Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Cavia Inc.
Release Date: November 14, 2006
Naruto: Uzumaki Chronicles is one of many video games to cash in on the Japanese-anime gravy train. Unlike several other anime series introduced to American gamers (like Ghost in the Shell and Mobile Suit Gundam), Naruto has inspired a wholly decent collection of video games. As any hardcore fan knows, the original Japanese manga and anime series are chronologically far ahead of the American version on Cartoon Network's Toonami. This means that Uzumaki Chronicles not only got edited for spoiler content, but the original story was also drastically changed.
Thankfully, the development team at Cavia gave Uzumaki Chronicles the high-class treatment. The modified North American release is well polished, and everything from the story to the presentation is seamless to the average gamer. As the fourth stateside console title in the series, Uzumaki Chronicles continues the upward curve with a fun, entertaining story and surprisingly complex combat system.
In Uzumaki Chronicles, the star of the show, Naruto Uzumaki, is assigned to carry out various missions for his ninja village. As the game progresses, Naruto handles everything from delivery missions and reconnaissance to prisoner transportations. Eventually, our hero discovers a secret plot to destroy the ninja village of Konoha and sets out to stop it. With the help of his ninja comrades, Naruto faces down deadly enemies and insurmountable obstacles in his mission to save Konoha.
Uzumaki Chronicles excels in several areas: combat, story, difficulty, and overall gameplay. The game is broken up into dozens of missions, each one revealing a little more of the plot. The missions are varied enough at the beginning: deliver some goods to a neighboring village, prevent an assassination, and so on.
However, about halfway through, the different levels all begin to run together. You'll often find yourself trying to accomplish the same tasks over and over, except you'll be fighting off stronger enemies in each progressing scenario. This leads to some difficult roadblocks, as some foes will prove too difficult to beat at certain points. Even worse, when you fail in some missions, you permanently fail, which means that you'll continue to the next task while missing out on the essential power-ups needed to progress through the game. Resetting is the only way to retry these missions, which can lead to unnecessary frustration (more on that later).
This repetitiveness is reduced tremendously by the above-average story mode. In any anime-related game, poor voice-acting or bad translation can wreck the story. Uzumaki Chronicles not only avoids this stereotype, but the main game's plot is actually pretty interesting. Many secondary characters you encounter in early missions will request your help again at later points, which in turn builds up the story. For example, a desperate shopkeeper enlists Naruto's help to save her deceased father's weapon emporium in the first couple of hours. After completing the mission, you'll able to trade and exchange weapons in her shop for the remainder of the game, and she also provides some crucial help in the final missions.
There aren't an overwhelming number of throwaway characters in Uzumaki Chronicles, despite the large amount of generic mercenaries and female ninjas you'll fight in the game. Even the voice-acting is decent; almost none of the dialogue seems particularly forced, and aside from a few groan-worthy catchphrases ("Believe it!"), the presentation of the characters is on equal terms with the anime.
Uzumaki Chronicles initially appears to be a simple button masher, at least until you complete a few missions. Defeating enemy ninjas and successfully completing tasks will earn Naruto "virtue orbs" and "chakra orbs" which act like experience points and power-ups, respectively. Collect enough virtue orbs, and you'll be able to increase Naruto's maximum health and stamina reserves, which gives players the incentive of pummeling every enemy and repeating failed missions, especially since the most powerful upgrades cost an arm and a leg.
Naruto's abilities can be further augmented by the use of "skill plates," which are similar to miniature versions of the Sphere Grid from Final Fantasy X. The main difference, however, is that the blank spaces in the skill plates can be filled by "skill chips." Certain skill chips can be used to increase the strength of Naruto's taijutsu (physical attacks) and ninjutsu (special attacks). There are also special skill chips that earn Naruto new attacks and abilities, like being able to double-jump and absorb out-of-reach items. Stronger skill chips cost more virtue orbs and take up more space on a skill plate, so you'll have to balance Naruto's stats and health in order to effectively build a good fighting style. There's also a slight puzzle element in upgrading your abilities, since you'll gain a specific stat bonus for filling in every section of certain skill plates.
While the combat in Uzumaki Chronicles can get dull from time to time, the game will often throw in roadblocks that require you to use some strategy. Naruto is powerful enough on his own, but you'll also need to form teams for tougher missions. You can choose between fellow ninjas Neji Hyuuga, Shikamaru Nara, Choji Akimichi, Sasuke Uchiha, and Kakashi Hatake. Each one of these characters has unique, overpowered attacks that can be used to assist Naruto in critical situations. Neji's insane combo attacks can break down the toughest enemies, Shikamaru can lay traps and manipulate the battlefield, Choji grows to enormous proportions and flattens anyone in his way, while Sasuke and Kakashi can cut their way though foes with crippling ninjutsu attacks.
At any time during combat, you can switch Naruto with one of these characters, a la Marvel vs. Capcom. Your teammates will fight until they run out of chakra, at which point they'll go back to the bench and let Naruto take over. There's also a ton of weaponry available to use against enemy ninjas, which helps to compensate for Naruto's lack of long-range attacks.
Even with all of these successes, Uzumaki Chronicles has some flaws that are frankly inexcusable. For starters, you can only save your progress before or after a mission. This wouldn't be such a major flaw if all the missions had checkpoints, but whenever you die in battle, you have to start over from the title screen. Less crucial missions are worse. Fail your mission objective, and you'll actually have to reset your PlayStation 2 to try it again – no reloads, no second changes, no extra lives. Imagine playing through a monotonous 10-minute level, then dying unexpectedly near the very end. Now imagine how annoying it is to play through the entire mission again, knowing how the game will unmercifully punish you for dying. Additionally, the cut scenes that precede every mission are unskippable. You can hit the "X" button and cancel out the dialogue, but the characters will still pantomime the entire scene. This means that every time you have to restart a mission, no matter what, you'll have to sit and watch the same five-minute cut scenes again and again.
Although Naruto: Uzumaki Chronicles does many things right, the semi-repetitive missions, frustrating save system, and lack of replay value won't impress the average, seasoned gamer. At a mere 10 hours of gameplay, there's no reason to revisit after the grand finale, so you're better off picking up a Naruto fighting game. Regardless, fans of the series will definitely appreciate the original story, fun combat, decent graphics, and accurate voice-acting that Uzumaki Chronicles has to offer. It's not perfect, but otaku everywhere can chalk up another success for the Naruto series. Believe it!
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