Genre: Open World/3D Fighter
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Release Date: October 2007
There was once no greater a dire sentence to offer a games writer than "cover a Naruto game." They were almost universally decent, workmanlike fighters, with some of the portable titles skewing into the truly dire range. They lacked depth, and beyond listing out which characters were playable and which weren't, there was really not much to be said about them (let alone the 500-1,000 words most employers expect). It would be fine if you could turn in a character list, collect your paycheck, and go home, but generally speaking, publishers do not want you to do that. This leaves you with the monstrous problem of how to make a Naruto game sound remotely interesting to someone who isn't going to buy it out of blind fan loyalty.
Mercifully, Naruto: Rise of a Ninja is being developed not by Japanese shovelware programmers working to the crack of Tomy or Bandai's whip, but by the talented hands at Ubisoft Montreal. You would not expect the developers of games like Splinter Cell and Far Cry to be tasked with an anime license, but it's a good thing for everyone that things have happened this way. The result is a game with far deeper and more nuanced gameplay than any previous title bearing the Naruto name. In particular, Rise of a Ninja reflects aspects of the core Naruto plotline that have been entirely ignored by virtually every previous Naruto offering.
Most people who know anything about Naruto think of it primarily as a story about ninjas beating the snot out of each other, and this is basically true of the bulk of the series. It's often forgotten, though, that Naruto began as a far less violent and more comedic coming-of-age story, about an outcast boy named Naruto Uzumaki who desperately wanted his fellow villagers to like him. The way you get respect in Naruto's world is to become a great ninja warrior, so Naruto optimistically vows to become the greatest ninja in Konoha Village (also called the Hokage). Even if you can't get in to the posing and strutting and massive exposition about chakras, there's something about Naruto's desperate struggle to make others like him that is universal. Ubisoft Montreal has wisely picked this aspect of the story as the spine of Rise of a Ninja's gameplay.
You begin as Naruto, in Konoha Village where everyone hates you (as indicated by frowny faces above their heads). If you pass by them, they'll begin berating you and threatening to beat the crap out of you. This is not a desirable state of affairs, and it's up to you to become enough of a ninja to change it. To make the townspeople hate you less, you need to train your skills with teachers like Kakashi and Iruka, and then take missions from needy villagers. They can range from finding kids playing hide-and-seek to delivering ramen to an increasingly difficult-to-reach series of people.
Because Konoha is a village full of ninja, you need a lot of ninja movement skills like super leaping and running up walls in order to find all of the townspeople who might be involved in a given mission. Imagine if leaping up buildings in Crackdown had yielded up whole new levels of the city instead of just another chance to find a stat boost. When you fulfill people's requests, their anger at Naruto begins to change toward a more pleasant disposition (indicated by a smiley face). Naruto will be able to speak with them, and possibly get more missions or assistance. If you make it far enough in the game, you can make every citizen of Konoha friendly toward Naruto. That's arguably the goal of the game.
The way Rise of a Ninja handles combat may be slightly disappointing to you, depending on your feelings about 3D fighting games. While you explore Konoha in an open world engine, combat involved entering another game entirely. Battles in Rise of a Ninja take place a 3D fighter comparable to D3's Naruto: Clash of Ninja games, but with a far deeper approach to using super moves. Essentially, fighting an enemy takes you into an entirely different game engine. While the look of the graphics remains consistent in the 3D fighter and the way skills are used remains mostly the same, it's otherwise like playing a separate game within the game. The best analogy would be the driving and shooting sequences in your average Grand Theft Auto, which use different control schemes than the main game. Rise of a Ninja also honors the peculiar genre rules of your Shounen Jump fighting epic by creating fights that take place in flat, Namco-esque arenas where terrain features aren't likely to play a large role in combat. That is, generally, how Naruto battles operate.
For the most part, the fighting game engine works about the way you think it would. There are buttons for punching, kicking, and shuriken attacks, along with a block button. Well-timed blocks let you use a substitution jutsu: Your opponent ends up attacking a log while you get to approach them from behind. You can leap in the air to add jumping attacks and dodges to your arsenal of moves. As your chakra meter builds up, you can make use of your character's personal jutsu. This involves using both analog sticks to enter one set of "motions" simultaneously, and then another.
The motions are arrows corresponding to the four cardinal directions, so you're not inputing anything more complex than perhaps "up + right, down + left." While activating your jutsu, your character is vulnerable to attack, and you must enter the motions precisely in order to get the benefit of your jutsu. On the upside, your enemy really isn't in a position to entirely dodge or avoid a jutsu once you've used it, at least not without playing a mini-game designed to determine how much damage a particular technique does.
The jutsu used as an example was Neji's Sixty-Four Claw. When activated, the opponent immediately enters a mini-game where they can move their body around the screen to dodge, while the attacker controls Neji's hands. The goal for Neji is to strike as many of the opponent's chakra points as possible, which multiplies the total possible damage for the jutsu. The defender can minimize and perhaps entirely negate damage by keeping their chakra centers (glowing points on their torso) away from Neji's strikes.
Every character has roughly four jutsu, and some are much harder to input correctly than others. Naruto's, for instance, are fairly challenging. The Sixty-Four Claw is generally used as an example simply because it's easy to input properly. So while jutsu are essentially unavoidable once input and the mini-game started, a character trying to input jutsu is incredibly vulnerable. This, in theory, balances the combat, but also seems to open up the possibility of either particular character jutsu becoming overpowered, or players simply avoiding jutsu in competitive combat because they're not worth the vulnerability required to use them. Only time and the inevitable stress-testing of the online multiplayer that Rise of a Ninja supports will tell.
The world of Naruto: Rise of a Ninja, both in and out of combat, is cel-shaded and brightly colored. This is clearly meant to make sure the game properly evokes the style and look of the anime, although in practice Rise of a Ninja is frequently brighter and far more smoothly animated than the source material. Right now, Ubisoft is promising to make every major character from the first 80 episodes playable, as well as full Japanese and English voice tracks (despite the fact that Rise of a Ninja releases in the US before it does in Japan). In addition to the online multiplayer, Naruto: Rise of a Ninja is also set to support downloadable content. While what the content is hasn't been finalized, the developers expect it will come in the form of additional playable characters. Beyond voice tracks, sound is thus far not a major component of Rise of a Ninja's gameplay, but it does seem to be using the original Japanese opening song at the very least. So despite being based directly on the dubbed version of "Naruto," Rise of a Ninja may yet have some goodies in it for sub purists. Overall, the aesthetic experience is shaping up to be lush and authentic, claims that other Naruto titles frequently can't make.
The ultimate test of a licensed game is to see if I can present gameplay that feels compelling to someone who feels neutrally about the license. Naruto: Rise of a Ninja stands a good chance of doing that, if players accustomed to sandbox-type games can accept the 3D fighter-style combat system. At the very least, Rise of a Ninja fills a niche other Naruto games don't, by working hard to adapt a lot of the humor and other non-combat elements inherent in the original storyline. It feels more like playing the show than just playing a generic title with the Naruto license slapped on. If the 3D fighter aspect is up to snuff, then it's sure to be a worthy purchase for 360 owners when it streets this fall.
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