Game: Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3
Developer: Cyber Connect 2
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Available on: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Reviewed on: Xbox 360
It was around this time last year that I took a look at the last Naruto Shippuden title – Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations – which while looking very pretty, took a bit of a step in the wrong direction when it came to gameplay. A CyberConnect 2 fighter is never going to be troubling the likes of BlazBlue or Street Fighter IV among hardcore fight heads, but to devotees of the Naruto manga and anime they represent reliable old hands who have mostly treated the franchise with a great deal of respect and fan service.
What that means is a great amount of attention to the labyrinthine storylines and many characters, a ridiculous amount of bombast, voice-acting madness and QTEs, and a general sense that one is playing their very own version of their favourite TV show/comic book come to life. Generations just wasn’t wild enough, and by taking away some of these core elements they alienated a portion of their fervent hardcore. With Ultimate Ninja Storm 3, CyberConnect2, a firm I have been an admirer of since the days of PS1 banger Silent Bomber, promises to redress the balance and harmony within the Naruto gaming universe. Unlike Generations, it does not eschew the mental QTEs, and plays out more like the lunatic space opera that was their master-work, Asura’s Wrath.
STORY: Unlike Generations, which was something of a Naruto “Greatest Hits” package, this title covers some new ground – namely the Invasion of Pain story arc and the Fourth Great Ninja War (when are these dudes going to stop having wars?), with things set up nicely so that by the time the game is released, most fans of the source material should theoretically be up to date with the goings on in Kishimoto-san’s ongoing manga, and understand the stories within. Even if the game does open with one of the most clichéd opening lines I have heard in some time: “THIS IS A STORY… ABOUT A HERO”.
There are battles and boss-battles set around specific episodes of the Shippuden anime, and proceedings kick off with the scary Nine-Tailed Fox launching an attack on The Hidden Leaf Village. Beginning with a killer boss encounter instantly restores the sense of preposterous, OTT action that Generations was so sorely lacking. You will meet a huge cast of characters in Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 – a staggering 80+ – which take in some reincarnated favourites like Asuma and Madara. The game features a series of branching paths too, with “Ultimate Decision Mode” giving you the opportunity to make some big decisions about stuff like the outcome of battles, often changing the course of Naruto history in the process. You get the chance to choose between either Legend or Hero based upon your choices, with each character type coming with its own unique weapons and equipment. Whether this means anything to you is mostly irrelevant, as it is all highly entertaining in that crazy, compulsive way that Japanese anime quite often is. Stirring stuff, indeed.
GRAPHICS: As ever, CyberConnect 2 have done a fabulous job of bringing the Naruto-verse to life. From the title screen onwards, this is a treat for the eyes – a cel-shaded, living, breathing anime. The expertly-crafted cinematic cutscenes, which I am told were influenced by those from Asura’s Wrath, are a joy to behold – from the very first encounter with the snarling Nine Tails to the flicks that set up the series of insane boss battles. Cel-shading, as I have harped on about many times before to anyone else who will listen, is perhaps the most beautiful and hardy of all videogame art styles, and I have no hesitation in placing this right up there with some of the best I have seen. Don’t believe me? Just have a gander at some of the excellent clips available on YouTube and tell me after witnessing yourself some Ultimate Jutsu action that you don’t fancy a bit of that?
SOUND: Little to say here really, only that Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 features a choice between the original Japanese voice acting or a valiant English translation, as well as a choice of winning tunes ripped straight from the anime. The actual battle music is excellent, and really gets you in the mood to do some damage.
GAMEPLAY: The meat of the game comes from the story-packed Ultimate Adventure mode, which begins with the aforementioned Fox fracas and takes you on a long, branching journey strewn with cutscenes. First time around it is quite novel to catch up with goings-on, but some of the cinematics last for several minutes – which is why the option to skip them is a great relief at times. Far from being all-action, this mode features a fair deal of wandering around villages, smashing pots, looking for weapon upgrades and talking to NPCs. This is Ninja Storm at its dullest, as most of the villages and towns you encounter are completely inconsequential and provide very little worth your while. Scrolling beat ‘em up sections, where you have access to a limited move-set against a bunch of faceless foes, are more chaff than wheat. This isn’t what you buy a Naruto game for, mind.
Proper battles and boss fights are where its at, and I am pleased to report that CyberConnect2 have got things spot-on in Ultimate Ninja Storm 3. Sure, it is still a fairly simple affair, with one button used for most of the attacks, but returning are the expertly-implemented QTEs, the support characters (who now have their own health bars, limiting their use but balancing things out a bit), a genius teleportation manoeuvre and of course the Chakra-draining yet oh-so-satisfying Ultimate Jutsu moves. The shape-shifting Awakening transformations are back – however this time around you are limited to using the technique once per battle. Those super moves? They are tremendous – the Tailed Beast Bomb is like a cross between a pitbull terrier and a nuclear explosion; one other cat actually summons what is tantamount to the Great Pyramid of Giza rising out of the ground to annihilate his enemies. I love this sort of thing.
Boss-battles are great fun. As a relative noob to the series, I found myself asking the Lord Baby Jesus above why the hell the developers decided to omit all of this QTE-based epic-ness from the last game. You get marked depending on how adept you are at inputting the required button or direction presses to ace the event. Cock it up, and your poor performance is mirrored in the on-screen battle – get it spot on and you get to see your hero unleash all manner of ninja hell on your opponent. It is a satisfying and welcome use of a much-maligned game mechanic.
Elsewhere you get your usual versus and online modes, allowing you to create tournaments for on and offline play, and the limited time I spent playing online was stable and smooth despite the lack of an option to search for an opponent based upon their internet signal strength.
LONGEVITY: The longevity of this title heavily depends on how much of a fan you are of the source material, and whether you want to follow the story through to its conclusion. It is cutscene-heavy, but undeniably entertaining at the same time, albeit in a far lengthier fashion than CyberConnect’s awe-inspiring, short but sweet collaboration with Capcom. Unlocking all of the massive roster will take you a while, as it is dependent on completing chapters of the Ultimate Adventure mode. It isn’t much of a multiplayer game in my opinion, and I would much rather take my competitive play elsewhere. But I can envisage Naruto fans thrilled at the prospect of facing off against each other both on and offline, and fair play to them for it.
VERDICT: There is plenty of fun to be had in Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3, and I felt a pang of sadness at how such a bold game may get lost amongst the slew of heavy-hitting releases due in the next few weeks. Of course, Naruto fans will snap this up in their droves, arguing about who should have been omitted/included in the roster along the way, and it will do great in Japan. And deserves to do well, because it serves as a clear improvement over its forebear and was a cel-shaded slice of Far Eastern madness that I will have no problem returning to in the near future.