The Naruto Manga books and accompanying Anime series are big business, with millions of fans reading or watching the adventures of the titular young Ninja in training. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm is the flagship title in the Naruto video gaming franchise, and the latest title in the series has just been released to satisfy its legions of rabid fans. These are intense fighting games, with the emphasis placed on the more serious side of the Naruto comics, where epic, over-the-top battles take place.
But the Naruto series is also a very comedic one, and the Ultimate Ninja Storm games often seem to miss this out somewhat, instead appearing a little po-faced in their seriousness. That is where this new title from Namco Bandai Games steps in, as Naruto: Powerful Shippuden aims squarely at the silly end of the spectrum instead.
STORY: Rather than being based strictly on the Shippuden storyline, the game is inspired by the spin-off Chibi cartoon series, Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals – which focuses on the fan-favourite character Rock Lee. This cartoon sees all of your favourite Naruto series characters transformed into deformed, cutesy versions of themselves, steering firmly into comedy territory and away from the angsty drama of the main source material.
You can choose to play as Naruto himself – and take part in the more traditional Shippuden storyline that fans will recognise from the series – or take control of the amusing Rock Lee in a new original story that’s played for laughs, with some downright ridiculous situations and scrapes to get yourself into – and back out of. This allows for a good balance of both new content that we haven’t seen before, and the well tried and tested Shippuden story that fans already love – as well as offering two different takes from the points of view of both Naruto and Rock Lee. Players can switch between these two at will, which throws a bit of variety into proceedings.
GRAPHICS: The chibi look seems to fit perfectly with the Naruto series on a handheld gaming system. The characters all become bold, bright sprites who appear very clear and expressive. The range of emotions that these characters go through are also very expressive, and make for some very funny moments in particular. Taking the often-serious characters and placing them into some really silly situations plays well with the oddball comedy that also features regularly in the Manga comics – so fans won’t feel that this is a big shift for the series. The fact that the sprites are slightly exaggerated and over-sized works well with the small 3DS screens, so that the action is clear and crisp when playing – it is easy to see what is going on, and the attractive graphics make it a pleasure to watch. The 3D effect in the game is largely superficial, with added background depth being the only real use of the technology. Playing it in 2D or 3D are both more or less the same experience.
SOUND: The game features all of the high-octane, blood-pumping fight music that fans will recognise from watching the anime series, and whilst it does feature some voice acting from the original Japanese voice cast, there is no English voice option. A lot of Anime fans prefer to hear the Japanese speech, but the option of either would have been nice – although this is far from a big problem as the majority of the conversations in the game are solely text-based, so speech doesn’t make up a big part of the title.
GAMEPLAY: The two different storylines also feature different fighting styles. Naruto makes use of Ninjutsu – or quasi magical powers – whereas Rock Lee can only perform Taijutsu, the physical side of Ninja attacks. This provides the two fighters with different move sets and special moves, but the overall gameplay remains much the same. Unfortunately, the fighting system is fairly shallow – and whilst this will definitely be good for the younger fans of Naruto, or the casual fighting game fan, seasoned beat-em-up experts won’t be too impressed with this shallow offering. You have standard ground-based and air attacks, alongside special moves, dashes and evades, which can all be strung together into combos with the correct button press sequences.
You have a stamina and Chakra bar to deal with – stamina which is basically your health, and Chakra that controls how often you can perform special moves and techniques. You have to perform a certain amount of basic attacks in order to build up the Chakra bar, which means that you can’t simply hammer the special attacks and keep dashing all over the screen like crazy – there is a certain amount of tactical thought that is required to manage your power. You can also summon some of your team-mates to provide assist-attacks and power-ups within missions (once you have recruited them, of course). Some characters will heal you, while others are more devastating in the attack department, and both Naruto and Rock Lee also have a powered-up form that can be accessed using the touchscreen when your Chakra is high enough, allowing for more high-powered attacks to smash your foes into oblivion.
On top of all of that, completing missions – or even failing them – will give you XP points that can be spent in an RPG-like manner, in order to upgrade your fighters and their attacks. You can choose the different areas to upgrade as you please, spreading your points evenly, or focusing on your weaker areas. You can also make your Chakra bar longer or power up your thrown weapons, for instance, which will help you to get through the tougher missions that appear later on. Players will have to keep coming back and levelling up, otherwise these other missions will soon become too difficult to take on. Thankfully, if you mess this up and spend the points unwisely, you can re-claim them and re-assign the points elsewhere – allowing you to experiment a little until you find the best balance to suits you.
LONGEVITY: There are quite a large number of stages, and when you take into account that there are two different storylines running concurrently you will realise that there is quite a lot to keep players busy in the title. As you need to level up and progress in order to get through tougher levels, completion of the game will take some time and you won’t be able to exactly rush through the whole story.
There is also a nice self-motivation tool in the game to extend your interest in the rather repetitive fighting: as well as the objectives and requirements that are linked to each individual mission – which, when completed will reward players with XP – there is also the option for players to set their own goals. In a form of gambling, you can choose from a variety of optional targets in addition to the regular ones, such as completing the stage losing no health or using no assists, and if you complete these extra targets as well you’ll be awarded with even more bonus XP to increase the speed at which you can level up.
VERDICT: The game’s character is what will draw you in and keep you hooked on Naruto: Powerful Shippuden. Being based on the Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals series, the game is full of amusing cutscenes between missions and crazy conversations, which make the game instantly likeable and could attract a new section of Naruto fans who are more casual gamers.
This captures the essence of the series well – but the game is somewhat let down by the basic fighting system. Invest enough time in the upgrading and levelling up menus though, and your experience can be nicely customised to your preferences – and the fighting does take on a charm of its own. You won’t see the massive, bombastic special moves that punctuate other Naruto titles, but the system here is robust and easy enough to pick up and play almost straight-away – further aided by an in-game tutorial system. Powerful Shippuden won’t revolutionise the genre or break any new ground, but it is a clever combination of existing game mechanics in an appealing new package.