Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: October 30, 2007
Naruto: Rise of a Ninja has made its way to the 360 to give fans a chance to relive the early episodes of Naruto's training. If you're reading this review, then you're probably a curious fan who wants to read about what the game offers. If not, the game offers a whirlwind tour through the first 80 episodes of the anime series, encapsulated in a seven- or eight-hour fighting adventure. It covers Naruto's first steps in becoming a ninja, the lessons that he learns along the way with his friends and the climactic battle that will affirm his place among his peers. Bits and pieces of the actual anime, along with a few cinematics created for the title, tie all of this together. I haven't really kept up with the series and still understood what was going on, but the game shouldn't act as a substitute for the real thing. While the game offers plenty for would-be Hokages, players will need to deal with a few other challenges that lie outside of the gameplay.
Rise of a Ninja is a fighting game with an adventure element, similar in some ways to the quest mode in the most recent chapters of Namco's SoulCalibur or Midway's Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero. The talented developers at Ubisoft Montreal have recreated the world of Naruto in cel-shaded splendor, with detailed attention paid to the characters and to Naruto's home, Hidden Leaf Village, which is filled with a mix of feudal Japanese aesthetics and a few modern touches. Excellent voice acting and atmospheric music are courtesy of composer Inon Zur. Running around this virtual village will keep you busy, whether it's to help someone find a lost scarf, race through the streets in a contest, play hide and seek, deliver ramen noodles to customers, or move the story along by completing ninja missions. All of this is just as important to the gameplay as the fighting.
Naruto starts off with a simple health and chakra bar, which can be improved by earning training points, doing quests or completing ninja missions. Training points can be used to purchase upgrades, such as adding to his strength, learning new fighting combos or improving his jutsus — powerful ninja techniques that can give him a valuable fighting edge. By using the analogue stick controls starting with the L trigger, Naruto performs the hand signs he needs to unleash the jutsu powers. Different levels of power are available with improvements, and using these in combat adds a fresh and exciting dimension to the fighting formula. The enemy will try to use his jutsu powers against you, occasionally burning all of his chakra to perform killer moves that you may have a chance at dodging in order to shave off some of the titanic damage. Jutsus can also be used to break open sealed doors or stun lovesick villagers with a sexy illusion. Just trust me on that last one.
Finding and collecting coins allows you to purchase improvements, such as increasing Naruto's ramen-carrying capacity and allowing him to eat while adventuring to get his fighting spirit back into shape. Special coins can unlock special surprises in the game; an easily accessible inventory screen shows you what Naruto has on hand. Money is also just as important, allowing Naruto to stock up on ramen or to purchase special scrolls, which he can equip to add abilities such as increased strength, additional protection from enemy combos, etc.
Doing the odd job for the villagers will also help Naruto's popularity in the village. When you start out, everyone treats Naruto as a plague bearer, which he is, if you consider that he has a demon sealed within him. But he's got a good heart, and by helping villagers with quests and participating in special tasks, such as a race or delivering ramen, he can improve his standing in the community and unlock special bonuses at certain milestones. If you're an achievement nut, there are a few dedicated to helping Naruto be as popular as he can be.
You will also follow up on quests and missions that will take you into the countryside for plenty of platforming challenges. If you hate platforming games and picked up Naruto just for the fighting, you might want to think twice. If you like platformers and expect the kind of polish that you might have experienced with titles such as Tomb Raider: Legend or Prince and Persia, you're going to wish that Ubisoft Montreal had at least taken a few more cues from those titles. For example, falling into water damages Naruto every time because he apparently can't swim, but it seems as if someone just didn't want to put in a swimming animation — or because Naruto learns how to walk on water later in the game, which is equally weak.
Getting caught in a trap could get you juggled for even more damage, since there's no leeway when you get hurt. Some traps have the annoying tendency to damage you if you're simply near them, as if an invisible contact box somehow hits you even if you can see a gap between Naruto and the spiky wall he's facing. Naruto can hang from edges, but he can't shimmy over. A couple of missions assume the player knows where to go and leave no indicator on the mini-map, even when they are locations to which you've never been.
The camera is also another sore spot, but unfortunately, you'll need to deal with this for most of Rise of a Ninja. It can get caught up closed spaces, requires you to nurse it for most every angle to see where you're going, and you can't look straight up or down. Granted, not every camera in every game allows the player to actually perform the most simple of moves, but given how many vertical surfaces you can jump up on or drop down from, you'd think it would be a natural thing. Guess again.
One shining spot in all of this are the tree-jumping sequences that are exciting races through the branches as Naruto jumps from one to the next, gaining speed until the edges of the screen begin to blur and he's racing through the air like the wind. Indicators show where Naruto can land to jump next, and a simple tilt of the thumbstick can point him toward one of these when a trap is sprung ahead of him. If he misses a jump, all isn't lost as he tumbles through the air to the next branch — unless he flies into a tree or a large rock. When he falls all the way to the ground, he might face off against a fighter, or find himself confused if no one shows up.
Naruto's coming-of-age story is also filled with plenty of fighting, and that is where the engine excels. Don't expect it to be as deep as Street Fighter II or Virtua Fighter 5, but it captures the essence of the series in much the same way that the Hidden Leaf Village has its world. The 3D fighting engine will pit Naruto against bandits, enemy ninja, and even opposing students who are determined to stand in his way and push his skills to the limit as the story plays out like a fast-paced anime action piece. Battles occur within an arena, and the simple controls make it easy to command his combos, move him around and stay out of trouble as you try to keep Naruto alive through the fight.
His opponents have certain weaknesses that you can exploit, such as a vulnerability to aerial attacks or a series of uppercut punches that break down their defensive strategies. Naruto will be facing much harder opponents during his side-quests later in the story, especially when they begin tapping into their own jutsus more often. You can interrupt their concentration by throwing kunai knives from a distance or getting close enough for a knuckle sandwich. They'll be able to do the same to you, though, so it's a tactical battle in finding the right opening for that knockout punch or brutal jutsu surprise.
Naruto's rage mode eventually unlocks and can be triggered after he sustains a certain amount of damage. After an explosion of power, he becomes temporarily indestructible while he deals out even harder damage. If he gets KO'd in a fight, he'll be able to make use of memory clips, which are special memories that can reinspire him to get back onto his feet; during this time, you can regenerate his health and chakra by tapping the A button as quickly as possible before he's fully awakened. Although it might seem that this may make the fights a lot easier to get through, it doesn't, as later foes can trap Naruto in chains that can devastate his life bar, especially if you haven't upgraded it. Button mashers will not fare well later in the game, as the enemy begins using long sequences of combinations to tenderize Naruto, especially with the killer move jutsus that they love to use. Since there's no real counter system to break out of a combo once you get stuck on the receiving end of one, it's better to use every available skill to keep that from happening.
Once you're done saving the Hidden Leaf Village, or if you simply want to take a break from the game, you can always challenge the CPU to a tournament battle or go one-on-one to practice your skills and try out the feel of the different characters from the story. You can also go head-to-head with a friend on the console in classic two-player action, or take your skills on Xbox Live and match up with players elsewhere in regular or ranked matches. Going Live also has its own surprises, as there is no skill-balancing mechanic in place, nor is there a lobby system where you can see player ratings. This means that if you're just starting out, you may end up fighting against someone who lives, breathes and eats everything related to Naruto games.
Despite its issues, Naruto: Rise of a Ninja pays plenty of attention to the license on which it's based. The no-frills adventure portion of the title offers a twist on the exciting fighting formula, although the unpolished reliance on platforming might turn off players who are looking simply to crack some skulls as the orange-clad Hokage hopeful. Multiplayer extends the short story mode, both on Live and with a friend on an extra controller; if you simply want to duke it out and ignore the quest altogether, extras throughout the game provide plenty of things to do. Fans will definitely get a lot more mileage out of the title than someone who doesn't know the difference between Naruto and Dragon Ball Z. People who are curious to know more about the series might want to rent the DVDs instead.
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