights break up the lackluster and repetitive missions, but don’t come frequently enough.
Thankfully, fighting in the Mission Mode (and the Free for All versus mode) shines. Most of the attacking is accomplished with one melee button. Tapping it multiple times will lead to combos, but mixing it up with other face buttons will lead to different types of attacks. You can jump, dash, throw shurikens and charge your chakra to release even more destruction. If you’ve played any Naruto fighting games before, Ultimate Ninja Storm will feel instantly familiar. It’s very easy to pick up, and the controls are intuitive and simple enough that a newcomer can manage some success, yet a master will almost always win.
Defending yourself is harder to master. Since it’s so easy to go on the offensive, if you’re fighting any competent opponent, defense is the key to winning. By utilizing the L2/R2 triggers, you’re able to either block attacks or execute a Substitution Jutsu by pressing the button and then hitting a direction on the analog stick at the right time.
Along with the normal actions the ninja in the game take, you can also call for support characters to assist you. These characters are called in with the press of a direction pad button, and perform a variety of attacks and skills to help you in your battle.
Perhaps the only weaknesses with the fighting portion of the game are the lack of playable characters (only 25 in total, less than even the last Ultimate PS2 release) and the continued omission of an online multiplayer. Yes, historically fighting games have been difficult to code for online play due to latency and other issues, but we’ve seen several big titles include online capabilities in the last year, so why couldn’t this game? It’s hard enough finding a friend who enjoys fighting games enough to play with, but finding one that enjoys fighting games and Naruto? That’s a much taller order to fill.
It’s too bad that Ultimate Ninja Storm itself can’t use a support character to make the Mission Mode more enjoyable. Why can’t we get a Naruto game with a story mode like Broken Bond, and a fighting system like the Ultimate series? Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm may be one of the prettiest games of the year, but even the excellent graphics can’t save it from the curse of so many Naruto games before it: it just doesn’t live up to its license, and the result feels more mediocre than magnificent. Fans of the franchise should look to pick it up purely for the awesome display you’ll see on your TV, but if you don’t own at least one piece of Naruto-related merchandise, you’re better off looking elsewhere.