Shonen Jump's "Naruto" is a very popular and on going series of Japanese Manga that has been made into film, books, trading card games, and yes, video games -- lots of video games. The newest Naruto game is developed and published by Namco Bandai, and is called NARUTO Shippuden: Legends: Akatsuki Rising. I don't know the first thing about the Naruto universe but I'm having a good time with Akatusuki Rising, which I will refer to as simply AR for the rest of this review. Let's take a closer look.
Story & Scenario Mode
I should reiterate that I don't know jack about Naruto. I've played some of the previous games in years past, just for a little while, never really getting hooked into the universe or the gameplay. I wasn't sure what to expect from this newest Naruto title, although I was actually pleased that it's more of a button mashing third person brawler than anything else. The button mashing brawler genre lends itself to accessibility because anyone can hop in and play. If you're hoping to get an introduction to the characters and the Naruto universe, you're out of luck, but the numerous cutscenes do a good job of at least explaining what is going on in AR.
Forgive me for not knowing the character names or terms all that well. I think I'll be able to explain things well enough without stumbling over Naruto terminology though. Okay, so the story in AR is literally the "Kazekage Retrieval" story arc. As the story begins, players are shown an interactive cutscene (you have to press X to get through everyone's dialogue) that shows Naruto returning back to his village with his teacher after being away about two and a half years. The two are passing through a forest when some bandits appear, eager to take their money. This is your first of many fights and it acts as a tutorial with helpful hints popping up as you fight off the bandits.
Upon arriving at the village, Naruto meets up with some old friends including Sakura, who challenges you to a friendly battle to see how much you've learned. The first chapter ends soon after and the real story begins with some activity in a nearby desert. Two skilled followers of Akatusuki manage to defeat and capture Sand Village Kazekage Gaara, also known as One Tail. When the Hidden Leaf clan discover this from a messenger, they quickly act to rescue him. The Scenario Mode tells this story, which from what I've read elsewhere, is actually the same story that was told in a previous Naruto game, Ultimate Ninja 4. The Scenario Mode is the main portion of the game and has players taking their favorite characters from the Naruto universe through several chapters and hundreds of enemies to rescue Gaara and prevent the evil Akatsuki from coming into full power by consuming the power of Gaara and Naruto.
I didn't completely follow or understand the story, but that didn't keep me from playing. I enjoyed the combat and RPG elements enough to just keep on playing. Initially, players can only choose to control Naruto, but more and more players become available as you encounter them in the Scenario Mode. Playable characters include Naruto, Sakura, Kakashi, Shikamaru Nara, Tenten, Rock Lee, Neji Hyuga, Might Guy, and several others along the way, with the final count totaling over fifteen playable characters. Each character has a Level to start with that can also be upgraded by defeating enemies, working through Scenario Mode, and from clearing the Survival and Mission Modes. Before the start of each Scenario Mode mission, players can choose to have two other unlocked AI with them. You don't actually see them on screen, but the different characters provide various boosts to your selected player's skills, like an increase in Attack Power, Ninjutsu, Defense Power, Resistance, Stamina, or Chakra. Also, whatever experience the main player earns, is also replicated to the other characters too, so you're literally upgrading three characters at once. Of course, if you want, and I see no reason why you would, you can also choose to go into battle without extra characters.
Missions in Scenario Mode are linear and to the point, and also very brief. For the first five or so chapters, it's not a bad idea to fight every enemy that you see to level up as quick as you can. Enemies vary depending on the environment that you're in. In the forest battles, which are a big part of the game, you'll face a variety of different ninja and bandit types, some with dangerous ranged weapons. Other foes include shuriken throwing turrets, boars, and several very strong enemies that can take a beating. A variety of other foes including exploding spiders and massive sandworms await you in the desert area, too. Most of these enemies are no problem when faced alone, but the difficulty picks up eventually and you'll face several dangerous foes at once.
Oddly enough, you can choose to run right past all of the enemies on a particular mission and right to the next area, which is marked by a spinning circle above the ground. Approaching this will get you to the next area, which is always buffered by an "interactive" cutscene to advance the story. Being able to run right by all of the enemies and to the exit gets tempting and I've done it several times. The trade off of course is not picking up what items they may drop and not earning as many level up points. The difficulty in AR is such that you don't have to 100% clear every stage, and I liked having the option to just dash through a particular area when I wanted to. Several of these stages or missions eventually adds up to a boss fight against one of the Akatusuki followers. Just like the combat throughout the missions, these battles work best with Targeting and a balance of normal attacks and jutsu. Upon beating said boss, the Chapter is over.
Controls And More On Gameplay
Some of the biggest complaints about this game to date have been about the camera and the combat system. I suppose in an attempt to simplify the control scheme, the developers decided to set the Square button to all of your attacks as well as your counter attacks. In practice, this means that you will be button mashing Square a lot as you perform the same combo over and over again. If you are attacked while pressing Square or any of the other three face buttons, your character will block and counter, and that can make the camera get wonky in heated battles. That said, it really hasn't been a problem for me; the combat and the camera system aren't as clean as they could have been, but it works well enough and it certainly doesn't break the game.
It's best to use Left Trigger to lock onto an opponent, which can also be undone with another press of the Trigger. Targeting a single enemy when your field of view seems pretty random, so using Up and Down on the d-pad allows you to switch who you are targeting. Targeting is great for keeping the camera situated to where the enemy is in front of you, which helps in throwing whatever ranged weapon (aka Ninja Tool) you have equipped. Ninja Tools include paper bombs, a variety of shuriken, and other handy objects that can be purchased at the Shop or found in the game world (more on the Shop soon). Ninja Tools are thrown with Triangle. Holding Triangle brings up an inventory panel that allows you to switch between different equipped Ninja Tools and recovery items. As for the other controls, players move with the analog stick, reset the camera with Select, access the Camp Menu with Start, jump with X, and quick jump or dash with Circle. Also, by holding the Right Trigger, the Ninjutsu menu comes up and is used in conjunction with face buttons to perform certain jutsu. The Camp Menu, by the way, is a basic menu that allows you to view your character's status, pause the game, and change what items are equipped. You can also abort a mission from here.
What jutsu that you can perform depends on what scrolls you have equipped and how much Chakra you have. In the lower left of the HUD, two meters represent your Stamina (aka health) and Chakra. Both of these meters are refilled whenever you level up, but more commonly whenever you use a recovery item. Throughout the game world, on just about every mission, players encounter at least one oddly placed box that can be smashed open to reveal an item. However, most of your items will come from the Shop. The Shop can be accessed in between missions from the main menu. Here, you can buy, sell, and equip items. A variety of Stamina and Chakra recovery items are here, as well as Scrolls for new junto and plenty of Ninja Tools, too. Players can equip five Ninja Tools and five recovery items that are ready for immediate use during action. Items are used by holding down Triangle and using the d-pad to navigate to the item you want to use. Shop prices are reasonable and allow for stockpiling plenty of recovery items, making it much easier to get past the bosses.
Other Modes, & Presentation
Scenario Mode is certainly the primary draw to this game, but there are several other modes of play available, too. Survival Mode is just like it sounds; you take control of one of the Sand of Leaf ninjas and battle against waves of bad guys. Mission Mode allows you to take on a variety of missions that are essentially separate from the Scenario. Before launching a mission, you can see what the reward is. Rewards include items and character stats boosts. An Ad Hoc mode to play two player co-op or versus is also included, although I wasn't able to test this during this review.
Plus, at the end of the Scenario Mode, the Akatsuki Mode is available. This mode is pretty awesome in that it allows you to use the Akatsuki characters to play through the story of capturing Gaara. That's a huge bonus and a big reason to keep on playing the game once the Scenario Mode is clear.
Regardless of which mode of play you choose, you can expect some vibrant and smooth visuals. I thought the developers did a nice job of presenting these environments and the characters. A wide and vibrant color palette is used and the graphics have a nice 'pop' to them. Framerates also stay consistently high, I have not experienced any slowdown. In terms of audio, AR does well, although the music gets repetitive. Voiceovers are well done, and the effects are fine.
It's worth noting that you can do a Data Install that takes up about 330MB and about ten minutes to install. It's well worth it as load times are greatly reduced this way. Load times tend to be short, which is good because the save points are kind of odd. Save points are always placed near a mission exit, which means that if you die on the next mission, you have to reload the previous mission only to take two seconds to exit to the next area again. Oh, that reminds me of a point I should make here -- you can change out your playable character and your two support characters during the course of a chapter if you die. While I'm on the topic of presentation, the manual is really well done. The in game tutorial was sufficient to get me going, but as I was writing this review trying to think of a game-specific term, the manual proved to be helpful and I couldn't help but notice how detailed it was.
Ultimately, AR surprised me. Not being familiar with the Naruto universe and hearing several bad things about this game before playing, I wasn't sure what to expect. Turns out it's a fine game, not great, but well worth a look if you are a fan of Naruto at all, or just like button mashing brawlers with some RPG elements.