The Naruto series of games has had a pretty interesting pattern emerge on the portable consoles. Half of the games released on the Sony PSP and the Nintendo DS are adventure games that take players through some of the major events in the animated series. The other half of the games are fighting games, which take the available characters (depending on the story lines being covered) and pits them against each other in one-one-one or team-based battles. With the Naruto fan base as rabid as ever, both game types sell well enough that the strategy seems to be working. The tradition continues with the new series Naruto Shippuden, especially on the PSP, which received its first Naruto adventure game not too long ago. The time has come for the fighting game to arrive, and while Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 3 won't exactly win any new converts or be considered the best fighting game on the system, fans might be happy with what they see.
Like all of the Naruto Shippuden games before it, the plot for Ultimate Ninja Heroes 3 starts out at the beginning of the series. After Sasuke defeated him and left Leaf Village, Naruto Uzumaki dedicated himself to intense training sessions away from the village. Two and a half years later, he find himself returning to the village certainly much stronger than before, but not much wiser. His reunion with some of his old clan-mates is short lived, however, when word gets out that Gaara has been kidnapped by the Akatsuki organization. While Naruto's mission has always been to get Sasuke back to the side of good, his primary focus now is to rescue Gaara and defeat the Akatsuki.
The game features two main modes of play outside of your standard practice mode and collection screen. The Story mode is where players will spend a good amount of their time. You go through a number of big events of the story from the beginning of the new series to the Hidan and Kakuzu arc. A majority of the time, you'll be in control of Naruto, though there will be a few stages that require you to be teamed up with other fighters, like Rock Lee or Sakura, or you'll play as the secondary characters instead. As a bonus, the mode includes exclusive story arcs concerning the secrets hidden in a small village and Sasuke as he tries to hunt for Itachi. Through five story arcs that comprise about 10 hours of game time, the player can unlock new fighters for the game as well as new jutsus (special moves) for all of the fighters.
The ability to unlock more than 75 percent of the fighters and jutsus for the game is more than enough to justify the time most players will spend on Story mode. The problem is that Story mode isn't too enjoyable because of several different elements. For starters, there are plenty of cut scenes for which you need to hit the X button in order to get to the next piece of dialogue. This may be a normal thing for anime games, but a good amount of some story chapters consist of cut scenes. The extra story arc is a good idea since it tries to make the title feel different, so it is a shame that for all the hype around it, the new arc feels like underdeveloped filler instead of a complementary piece of the story. While the mode features a decent amount of fights, the rest of the levels aren't memorable for the right reasons.
The game takes a page out of the story levels in Super Smash Bros. Brawl by placing the fighting mechanics in a standard 2-D platforming environment. This may work well for the platforming aspects, but the combat doesn't seem to fit well. This is especially true of Naruto, who will send out a clone a few feet from him to do the hitting, so you have to push the attack button earlier than normal if you want to get in a successful first strike. It feels out of place, and when you discover that most of these levels have you running from one end to the other or just beating up a preset number of thugs, it can get pretty tedious pretty quickly. Add in the fact that the layouts for a decent amount of the levels seem to be recycled, and the Story mode becomes more of a chore than a pleasurable undertaking.
In Free Battle mod, the player can choose two-, three- or four-player fights to take place in any one of the available environments. After selecting any of the 64 available fighters in the game, you can select which jutsus each fighter will be equipped with as well as to which teams fighters will belong. The options for team combinations are fairly limitless, so you can create the traditional two-on-two battles but two-on-one, three-on-one or two-on-one-on-one fights aren't out of the realm of possibility, either. The fighting is the same as the games before it.
Button mashers can get a good handle on the battle thanks to the game's use of the single attack button to string together some nice combos, while those who know the intricacies of the fighting system will definitely be able to pull off more complicated maneuvers in battle. The ability to teleport in and out of backgrounds is still present, a technique rarely used in 2-D fighting games nowadays. It seems like the same formula used in the previous Naruto PSP fighting games.
However, the newer game has its own set of issues. The first is the AI behavior when the game isn't set to team play. For the most part, the game plays well with four fighters since everyone is already fighting simultaneously. Once someone gets eliminated, though, the player can then sit back in a different fighting plane and wait for someone else to get eliminated since the AI will focus on each other and not the player at this point. Also, a few of the dedicated players have reported that some fighters' old combos have been removed, throwing off the balance of the game.
Sadly, the multiplayer is severely limiting, a surprise considering a typical fighting game's desire to make that mode the most enjoyable. Like Free Battle mode, players can choose any of the 64 available characters to engage in two-, three- or four-player bouts as well as choose exactly which jutsus they'll carry into battle and what their handicap is. It is a lag-free experience, even when played will the full limit of four people, but it is also ad-hoc only. While most PSP gamers are used to this limitation by now, it would be nice to see more developers embrace infrastructure Wi-Fi play on their multiplayer PSP titles. The other limitation placed on the game is the use of team-based fighting. For some odd reason, even though teams are allowed on Free Battle, all of the multiplayer matches are restricted to being free-for-all affairs. It is a perplexing decision and one that makes the game feel quite slim if you're looking for variety outside of the normal battle scenarios.
The controls work well enough in most cases. Melee attacks are done with the Circle button, X makes the fighter jump, Square lets you use your projectile weapons, and Triangle lets you use a jutsu. The R button blocks attacks and performs a substitution move with the right timing, and the L button activates an awakening state that varies from being invaluable in tough situations to being meaningless, depending on your fighter. The controls are very responsive even in Story mode, where the misplaced gameplay mechanics may initially seem unresponsive. The combos are easy to execute, and getting the special jutsus activated doesn't take button-mashing to ensure it goes off when you want it to. For the game controls, there isn't anything in particular one can complain about.
The graphics for the game are quite decent. The environments look like they came straight out of the anime, with some nice subtle coloring in every element. The character models still sport cel-shading with heavy, thick lines, and the animations have retained the fluidity from previous entries. The game still runs well when four players are duking it out, and there is no hint of slowdown, even with multiple particle effects running.
However, the camera hurts the graphics. Even in one-on-one fights, the camera feels like it's placed far enough from the characters so that it's difficult to see any of the fighter details. It zooms back even further during four-player fights, but at least in both situations, it is easy to keep track of the action and everything else going on. The camera really becomes an enemy for the game during Story mode because it's placed so far away that you can see a good chunk of the environment but get a poor view of every enemy and player. It doesn't prevent the game from being functional, but it does ruin the enjoyment somewhat since you'll wish it would look better on a bigger screen.
If you've played any PSP Naruto game before, you pretty much know what to expect when it comes to the sound. The effects are fine, even if they're the exact same ones you've heard game after game. The music may be different, but it follows the same vibe as previous games. The prevailing order of the day is high-tempo beats with more emphasis on mid-range sounds over all else, and it fits well with the game, sounding much like what you would expect from the anime. The voices come from the original voice actors, so the inflections and mannerisms come out correctly. As expected, the game features both English and Japanese audio tracks, and both play flawlessly. As far as audio is concerned, the quality of the PSP Naruto games has been good since the first title, and it is good to know that the quality has remained consistent through every game on the system.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 3 might be the only fighting game based on the new series so far, but that doesn't automatically make it a recommended title for fans of the series. The flat story mode with dull platforming stages drag down the game, since this is the mode where the most time will be spent. You have more characters to choose from and the game supports four-player skirmishes, but some players may lament that the fighting system has become too simplified with fewer combos. The basic controls work out despite a few hitches, and the graphics and sound hold up as well as they did in earlier games. Overall, it's the casual fans and ones who are just getting into the animated series who will be the most satisfied with the game. Veterans of the series will be disappointed in the backward step in the core fighting engine. For everyone else with a slight interest in the franchise, this would be a great rental.
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