Naruto has become one of the more recent anime series that has taken the world by storm. The story of a young ninja in training (who has the spirit of a nine-tailed demon fox held prisoner in his body) has become a series so popular that it is close to rivaling Dragon Ball Z in terms of being a recognizable brand to both otaku (anime aficionados) and non-otaku alike. This kind of popularity doesn't go unnoticed, and it has brought about several different pieces of licensed merchandise to go along with it, including apparel, magazines trading cards, toys and video games to go along with the translated manga and anime. Bandai Namco Games and CyberConnect2 are no strangers to the Naruto universe, having created three of the fighting games on the PS2 alone. Now, with the popularity of the PS2 waning and the PS3 rising, the time has come for the series to transition to the current generation. Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm represents the first time the Naruto cast has hit the PS3. Was this the game that PS3 Naruto fans have been waiting for, or will they have to wait for the next title to get the perfect Naruto experience?
Ultimate Ninja Storm contains two main sections: Free Battle (against a second player or the CPU) and Ultimate Story. For those who have played previous Naruto games, whether they be on the PS2, Xbox 360, GameCube or Wii, the fighting in Free Battle mode is a bit different. Instead of 2-D fighting in a 3-D environment, the game takes on full 3-D fighting. This isn't limited to character models, however, since all characters can move all over the environment and, in some cases, fight on walls. Think of your standard third-person adventure game, and you'll have a good idea of what to expect here. That analogy also best describes the fighting perspective, since you'll have an angled view of the fight. Those familiar with another fighting game series, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi, will be right at home in this perspective.
Outside of the camera angle and the full use of a 3-D environment, the fighting mechanics borrow heavily from the previous PS2 titles. There are no rounds in each fight, and the energy meters are three-tiered. Fighters have backup items to help them during the fight and can sometimes call in support characters for special moves. The fighting system is simplified enough where one button throws projectiles while the other handles the basic fighting moves and some combos. Special moves are initiated by a button combination that's shared by all fighters, followed by a button sequence where the winner determines whether the special attack goes through or if it's nullified.
For those new to the game series, there is a big emphasis on distance fighting to wear someone down, followed by landing big combinations. It's not surprising to see a match start or end with both players jumping in the air and throwing a barrage of projectiles at each other. Fans of close fighting will rarely see it happen here, since opponents will likely try to distance themselves from each other with projectiles or support fighters. When the situation arises where two fighters get close to each other, the combinations are long, since one button usually governs the attacks. Double-digit combos are the norm here, especially since substitution jutsus (used to break away from a combo and appear behind the attacker) are much harder to pull off in this title. Despite the difficulty of pulling off substitutions and the limited amount of buttons used to attack, the fighting system is deep enough so you'll have to pay attention to character speed and movements if you want to clobber the opponent at higher difficulty levels. The controls are also responsive enough that the fighting is fun for both casual and serious fighting fans.
The second major mode in the game is Ultimate Mission. This is where the main adventure lies, covering most of the major events of the series from the beginning of Squad 7 to the loss of Sasuke to the other side. For the most part, you'll be wandering around town locating some of the townsfolk and some ninjas from the other squads in order to partake in side missions. Each side mission nets you rewards, experience and goods to trade with others. You'll need this experience to go on flashback missions, where you'll go through some of the bigger events the series has had. Most of the missions are fights just like you'll experience in Free Battle mode. The game will throw a few different events your way, such as trying to catch a character while jumping between tree branches or trying to race other members of your squad up a large tree, but for the most part, you'll be engaging in either one-on-one combat on your own or with some helper characters. One of the highlights comes in giant boss battles, where you'll usually be fighting off a giant monster using just your shurikens and fists. The bosses here follow a pattern just like bosses of old-school games, but because of their massive size as displayed on-screen, these fights are epic and truly show off the talent of the developers behind the game. After one fight, you'll see why these fights made up a significant part of the trailers for the game.
All of the features of Ultimate Mission mode aren't exactly good, however. When you first start up this mode, it isn't made clear that you always need to access a save point in order to take on missions. While completing missions will always give you chances to collect bonuses such as scrolls, treasures and mystery ingredients, but the scrolls change every single time you complete a mission. Worse yet, if you save a game without collecting the given scrolls in the village at the time, all of the scrolls will disappear when you go back to the game. This forces the players to go on collecting sprees for the scrolls every time they appear, since you'll lose them all if you go decide to do something else, making for a frustrating experience if you just want to safely save a game or go through a few missions first. Some of the collectibles you'll buy are pretty nice, but they can only be viewed by going into Ultimate Mission mode, which is pretty lame if all you want to do is view the figures or listen to the music. Finally, because of the nature of the flashbacks and story progression in this mode, only Naruto fans will understand the importance of each event. Since there is barely a narrative holding all of the missions together, people not familiar with the series or those just getting into it will either be completely lost or won't care enough when certain events in the game happen or when certain characters are referenced.
Ultimate Ninja Storm features some of the best graphics the game series has seen on any platform. Like the previous titles, the game goes for a look that mirrors the source material. This time around, they chose to go for the anime look as opposed the manga look of the PS2 titles. This move results in thinner lines for the cel-shading and brighter colors for all of the characters. It also results in more muted colors for the background, which works well in replicating the series. Unfortunately, this also results in one of the more noticeable flaws in this department. With the thinner lines for the characters and a lack of anti-aliasing, there are plenty of jaggies found in just about every character model and movable object in the game. In this era of HD, it's very sad to see a game like this suffering from something that was part of the SD era. Fortunately, the jaggies can be overlooked thanks to the particle effects of the moves and smooth animation for just about every move that the characters have. While you expect to see the smooth animation on the super moves, they're also present in the subtle movements everyone has. Make Naruto walk slowly, and you'll see that they make him sway his arms naturally as he strolls about town. Make him do some chakra-fueled running to see his jacket billow up as he zooms past villagers. It's very subtle, but it shows just how much care was taken with making the title look amazing in motion.
In case you are wondering, this is another PS3 title that takes up a significant amount of space on your HDD and a good amount of time to install it. The mandatory install takes around 13 minutes and will eat up about 4GB of space. As a result, the load times aren't very long. However, the load screens are very frequent, happening anytime you load between missions or between fights. If it's any consolation, the install screen features beautiful music playing, while load screens feature nice animated art of the Hidden Leaf Village.
The sound in Ultimate Ninja Storm is nothing short of phenomenal, thanks to the musical score and the voices. From the install screen to the final credit roll, the music is a good mix of soft instrumental melodies when you're in the village and hard fighting beats during the action sequences. This is the first Naruto game to have an orchestral score, and the quality certainly comes through. For comparison purposes, think of the music you hear during the TV series compared to what you hear during the movies (movie shorts excluded), and you'll have a fair idea of what kind of quality increase is being referred to here.
The voice work sounds exactly like the series, thanks in part to all of the voice actors reprising their roles for the game. While the bystanders don't have speaking parts (their lines are all text), all of the major characters from Sakura to Gaara to The Third Hokage are voiced by their proper actors. If you're not a big fan of the English from Viz Media as shown on Cartoon Network, take solace in the fact that the Japanese voices (and Japanese voice actors) are included here as well. As an added bonus, this is one of the few fighting games where you'll really notice the Dolby Digital sound working almost all of the time. Don't be surprised to hear sound effects coming from your rear speakers during any of your fights. About the only audio problems come from a bug. There have been times where the Ultimate Jutsu was performed as the final blow in the match. Depending on who's performing it, the sound of the ground getting hit repeated at a rapid pace throughout the winning cut scene until the load screen. Again, this didn't happen too often during the play tests, but it is something to note if you end up using the Ultimate Jutsu as your final move in a match.
Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm represents a good start for the series on the PS3. The graphics could be cleaned up a bit, but it's as close to a faithful anime reproduction as the system can get. The sound is great, and the controls are tight. While there are a few design decisions that are questionable, the overall revamp to the fighting system didn't end up hurting the game at all. Naruto fans on the PS3 can grab this title, knowing that they are getting a solid game for their favorite orange-clad hero. All others should rent it first to see if the overall fun of the fighting engine can overcome some of the quirks of the adventure.
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