Genre: Role-Playing Game
Publisher: D3 Publisher
Developer: Tose Software
Release Date: October 23, 2007
Okay, it's time for a confession: I like Naruto. I watch the anime series on Toonami, and I make it a point to catch it every Saturday evening. I find the plotline interesting and diverse, the characters engaging, and the action to be enough to grab even the attention of a jaded fellow like me. It is my understanding that the various fighting titles on assorted systems have been rapidly improving, so when I saw Naruto: Path of the Ninja for the Nintendo DS, I decided to snag it and give it a test drive. After all, the NDS is a wonderful vehicle for role-playing games, and something based on this intellectual property couldn't be too bad, could it?
For the uninitiated, a bit of background: the main character in this series is Naruto Uzumake, a blonde-haired, orange jumpsuit-wearing ninja (yes, you read that right) from the Hidden Leaf Village. Some years ago, the village came under attack by a nine-tailed fox demon, and the only way to defeat that demon was to seal it inside the body of a newborn child. Naruto is that child, and the presence of the demon inside his body has caused him to be shunned and hated by his fellow villagers. As the plotline develops, Naruto gets it into his head to become a ninja, with the ultimate goal of becoming hokage (head of the village), so that people will begin to treat him with respect. After passing the ninja academy finals, Naruto is paired up with a strong-willed girl named Sakura and a dark, brooding young man named Sasuke. Naruto adores Sakura, Sakura adores Sasuke, Sasuke is indifferent toward Sakura, and Sakura and Sasuke both despise Naruto ... with predictable results. Naruto: Path of the Ninja starts us out just as the squad is forming, with their initial test from their teacher, the lackluster and seemingly lazy Kakashi.
There are several kinds of Naruto fans. Some, like me, have been fans of the series for some time; they appreciate the plotline as much as, if not more than, the action scenes and know a lot of the character background. It is a pity, then, that this game was obviously made more for the eight- to 12-year-old audience, who puts much more of an emphasis on fighting and flashy moves than on developing the characters. Truly, this can be called a role-playing game only in the most generous meaning of the word; dialogue is often forced and unpleasant, following the story of the actual anime in a very loose fashion. Naruto, played as a misunderstood but sympathetic character in the anime, comes off as a bit of a spoiled brat and jerk in the game, changing from a likeable underdog into someone you just want to shut up. Choices are few and far between, and some are often accidentally bypassed after the impatient player continues to press the A button to cycle through endless dialogue that does little to build up the characters. No, growing the characters' relationships with each other is the job of ramen noodles.
Yeah, you read that right. Characters' interactions with each other are improved only by having Naruto choose with whom he wants to eat ramen. Every so often, a new dish can become available, and if Naruto chooses the right ramen for his target, he can slightly improve his relationship with that person, resulting in additional attacks. So, here's a quiz, class: Which one of the following is the best of the three relationships? (A) Ewww, (B) Not good, (C) Annoying. What's that? You can't tell the difference? Neither will most players. After hours of playing this game and repeatedly making choices that just randomly happened to be good (no, there are no hints as to which character will like which ramen), I've noticed no improvements in my character's combat abilities. This little quirk to the game truly feels tacked-on, doing little to add to the game's complexity.
The audio/visual design to Naruto: Path of the Ninja is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the voice acting is surprisingly good for a title like this; it's obvious that voices from the anime were used in the game. Naruto sounds and looks like Naruto, Sasuke sounds and looks like Sasuke, and the animation is fairly fluid while in battle. Even when wandering around in town, those who have watched the show will readily recognize characters like the hokage, your sensei, and other members of Naruto's ninja class wandering around and going about their business.
Regrettably, combat is another matter. Characters utter one of a very small range of sound clips whenever their turn comes up, when they hit an enemy, are hit by an enemy, perform a jutsu, or when ... pretty much anything happens. I've never actually wanted a "mute" status ailment in a game before now. The combat music gets old very quickly, and sound effects often feel like they came off of the 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System; you'll want to play this one with the sound turned up for the voice acting, then turned down for everything else.
Challenge is offered in sudden, unexpected surges, such as the power level of your random encounters doubling from one screen to the next with no warning, and the occasional monster that needs to be killed in a different way. These would not be challenges if the player received any indication that something new was needed; the challenge comes not from the monsters, but from the lack of information the player receives. (Spoiler: Use jutsu [magic] on the centipedes!) Worse yet, in places where challenge really should be present, it is not; the second mission has the squad fighting a rogue tiger that's marauding through the woods, and I literally eliminated said tiger using nothing but the Fight command over and over again. On the other hand, there are facets of this game that make it incredibly easy, as well; monsters that steal from you will never run off, only too happy to allow you to beat the stuffing out of them and reclaim your lost goods. Mazes are mostly just paths with small detours, which almost invariably lead to liberally scattered treasure chests stuffed with endless restoration items and equipment.
Several of the gameplay elements that could and should have been very simple to incorporate into Path of the Ninja are missing. Naruto can walk only north and south, left and right; evidently, ninja training does not include the ability to walk in anything but the cardinal compass directions. This greatly extends your walking time in some cases, artificially adding volume to the title's total play time without adding depth of any kind.
An even greater affront comes in the fact that, while some jutsu simply work when cast, others require "hand signs." This is accomplished by rubbing your stylus up and down the screen as fast as you possibly can in an attempt to build up a "chakra meter" at the bottom of the screen. The higher your meter goes, the stronger your jutsu supposedly is, though I've noticed no effects other than a sore wrist, and I'm no slouch at reflex games. Even more of a slap in the face is the fact that improving your jutsu in this way uses more chakra points, causing you to sacrifice actual uses of the ability for no discernable benefit. Utilizing the stylus for anything other than those jutsu is an exercise in futility, as well; maneuvering Naruto's little strolls with it is painfully inaccurate, and you're better off just using the directional pad to choose options in combat.
All told, Naruto: Path of the Ninja is a disappointment for fans of the series. A story with as much depth and variety as Naruto should have been an epic role-playing game, but the end product with which we are presented is remedial and random, seeming very much as though the producers of this title were told to slap something together at the last minute, shove the Naruto characters into the game somewhere and get it to market in a hurry. Should this game be sent back to the academy? Believe it!
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