Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release Date: September 4, 2007
I have an embarrassing revelation to make, and I should get it out of the way before I start the review proper, so here we go: I'm quite a Naruto fan. I know, I know. I should know better. I should be watching serious programs in order to maintain the façade that I'm a serious reviewer — perhaps something about nature or science. It's just that I'm a sucker for a good plot, good characters and characterizations, and a lot of well-done action. It's a shame, then, that Naruto: Uzumaki Chronicles 2 manages to get precisely none of these things right.
This game appears to take place during the massive filler arc that ended the first series of "Naruto," right after episode 140 or so, which finished the plot arc I will dub the "Retrieval arc" in order to avoid spoilers. While the game doesn't give much away in terms of prior plot, there are a few noticeable differences which may clue in eagle-eyed players to what happens in the Retrieval arc, so if you're new to Naruto, you may wish to avoid this. To be fair, whether you've never heard of Naruto or you've seen it all, you'll probably want to avoid this anyway.
Let's get the good things out of the way first. The graphics are about what you'd expect for a PS2 game released in Japan a fair while back, and despite its age, it doesn't look half-bad. This is due in no small part to the cel-shading, which adds a timeless quality. The U.S. voice cast from the series appears to be present and correct, which is certainly a plus for a fan of the English dub. In terms of the other audio, the music is fairly basic but likeable enough and in keeping with the series, while the sound effects department did a good job with the respective bam, kapow, slash and whoosh noises.
The presentation, then, is decent enough. The rest of this game is not.
Uzumaki Chronicles 2 revolves around two main concepts — punching people in the face and leveling up your characters. You go about these mainly through a 10-level long story mode, but you've also got the option of doing Missions — short, standalone quests that take anywhere between five and 10 minutes — and Survival, which seems poorly titled, as the player doesn't have to survive, but rather beat up every enemy within a time limit. The first problem is that the game is, by turns, ridiculously easy and insanely frustrating.
Most of this is due to the combat. It feels a lot like Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry, but dumbed down significantly. Each character you can control has a weak attack, a strong attack, a number of special moves and the ability to throw whatever item you've picked up. Rather than craft a neat combat system that rewards players for doing well, though, your success is largely determined by your level. There are a few tricks you can pull off, but by and large, if you're too weak, you'll die in seconds, and if you're too strong, you'll sit around taking next to no damage and killing enemies in a single punch. You may have noticed the omission of a block or dodge button in the description of the controls above, and this is entirely correct. If you want to dodge, you run around. If you want to block, you have to try and dodge instead. It's not so much of a bother when enemies are throwing things at you, but in any of the hard melee fights, the solution is either to stay alive using items or just die and level up a bit before coming back. It's a good thing that there aren't any hard fights unless you're doing Mission or Survival and taking on tasks far above your level.
The lack of block and dodge wouldn't necessarily be so bad if the camera weren't as nightmarish as it is. It's slow-moving and unwieldy, and while you can press in the right analog stick to reset it behind your character, this is no use whatsoever when trying to quickly see what's behind you or whether you have to jump out of the way of something. It gets even more annoying on the numerous jumping sections — usually requiring pixel-perfect precision — because you can't set it much higher or lower than it is, so you can't see how close you are to the drop in front of you. If you're too far away, you'll plummet when you jump, but if you're too close, you'll plummet before you can press the jump button. Such drops are rarely fatal, but this isn't much of a saving grace when you have to spend five minutes getting back up to a ledge. If you're in the middle of a fight, then you have the option to lock the camera onto enemies, but this in itself isn't overly helpful, if only because it seems utterly arbitrary which enemy it locks on to, and changing your target isn't nearly as easy as it should be. If you're up against time-limited bosses, then chances are you'll waste a lot of that time just trying to lock onto them.
Still, if you get bored of shunting the titular Naruto off ledges, then you can swap out to one of the other 10 or so characters. In the Story mode, the plot determines your teammates, but on Mission and Survival, you can take whomsoever you please. At first, this seems like a plus, but it quickly reveals itself to be almost utterly pointless. The characters control and play almost exactly the same, albeit with different special moves and combos, but with a combo system this poor, it makes little difference. The major bugbear with the different characters, though, is that you can't choose who your teammates are in Story mode. In every single mission, you have Naruto available, and two others decided by plot contrivances. This essentially makes using any character other than Naruto worthless, because if you use them, they'll get the experience points for fighting, but you may never see them again. Alternatively, if you keep using Naruto, then he'll quickly become strong enough to take on everything in the game by himself. There are very, very rare occasions when other characters are useful, but even in their basic state, they're generally good enough for what you need them to do. In an action game like this, the combat is the centerpiece, and for it to be done so badly condemns the game immediately — but it's not even close to the only problem the game has.
Survival mode in Uzumaki Chronicles 2 is reasonable enough in context, if only because it's based on straight-out combat without pretension, but Mission mode earns itself far more ire. There are around 50 missions in total, with more unlocking as you finish more of the Story mode and complete earlier missions, and they vary in objective. Generally speaking you have to go somewhere and beat up someone, but there is some variation. Occasionally, you're at long range with a near-unlimited supply of items to throw. Sometimes, you have to travel to a location and beat up a boss within a time limit. Sometimes, though, you get the absolute bane of all that is good and holy: escort missions and "treasure hunt" missions.
The former generally requires you to travel over the overland map, getting into random encounters every three steps or so, and defending a big cart. Forgetting for a second that the only game ever released that made escorting things fun was Resident Evil 4, these random encounters also pop up in Story mode. They're easy enough, but they take a while to load, and when they occur every couple of steps, the loading times alone mean you can easily waste five minutes on a mission that should really take no longer than two or three at best. Sometimes, though, the escort missions vary a little. One involves standing in a room and preventing monkeys from smashing crates by punching them in the face. Yes, there are several missions during which your primary objective is to hit monkeys. Uzumaki Chronicles 2 calls this "scolding" them. I have no objection to causing grievous bodily harm to any number of bandits and ninjas, but monkeys? Let's not forget the banal camera integration when you're trying to keep an eye on seven crates at once, either.
However, my real hatred for Mission mode lies within the treasure hunt missions. For these, you're required to scour a sprawling level for tiny, tiny items within a time limit. It's irritating enough when you fail a 10-minute mission when you missed one, but the developers took it a step further and made some of them brutally unfair. You see, one of the largest of these missions changes the properties of things a little. Previously, all of the low fences had gigantic invisible walls above them that you couldn't jump over, which is fair enough, because a lot of games do that. This particular mission removes those invisible walls from some of them, meaning that to explore the full level, you have to realize that the fences do not necessarily signify impassable barriers. Notice the words "some of them" in the previous sentence. If you want to explore the full level, you have to jump into almost every low fence you encounter on the off-chance that it's not going to block your path, since there might be a hidden item behind it.
Finally, there's the Naruto-ness of it all, and it even manages to fall down here. Having played through Uzumaki Chronicles 2, I suspect that the writers had vague descriptions of the characters and a rough plot of the series, and that was it. The number of inaccuracies, character personality changes and even plot contradictions to the main series are frankly ridiculous. The writing is stilted and hackneyed, the main plot is worse than most of the filler episodes and the entire game is full of bizarre oddities.
There's a lot more I could say about Naruto: Uzumaki Chronicles 2. I could discuss the stilted animation during cut scenes, or I could mention that it's got drop-in two-player support for Story mode and a few multiplayer options, but to be honest, if you ask your friends to play this with you, I'm not sure you'll have many friends left. I could even talk about the Story mode's laughable attempts at puzzles, which usually give you the answer as soon as you find them. It wouldn't make a difference, though. This game is pretty much a train wreck from start to finish, and the best you can say about it is that it nearly gets some things right. It's got nice presentation, a good menu interface and a few good ideas, but the execution is almost universally terrible. If you're a Naruto fan desperate for a fix, there are better Naruto games than Uzumaki Chronicles 2 on almost every system. If you're not, then the PS2 alone has more than enough games of this ilk to keep you occupied for some time. Stay away.
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