Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release Date: March 24, 2009
Like all good, long-running anime series, Naruto was due for a sequel. The original series had over 200 episodes produced during its initial run, but the story line had strayed far from the manga source material since around the time Sasuke left the village. With a backlog of material already created, it was time to continue the manga plot in animated form, and since the material had changed dramatically, a new series was deemed the best solution to this dilemma. With this change in mind, it would be inevitable that the merchandising, including video games, would follow suit. Ultimate Ninja 4: Naruto Shippuden is the first title to represent the new series, and while it is a solid entry in the game franchise, there are still a few issues that tarnish the game just a bit.
The game takes place 2.5 years after the Sasuke-Naruto battle in the original series. We find an older Naruto, who has been training with Jiraiya to become a stronger ninja. After all those years, Naruto still remembers the promise to find Sasuke, so he and the sensei return to the Hidden Leaf Village to find that everyone else has matured physically and in their roles within the clan. With the passage of time, an old enemy has grown in importance, as the clan's new objective is to stop the Akatsuki organization from achieving world domination.
Ultimate Ninja 4 contains three major game modes: Master, Hero and Free Battle. Master mode is where a bulk of the single-player game is located. Before delving into the first 17 episodes of the series, however, the game places the user in a completely original mode that tasks Naruto with saving a girl who is to sacrifice herself to a town's cave-dwelling demon. The mode mostly plays out like a typical 3-D platformer where Naruto would be collecting items, solving switch puzzles and jumping gaps to traverse rooms. Certain sections are spent gathering information from characters and shopping for items to help during the overall quest. When enemies are encountered, the game will switch between two different fighting styles. Most encounters are done in a group fighting mode, where Naruto will fight against multiple, weaker enemies. Other encounters, like boss encounters, take place in a one-on-one fighting scenario, complete with item and Ultimate Jutsu usage.
While the above sounds like the perfect mix for someone looking for combat and adventure in a Naruto game, not everything plays out well. The one-on-one fights are fine, but the group combat sessions are usually tedious. The game tends to automatically lock on to enemies during this time when attacking, While this solves the problem of being able to attack your enemy, it creates another problem of making it too easy to fight the enemy. During most fights, just hitting the Circle button repeatedly resulted in wins with little to no damage taken. These fights also bring up the issue of camera control because the camera does a poor job of turning around to follow the player. Gamers will often find themselves manipulating the right analog stick in order to keep up with the action and successfully jump the numerous gaps in the game. Finally, all of the fight transitions, both before and after a battle, require loading screens. This makes sense for one-on-one fights, but since group fights use the same viewpoint and engine as the majority of Master mode, it seems odd that they'd be needed. The load screens aren't long, but the sheer number can make them annoying.
Hero mode lets you relive the major events of the original series from the Chunin Exams to the Chasing Sasuke story arcs. While this mode consists mostly of cut scenes, there are a few important fights during this time period that you get to play using the series' tried-and-true fighting engine. The mode is nice, but there are two things about it that may bother some users. For one, everything in this mode is tied to the memories that you acquire in the Master mode, including battles and cut scenes. For item collection enthusiasts, this isn't that bad of a reward but for those who don't like collecting hidden objects in game levels, this mode will be limiting or nonexistent. The second gripe is that Naruto fans on the PS2 have already played through this material in three different games. Having it come back here with noticeable changes makes the mode feel like extra, unnecessary padding to the overall package.
Free Battle mode is the same fighting mode that was present in the previous versions of the game. The game features 3-D characters with a 3-D background presented in a 2-D manner. While both players have access to their basic attacks, they also have items like shuriken mines and smoke bombs, which can be used to help during battle with chakra boosts or take more energy from the enemy. Unlike most fighting games, the background becomes important because players can travel on top of tree branches or building overhangs. Depth is also important since fighters can also go in and out of background layers like the Fatal Fury gaming series of yesteryear. The Ultimate Jutsu moves are now dependent on what color your energy meter is and what state you are in. Pulling off an Ultimate Jutsu while your energy meter is green will be vastly different than pulling one off while the meter is yellow or when the character is in an awakened sate. Just like the previous games, once an Ultimate Jutsu is hit, both players will enter a Quick Time Event mini-game, where winning can determine whether the move goes through or is defeated. Just as in previous games, the fighting here is simple but deep enough so novices feel like they have a chance and experts can have fun as well. For those who are wondering about the rosters, there are 52 characters that blend those from the original series and the new series, making this the largest roster for a Naruto PS2 game yet.
Like the previous games, the controls here are excellent. The d-pad or left analog stick is used for character movement. The Circle button is used for all attacks, while the Triangle button is used for Ultimate Jutsus. The X button jumps, Square uses items, and the R2 and L2 buttons guard. For Master mode, the only other controls are for the camera, where the right analog stick controls camera movement and clicking R3 re-centers the camera behind the character. The controls are easy to remember and are very responsive, just like the older games. Because of this, fans of the series will feel right at home with Ultimate Ninja 4.
The graphics are good, though you can definitely tell that the limits of this engine on the PS2 have definitely been reached. Unlike the older titles, Ultimate Ninja 4 opts for emulating the anime in terms of look instead of the manga. The result is a cel-shaded look with more colors but thinner defining lines. The characters look great and move pretty fluidly, and the effects from smoke and special moves look good and animate pretty well. The environments look decent, though it's easy to tell that the Hidden Leaf Village definitely received the most attention to detail. As I said before, though, it looks like some tricks were needed to make sure that the engine doesn't get bogged down by the console. For one, the camera seems to be pulled back a bit further and is raised by default, which results in smaller character models and more of a focus on the ground and lower obstacles.
Even with this done, however, the player will still see instances of pop-up in larger environments, though this won't occur in the more confined environments. Also, because the defining lines are much thinner this time around, jaggies are much more pronounced on the character models. Again, it can't be helped considering the fact that the game is programmed for a nine-year-old machine, but the thinner lines aren't exactly helping this issue go away.
Gamers who have played the previous games in the series know that the sound for the series has been top-notch material, and this version is no exception. The sound effects are great, with each punch and ground pound providing just the right amount of bass and volume. The music, while not directly coming from the anime series, fits nicely and could be mistaken as something from the series to those who don't listen closely. Continuing the tradition from the previous games, the voices are available in both English and Japanese and are done by their respective voice actors. As a result, all of the voices not only sound authentic but are delivered exactly as one would expect.
What most players may not realize is that Ultimate Ninja 4: Naruto Shippuden was released in Japan about a year before the PS3 game Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm, which explains why you'll see a mix of stuff between the PS3 game and the previous entries in the PS2 line of games. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, though, since the old fighting engine is still a solid piece of work. While the graphics, sound and controls are still good, the Hero mode feels a bit weak, especially with its reliance on the old stories arcs that have been told several different times by now. Fans of the PS2 series and Naruto can feel safe in picking up Ultimate Ninja 4, since the base game is still a good overall experience. PS3 players, however, might want to hold off until the sequel to Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm appears with the Naruto Shippuden characters in tow.
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