When it comes to multiplayer, just about every game based on the Naruto franchise has been an adversarial affair. Whether it's a fighting game or an adventure game, once a second player gets into the fray, it's always against player one. This isn't a bad thing, per se, but since the series has never been about Naruto himself but about the various squads from the various ninja villages, the lack of a cooperative multiplayer game is puzzling. Namco Bandai must have had the same train of thought, as it's done just that on the PSP. Naruto Shippuden: Kizuna Drive is an interesting experiment from the publisher, and while it isn't flawless, it is fun under the right conditions.
Unlike most of the Naruto games released on the PSP thus far, Kizuna Drive goes with an original story instead of following what has already been shown in the series. The Hidden Dream Village is relatively small and would be obscure if it weren't for the fact that it, like the Hidden Leaf Village, also has a tremendous beast sealed away. Because of this, both villages have had a peace pact with each other in hopes of keeping other nations from going to war to gain control of these beasts. One night, a ninja disguised as Naruto unleashed the power of the Nine-Tails Fox and decimated the town, causing the village ninja to seek revenge and declare war on the village. As the titular orange-clad ninja, your task is to clear your name, find out who was responsible for the attack, and stop him or her before war breaks loose.
The gameplay is a bit different from what you've seen in the series. Like the previous game, you're still viewing things from a third-person perspective, and the game is still a brawler, so you fight against gangs of bandits, rival ninja squads and wild animals. The big difference is that you're always accompanied by three other partners in every mission. They aren't just there for show, either, since each one is relegated to a special role for the team. Not only can they fight on their own, but they can also initiate team attacks for heavy damage. At the end of every mission, you also end up earning scrolls that help you beef up your character stats for the next mission. In short, this is a simplified version of Monster Hunter, only with Naruto characters.
From the first mission, you learn that Kizuna Drive is all about team play. You can take on everything yourself, but that only seems to work well against small mobs of enemies. Against bosses, teamwork is required, and it's here that you'll see the AI do a decent job. More often than not, they'll do a decent job and stun a few enemies in the process. They'll shout out hints during boss fights, but you'll also see them go after the boss, more in a distraction role than the one doling out the punishment. Even the healers in your team will revive you if you fall. Coupled with a team attack mode that deals a decent amount of damage to enemies, the team aspect is done well enough that it elevates the game from other entries in the series.
There are a few issues with the mode and the game, though some aren't really detrimental to gameplay. Like all of the games before it, this entry doesn't exactly have the deepest combo system. You might be able to mix up a few regular hits with a chakra move, but don't expect to pull off double-digit combos unless you're lucky enough to get them in a juggle position. Even though you'll travel from one area to another, it feels like some areas are recycled far too often in the campaign. It also doesn't help that some of the areas are small, making it more evident that environmental recycling is in effect. Aside from the bosses, don't expect much variety or strategy when fighting normal enemies. Finally, while it has become standard in similar games, end of level bonuses are completely random. This could be discouraging for some gamers who aren't used to that aspect yet.
Free Mission mode plays out independently of the main story. Each mission is separated into different letter ranks to determine difficulty, and the objectives range wildly from finding a rare healing mushroom to clearing out a forest of bandits. No matter the mission objective, they boil down to you roaming the area and clearing out enemies within a given time limit. Just like the Story mode, you can earn new scrolls by completing each mission to augment your team's abilities. This time around, you can also use any of the available series characters to form your team instead of going with the default characters. These missions are only available after you complete them in Story mode, so it'd be best to play through that first before tackling the Free Mission mode.
Your experience with Free Mission mode depends on how many human players are involved. If you're completely dependent on bots as your companions, you'll find that even the easiest missions are painful endeavors. The intelligence displayed by your AI companions in the Story mode is completely gone in Free Mission mode. Healers won't attempt to heal you as often. Your best attackers will barely lay a hand on the enemy. You'll see your teammates run into walls, run against chasms but not fall off, or simply lag behind while you go fight bosses or groups of enemies by yourself. While it gives you something else to do once the main story missions are complete, the ineptitude of your AI partners is enough to make you skip the mode altogether.
When you play Free Mission mode with real people, it's a complete joy. You can use bots to round out a full team if you don't have enough human players, but all of the issues plaguing single-player Free Mission mode are solved here. You won't see players barely try to attack opponents, run against walls or ignore your downed body. Well-coordinated teams could easily come up with bulletproof tactics and take down missions in all but the highest ranks, but the plethora of available missions ensures that it'll take some time before you exhaust every option. This is really the only way to experience Kizuna Drive, provided you have enough available players.
As good as the multiplayer is, it still suffers from one thing many PSP publishers refuse to do, and that's enable online play. It might have been acceptable for previous entries, but for something that's as involved as this, the chances are slim that you could consistently find three other people to take on these quests with you. Online play would have solved this issue, but without that, very few people will experience the game in the way that it's meant to be played.
The graphics are like a more stable version of what was seen in Naruto Shippuden: Legends - Akatsuki Rising. Like that title, Kizuna Drive still employs a bright color scheme but does so without the benefit of cel-shading. The animations look fine, though they have some strange transitions, and the particle effects still look decent. One very noticeable change is the frame rate, which is much more stable this time around. Even when you have a good number of characters on-screen, the frame rate remains stable with no hint of slowdown.
Another change on the graphics front has to do with the cut scenes, which are now a hybrid of still shots and full-blown animated sequences. At first glance, you'll see everything move on-screen, but once someone begins speaking, no mouth movements are seen. It's certainly better than character stills with text underneath, but considering that this is an original story, Naruto fans might be disappointed that the team didn't produce fully animated scenes similar to the movies and TV series.
Sound has always been a strong part for the series, but it seems to have been weakened this time around. The voice work is still top-notch, as both the Japanese and English voice actors reprise their roles for the game, and they all do a great job of channeling their characters. Fans won't need to worry about any of their favorites sounding flat or unintentionally bored. The music sounds fine, though it doesn't have the high-energy vibe of previous entries. It's not terrible, but you've certainly heard better. The fault is with the sound effects. Punches and impacts on human characters sound like they were recorded at a reduced volume. Other things, like the yelps of wolves and the footsteps in a river, sound completely off; in some cases, the effects even sound like something else entirely. They are bad enough that you might find yourself trying to mentally block them or turning down the volume so you won't have to hear them again.
Naruto Shippuden: Kizuna Drive is at its best when enjoyed with multiple people. Playing missions with a team that's totally in sync makes for some fun gameplay, and this is only helped by a combat system that feels faster than most Monster Hunter clones. However, as a solo game, the free missions are painful, as the CPU AI never feels intelligent enough to do anything unless you're babysitting it every step of the way. As with the rest of the games in the series, fans will have already purchased the title, but non-fans who crave a simpler game in this vein should try renting Kizuna Drive.
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