It’s been a while since Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm released on the Playstation 3. Since then, the anime that inspires the games has moved into a whole new series with Naruto Shippuden. Naruto and his friends have gotten a bit older and wiser, and apparently so have the developers of the Ultimate Ninja Storm series. The first game in the series was good but had some obvious issues, for example it was like lacking online, contained repetitive mini-game side quests and made a poor attempt at telling the story of the anime. Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 (UNS2) fixes those problems and makes for a game that is clearly better than its predecessor, but it does have a few new problems of its own.
Without going into too much detail and spoiling the anime, UNS2 covers the beginning of Naruto Shippuden when Naruto gets back from training with Jiraiya, all the way up to the aftermath of Pain’s attack. Compared to the first game, where most fights were introduced with bland text re-capping why a particular fight was taking place, UNS2 does a much better job of putting the player into the story of the anime. You play through the story of Naruto Shippuden much like a JRPG, with lots of running from place to place and dialogue between missions, which provides a context for what you're doing.
The story in the game skipped a few details that I wish they hadn’t, and seemed to have a lot of the blood cleaned up to avoid annoyances from the ESRB, but overall it did a great job of pulling me into the story and making me feel like I was playing the anime and not just a game based on the anime. Unfortunately, it is still a story that won’t have the kind of impact it should if you haven’t watched the anime. There are a good number of moments in the game which will lose their significance if you don’t have a certain emotional attachment to the characters and you really can’t get that from the brief background you get in Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 2. I don’t think this is something that the developers can be blamed for, since it’s the nature of the beast when you have a game based off of an established storyline, but it deserves mentioning for the one or two non-Naruto fans thinking of buying it.
Ultimate Adventure Mode takes you through all of these moments, while also allowing you to do a bit of exploring in a few of the most important environments from the anime, such as the Hidden Leaf, Sand, Rain villages and Orochimaru’s hideout. The exploring you do isn’t as open as the first game, which had a completely free-roam Hidden Leaf village, and each of these areas is a very basic series of corridors, but actually traveling to the area you are supposed to in the story really helps with that context I keep talking about. While you explore there are materials you can pick up and turn in at stores to purchase new ninja tools, and in villages you can talk to random bystanders, but other than that there isn’t much to do while traveling from mission to mission. Since there aren’t any random battles, traveling to your next mission can get rather dull, but luckily everything is pretty compact so it should only take you a couple minutes to get wherever you need to go.
Once you actually get to the fights the sequel plays out in basically the same way as original, though with a few key differences. Support characters have been given a more active and meaningful role and if you use them enough during battle you can start a Support Drive, whereby the support characters jump into the battle without needing to be called to block or attack for you. The blocking is hugely useful and Hinata jumping in front of an ultimate attack has saved me quite a few times. While in Support Drive you cannot go into Awaken mode, but you have access to a team attack Ultimate Jutsu, so it gives you a little more choice and strategy to draw on during a fight.
The other big change to the battle system is that Ultimate Jutsu attacks are now even more obviously broadcasted, with the screen going blank just before the character starts the animation. Perhaps to balance this out, the button pressing war that accompanied Ultimate Jutsu in the first game has been removed, so if you can land the Ultimate Jutsu there is no question that it’ll do the damage. I found this decision disappointing, since some of my favorite moments while playing the first game with friends resulted from frantically pressing buttons in an attempt to stop them from landing their final killing blow. Ultimate Jutsu attacks are also much shorter, so they feel less epic and satisfying overall.
Quick time event (QTE) sequences during battles in Ultimate Adventure mode are much more frequent than they were during the original game, and are extremely well implemented and a sight to behold. Failing a QTE has basically no punishment, since you are almost always sent back in time to just before the button sequence you failed, rather than being forced to start from scratch. These sequences are used to play through some of the most amazing fights from the anime and, depending on how you perform during them, you are rewarded with still shots from the anime depicting some of the back story to the fight. Boss fights also utilize some unusual battle mechanics for those moments where the characters are using abilities far outside their norm, like Gaara flying above the Hidden Sand Village. These help increase variety and fill a void left over from the absence of the original's mini-game side quests.
The presentation in UNS2 is exceptional in how closely it mirrors the source material. Changing the sequel’s environments to corridors allowed the developers to use hand drawn backgrounds, which match the look of the anime perfectly. Some of the effects on-screen during key flashback fights are particularly impressive, with one notable battle flipping between the current and previous fight instantaneously during gameplay. These flashback sequences also change the move sets of the characters, which is a nice touch. Story flashbacks sometimes use still shots from the anime, which look great, but I wish they could have used the actual scenes from the anime. Perhaps that is a technical impossibility without further loadtimes, though, and UNS2 already has more than enough of those.
Whilst exploring, and during battle, the characters are not quite as perfectly rendered as the backgrounds, which is understandable since they have to move. They are still hard to discern from their anime counterparts, though, except for when you factor in the horrendous amount of jaggies that plague characters during gameplay (although less so during cutscenes). There was a moment during the game where I thought to myself “Naruto’s teeth look pretty gnarled and awful”, only to realize that his head was tilted and the jagged edges had given him a mouth full of shark teeth. It’s not nearly as bad during cut scenes, but working on this would go a long way to perfecting the look of the game. The other problem with UNS2’s presentation is the prodigious and egregious use of load times. Every fight has a load time, entering new areas has a load time, and even moving from one part of the story to another without any travel introduces load times. None of these are long, and they usually only last five to ten seconds, but they can get pretty irritating if you have a sting of them in tandem.
The sound design matches the anime even better than the visuals do. Every voice and song is straight from the anime - as far as I could tell - and you are given the option of English or Japanese voices, which is a god send to someone like me who detests the phrase “believe it!”. Not every chunk of story and text is accompanied by voice acting, but it is included often and for every significant event in the story, so I don’t have complaints on this front.
The most obvious improvement over the original is definitely the value. UNS2 took me 12 hours to complete, and I hadn’t even unlocked all of the characters by that point, so you can squeeze out a good deal more time from the game if you want to acquire all of the unlockables for online play. Speaking of online: it exists, which is already an improvement over the first game. It came with a fair amount of lag during roughly half of my matches, and the menu system is annoying, nonetheless there is some longevity added merely by its inclusion. There's also a ranking system for the players who work hard enough to be amazing at this game. Fans of the brawler genre in general should be warned, though, because the amount of work it takes to unlock all of the characters is quite substantial and there is even more to do if you want to become everyone’s friend (which grants you more options for them as support characters).
While it doesn’t quite match up to a game like Batman: Arkham Asylum when it comes to a near-perfect rendition of its source material - in terms of both presentation and gameplay - Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is nonetheless definitely on the right track, and is easily the best example of an anime-based game I have had the pleasure of playing. The presentation is picture perfect, if you ignore the jagged edges, and the storytelling and presentation help to truly make you feel like you are playing the anime. Meanwhile, the value has undergone a serious upgrade since the original, so if you're a fan of the anime you owe it to yourself to play this game (particularly for the Ultimate Adventure mode), though people just looking for a fun brawler should be wary of the long haul of storytelling that awaits them.