Video games based on anime series usually rank right above licensed movie games as far as I am concerned. I’m happy to say that Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm (from here on referred to as Naruto UNS) is actually a fairly good stand alone game, and may be able to keep people entertained who have never even heard of the anime itself. Naruto UNS goes through the story of Naruto from his first mission upon graduating ninja academy up to his fight with Sasuke to try and keep him from going to Orichimaru, and a lot of the events in between. If you are not a fan of the anime series and therefore have no idea what I’m talking about, I’m afraid that you will get next to no enjoyment out of the storyline of this game. Most of the story is told through simple text background explanations of the current mission that would probably only be truly understood by a fan of the series. What few scenes from the story that were actually animated (and they are indeed very well done and look very close to the actual anime) are given little to no back story so even those will be hard to understand for the uninitiated. I found the story to be very disappointing, not in the content, but in its presentation. Many of the battles you will fight have great back stories that put a lot more meaning behind the fight then simply “alright now I have to beat this guy” but the game presents very little of this story and it’s almost entirely lost.
Naruto UNS plays out in three basic sections: a brawler type fighting game, a platforming exploration game, and various mini-games. The fighting game is the core of the gameplay and is by far the most polished of the three. Upon starting a fight you are allowed to choose from 25 different characters from the series, which special move your character will use, and two support characters that you can call on for help during the fight. Once the fight begins you will notice that you are given free reign to run around in a 3d arena. The camera will automatically follow you and your opponent, and does so very well with no hiccups that I have noticed. The basic button configuration is circle to attack, “x” to jump, triangle for special moves, and square to throw projectiles. Attacking works very much like a classic brawler type game where you don’t need to worry about any kind of crazy button combinations but simply time your attack right and then mash circle for a crazy combo. These combos can be broken by pressing the block button (R2) at the moment a blow lands on your character, and you will do a replacement technique teleporting yourself behind your opponent. This is a great way to have a simple fighting system where timing is more important then memorization. The shoulder buttons (L1 and R1) can be used to call in your support character to either help you attack your opponent or catch you after you have been thrown. Both of these are extremely useful and can turn the tide of a fight. The most devastating moves are done using triangle. Holding triangle will charge your energy bar (called Chakra) and once you have reached a certain amount of Chakra you can use it to do special moves. These include charging your enemy or special attacks that do considerably more damage than your regular attack. If you press triangle twice and then circle you can unleash your character's ultimate technique. This is an amazing animation scene using your character’s signature moves from the anime and usually ends in a massive explosion or a few hundred steel weapons smashing into your enemy, and all told you usually do around half the other person’s health in damage. These moves are extremely hard to hit with and are usually easily dodged or blocked, but they can easily turn the tide of any fight.
You don’t start out with all of these cool characters and moves, so to do that you’ll have to play the game’s adventure mode. In this mode you play more of a platforming style, able to gain missions and collect items as you run and jump around the hidden leaf village. The first thing I have to say is that the hidden leaf village has been extremely well done in this game and you will recognize almost everything if you are a fan of the anime series. To advance through the game you will have to complete missions. There are main story missions which are usually the method by which characters are unlocked and require a certain amount of mission experience to unlock, and side missions which serve to give you the experience needed to do the main story missions and also unlock items that you can collect around leaf village. Many of these missions require some of the items that have been placed around the leaf village, which is unfortunate because there are only really three ways that these things are hidden. The items will either be behind a door with a floor panel in front of it that you need to put a box on, up somewhere high that will take a bit of platforming to get to, or behind a breakable wall that you’ll be able to break later on in the game. This makes collecting these items rather repetitive and I must admit that it became slightly tiresome when I was forced to collect pretty much all of the items for a later mission.
The missions mentioned previously will either be a fight with certain conditions, or a simplistic mini-game. The available mini-games come in 4 varieties. The first is a hide and seek mission where you have to run around the village looking for your friend who is hidden among one of many boxes around town. This is made possible by asking townsfolk if they have seen the kid. The NPCs will then point you in the correct direction, and an arrow will show up on your mini-map. Ask two or more NPCs and you can then use the point where the arrows cross to find your target. The next mini-game is a collection quest where you have to get through a number of hoops before the time runs out. This is accomplished by jumping from building to building and using Naruto’s special ability to throw himself exceptionally far. Naruto’s ability to throw himself is dependent on his available Chakra which is increased by collecting items, so this mini-game is the sole reason that you are forced to collect the items as I mentioned earlier. Another available mini-game is tree climbing. Naruto uses his Chakra to sprint headlong up a tree, and you have to use the analog stick to guide him around the tree’s branches while collecting items to increase his speed. This is usually done with a time limit tacked on as a means of gauging success or failure. The last mini-game is a sprint through the forest in which Naruto will jump from branch to branch in classic ninja style and you must again guide him around obstacles using the analog stick. The goal of these sprints is usually to catch a target or to simply make it to the end of the forest in a given time limit.
The technical presentation of Naruto UNS is fairly commendable. The game looks extremely nice and there are very few hitches in frame rate. There is a very bad frame rate drop during adventure mode when you run through a save point and allow the blue flames to encompass your camera’s view, but this is easily avoided and none of the actual game modes suffer from this issue. There is also the issue of loading times, which were still rather excessive even after the use of a 4 gigabyte install. The average loading time for a fight was around 15 seconds while loading up the hidden leaf village in adventure mode could take upwards of 25 seconds. Neither of these are game breakers but they can get annoying over time.
If there is one thing that Naruto UNS excels at it would have to be visual presentation. The aesthetics of the inspiring anime come through perfectly, with the character models and the general cell shaded look giving the game almost the exact same style as the anime it was derived from. If there was one complaint I would garner for the visual presentation it's that it wasn’t used enough. The scenes from the anime that were made into game cut-scenes looked fantastic and really reminded me of the original, but these were few and far between. I wish that a little more work had been put into the story mode, since what I got of it looked fantastic.
The Audio presentation is pretty average when it comes to music, I honestly did not hear anything that particularly stuck in my head or that I found myself enjoying. The sound effects and voice acting, however, are top notch. Most of the characters sound exactly as they do in the anime except for a few instances and it really helps to make the entire game’s atmosphere more believable. I will admit that I played through most of the game using Japanese voices since I find the English voice acting of the anime series to be highly annoying (I mean for Christ’s sake, they don’t even pronounce the main character’s name correctly) but there is the option to switch between the two whenever you want and I did a quick spot check of the English dubs which all seemed to be in-line with the anime version.
Gameplay in Naruto UNS is rather hit and miss. The actual brawler fighting game mode is extremely enjoyable and is something I would probably recommend to any fan of those types of games even if they had no knowledge of the Naruto anime. The adventure mode is also rather fun and it was cool to be able to run around the leaf village doing acrobatic craziness. The mini-games, however, just come off feeling forced in their execution. They are overly simplistic and you will find yourself bored as you play your way through each mini-game to try and unlock characters and moves for the brawler.
The worst part of Naruto UNS is easily its value. I played through the main story in only 8 hours, all of which was incredibly repetitive as I found myself climbing trees 6-7 times for a myriad of reasons. There are more missions available after completing all the ones necessary to unlock all of the characters, and I am currently only at 29% complete. However, I can’t imagine anyone muddling through another 14 or so hours of repetitive mini-games to try and get to the “true ending” when there is so little reward. All of these missions are also only side missions, so even the storyline cannot serve as a good reason to continue the trudge. On the brawler side of things, the game is a lot of fun with a friend, but unfortunately there is no online aspect to the game, so any fighting you want to do will have to be with someone local. This is disappointing because I could easily imagine myself playing Naruto UNS for a much longer time if this feature were included as this is the part of the game where development excelled and fun is had by all.
Overall Naruto UNS is a decent game that fans of the series will probably enjoy. Fans of brawler type games may also want to give the title a shot and just ignore all of the story aspects as they aren’t explained well enough to mean anything anyway. On the good side, the visuals are exceptional, the brawler’s core gameplay is very fun, and the title does a good job at making one feel they are actually playing within the anime’s world. On the other end: the adventure mode can be a chore, the game is short, there is no online feature to beat your friends up overseas, and there was an unfortunate lack of explanation in the story. I highly suggest to anyone interested to try the demo online, as this is Naruto UNS at its best, and then just decide if you can slog through a relatively poor adventure mode to unlock all the characters and moves.