About two years ago, Bandai Namco Games released Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm to PS3 owners everywhere. Taking what they had learned over the years with their PSP and PS2 games, developer CyberConnect2 crafted a game that was not only eagerly accepted within the fan base but also regarded by those who barely relate with the anime as one of the better licensed titles on the market. The adventure scenarios weren't drawn out, and the fighting system was simple but provided players with exciting bouts. Series fans were also pleased that the game covered the main story arc from beginning to end as opposed to drawing it out through several game iterations.
The development team decided that it was time to continue what they had started, this time using the new series as a basis for the game. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 brings back everything PS3 gamers loved about the original title, but this time, Xbox 360 players who had only been exposed to the Ubisoft offerings can join the action. Will the game remain fresh the second time around, or has the formula grown stale?
Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 features three different modes. The first mode is Free Battle, and those who have played the prequel know what to expect from the fighting system. This is a 3-D fighter with full movement in the environment (as opposed to movement on a 2-D plane), and the perspective is slightly skewed so that at least one fighter has his or her back to the screen. Every fighter has an unlimited arsenal of projectiles that do minimal damage as well as melee moves that can turn into strings of combos. Both moves can be powered up by your chakra and transformed into more devastating hits. Players also have access to items during the fight that act as extra weapons or give your fighter benefits, and you have up to two backup characters who can be used for special moves. Finally, there is only one round in any fight, and both fighters carry a multi-tiered energy meter, which is usually two or three layers deep and needs to be whittled away for a victory.
The basic fighting strategy from the prequel remains the same in this title. Close combat isn't going to be as prevalent as it is in other fighting games due to the ease of pulling off combos. To that end, most fights will start off with a bevy of projectile attacks and thrown items. Once fighting gets up close and personal, though, it becomes a tug-of-war due to the high combos and ability to teleport. The addition of support character combo moves and their special moves make the fights explosive. One big change to the fighting is the removal of button combination sequences when special moves are initiated. There is no longer a button battle to see whether or not an initiated special move will pull off full damage; fights may be quicker, but they lose the drama in the process.
The second mode is Ultimate Mission. In the Naruto Shippuden timeline, it covers the period from Naruto's homecoming to Hidden Leaf Village to the destruction of the village and Naruto's appearance as a sage. As before, Naruto takes on fights paramount to moving the story forward, and he'll also take on missions with other benefits, like more money or items. Some of the extra missions are nothing more than fetch quests while others, like the cursed doll quest, force you to take on every playable character in increasing difficulty to unlock another secret fighter.
Aside from the story, there are some big changes to the mode this time around. The biggest change is that Hidden Leaf Village is presented as a segmented town instead of an open world-like environment. The camera angle is fixed, so you only get one viewpoint of each section, and while it's easy to navigate, it also makes the village seem smaller than it is. Fortunately, the developers saw this limitation and presented the player with opportunities to visit the outskirts of the village, the Hidden Sand Village, and other villages and environments that previously served as fight backdrops. Missions are now gathered directly from people in buildings and on the street instead of relying on save points to begin and end missions. Saving has also been addressed, and while save points are still visible, the game performs autosaves after every big battle.
Another change has to do with battles, as damage taken from one fight carries over into another fight if no healing is done. As a result, shops are a more important resource now. The new additions certainly balance out the loss of roaming around Hidden Leaf Village. However, one change that hasn't been made has to do with the gallery features such as movies and music. Players must go into Ultimate Mission mode and then the pause menu to access them instead of simply accessing them from the title screen. If you just want to look at this material, these extra steps feel unnecessary.
The third major mode, and one that non-Xbox 360-owning fans have been requesting since the series began, is online multiplayer. Like Free Battle mode, this mode is limited to one-on-one fights, but it sports some nice features that other games fail to include. In particular, Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 lets you search for matches based on one of three different criteria. Players can search for opponents based on connection speed, similar ranking, or opponents who are ranked higher than they are. Each match gives players battle points if they win and takes them away if they lose, forming the basis for their ranking. Battle points are also taken away from players who commit multiple disconnects; it's a good punishment for those who try to obtain winning records by cheating. The online performance is perfect, as there is no hint of lag. Every control input is recognized instantly, so only those with horrible connections will experience any delays. Be warned, though, that the competition is tough, so those who are looking for a challenge will enjoy online play the most, especially if they feel that the CPU opponent is a pushover on the hardest difficulty level.
The controls remain unchanged from the previous title. Projectile attacks are still done with the X button, while the B button handles melee attacks. The Y button is used for chakra gathering and as a modifier in conjunction with either projectile or melee attacks for stringer attacks. Jumping is done with the A button, and the jumps are high and far, so the player feels that it's possible to dodge wide attacks. Blocking is handled by the left or right trigger, and it still requires a good amount of skill or lucky button spamming to teleport away from an attack. The timing window and frantic speed of the attacks makes it difficult to get the timing just right. Both the left and right bumpers are used to call on your assistants and, when the time is right, double as your way to initiate team moves or combos. As expected from a fighting game, the controls are fluid, and while the placement of both projectile and melee moves seems a bit off at first, players will quickly get used to it. One improvement is the removal of the right analog stick as the camera; it's unnecessary in battle since the camera tracks players well.
The graphical style that was impressive in the original game returns in Ultimate Ninja Storm 2, and it's practically the same. As far as characters are concerned, the game is presented in a cel-shaded manner that perfectly mimics the anime. Some parts of the character have some nice shadowing applied, and the look comes off perfectly. Unfortunately, the use of thin black lines to complete the shading effect is also back, and this results in plenty of jaggies for each character's outline and mouth. It can be distracting for players who are used to having some anti-aliasing in their games.
The particle effects, such as flames and gunpowder explosions, also take on the cel-shaded look, minus the black lines, and go perfectly with the look of the characters. The backgrounds also retain the anime appearance; they're static and look like paintings, so they're great for making the characters stand out in the game. Another side effect, though, is that it also helps make searchable objects stand out more because they look brighter than the static background.
Like the controls and graphics, the sound remains similar to the old game — and that's a good thing because it was one of the original title's strongest elements. The voices are presented in both Japanese and English, with the anime voice cast doing a terrific job of conveying their characters. The characters speak during just about every cut scene and only go silent during minor missions. The effects heard in every other Naruto game remain with no real changes. Every sound effect comes off nicely, and Dolby Digital is put to good use during the fights.
The real highlight of the sound comes from the musical score. The score is fully orchestrated, and while the scenes in the villages and the fights are reminiscent of what you'd hear in the TV series, the cut scenes have a score that conveys the emotion of the situation rather well, whether it's someone's death or the conclusion of an important fight. No anime game has done this before, and the score does a good job of pulling you into the story even if you have no prior background with the series.
Despite having a few differences from the original, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is just as good as the prequel. The fighting system is simple but still has a hint of strategy. While the pacing of Ultimate Mission mode has changed, the tale is still conveyed rather strongly. Both the graphics and sound are top-notch material, and with the addition of an online mode that features no lag, Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is easily the best Naruto game to date. Fans of the anime should definitely pick up this game. Action fans who have been wary about anime-based games will have their fears mostly calmed after giving this title a shot.
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