The wildly popular Naruto anime has seen several video game releases in recent years, but the first to reach the PS3 is a system exclusive in the form of Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm. CyberConnect2, who have plenty of Naruto experience behind them, have clearly spent a great deal of effort capturing the visual feel of the anime, but perhaps at the cost of solid gameplay.
Into the Storm
Ultimate Ninja Storm is an offline title that is fairly basic in several ways. Players can either battle a friend or the CPU locally, adjust a few options, or just into the Ultimate Mission Mode, i.e., the story mode. Obviously, you'll spend most of your time in this mode.
When you select the Ultimate Mission Mode, you will be treated to a beautifully rendered cutscene that shows some of the core history of the Naruto anime universe. The story shown is that of the nine-tailed fox that ravaged a village and was ultimately stopped by a ninja known as the Fourth Hokage, who sealed the fox's spirit away in the newborn Naruto. The cutscene is brief, and it might not tell you much if you aren't familiar with the series, but it's a start.
After several text screens of tutorial information, players are on their own to explore the Hidden Leaf Village on foot. You can run, jump, explore rooftops, and talk to several dozen NPCs. The village itself is fairly small, but as the story progresses, there is more and more to do there. Your map is useful in figuring out the locations of save spots, NPCs that have missions for you, and where certain items are.
There are over 100 missions in the game, many with Bonus Conditions that the hardcore can pursue, but I was intent on sticking with the missions I needed to advance the story as, frankly, the Naruto universe isn't very interesting to me. However, you cannot just take on one story mission after another; successive missions require something known as Mission XP, which you get by performing a variety of tasks in the town including finding various items and giving them to NPCs, or running miscellaneous tasks for them. This gets pretty old, but the main missions, those that advance the story, are entertaining enough to keep the game limping along.
While Ultimate Ninja Storm does provide a fairly significant adventure angle, what is still at the heart of this Naruto game is the fighting. Combat in Ultimate Ninja Storm is more streamlined than ever which means doing ridiculous combos is easier than ever too, which I think will please most gamers, although it may irk others in that it could be seen as making the game too easy or 'dumbing it down.' So in combat, you block with R2, jump with X, charge your Chakra with triangle, throw Shurikens with square, and attack with circle. The d-pad is for using inventory items that can heal or provide alternate means of attacking, while R1/L1 can call in teammates for a brief offensive aid. For the most part, fighting boils down to being quick to block, knowing when to charge your Chakra, and button mashing circle. It's satisfying for a while, but the overall experience of the fighting and the mundane adventure elements gets old in a few hours.
That's One Pretty Storm
While I wasn't enthralled with the gameplay, I was thoroughly impressed with the silky, detailed animations. It's no wonder that there was a Playstation Blog article where one of the game developers talked about the process and work that went into making Ultimate Storm's graphics; they're simply gorgeous. I liked the variety of colors, the smooth framerate, and the stylish, fluid animations. I have only seen a couple of Naruto episodes, but the team at CyberConnect2 seems to have really nailed the look and feel of Naruto, so kudos to them for making it as authentic as possible as far as visuals go. The sounds don't really disappoint either, although the music in Hidden Leaf Village gets repetitive. As far as voices and effects, I think they're spot on and do a fine job.
In closing, I think it's safe to say that Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm is probably the best Naruto game to date, but it also still leaves a lot to be desired. The visuals were, it seems, the main focus of this release and it shows, CyberConnect2 did a hell of a job, but perhaps in exchange the gameplay and fun factor took a hit. That said, I can imagine a younger audience or true fans of the series being able to forgive more than I can, and I can appreciate and respect that.