For those unfamiliar with the franchise, a young boy named Naruto lives in a world of ninjas, who are "extremely strong martial artists" rather than stealthy assassins. Naruto grew up as a shunned orphan because a terrible monster,the Nine-Tailed Fox, is housed within him. Using his skills and the power of the Fox, Naruto sets out to defeat evil and make friends. It's an average show that is well remembered for having a diverse, memorable cast of characters.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations is set close to the end of the series time line. It tells the story of an older Naruto battling against a bad guy named Pain and his attempts to rescue his friend Sasuke, who seemed to have gone down the path of evil. While this is probably incomprehensible to non-Naruto fans, longtime followers will be happy to know that this game includes 70+ characters from the entire run of the franchise, from early-show characters like Haku to late-generation characters like the aforementioned Pain.
One of the stumbling blocks to coming into Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations compared to an older Naruto game is the lack of a dedicated tutorial. It's pretty clear that the developers assume that anyone who is playing Generations is already familiar with the older games. If this is your first Naruto title, you might be a bit confused. At first blush, the combat system looks completely overwhelming. The various ninjas are teleporting, transforming and throwing around gigantic energy balls. Much like a novice watching a game of Super Smash Bros. Brawl or Final Fantasy Dissida, watching a match of Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations can make one's head spin. Fortunately, the gameplay mechanics are very simple.
You have a dedicated attack button, a "throw things" button, a chakra button and a jump/dodge button. Attacking is very easy to do, focusing primarily on which direction you're holding the analog stick and the timing of your button presses. Pressing the attack button over and over will result in a perfectly respectable combo. The throwing things button throws the character's ninja weapon, which is usually a shuriken, though some characters have other, unique weapons. Most function the same, offering a long-range alternate to regular punches. Dodging and dashing is pretty self-explanatory. The most interesting is chakra, which is the magical energy that Naruto ninjas use to fuel special abilities. Every character has a chakra bar to spend that amplifies their other moves. Use chakra and a regular attack to perform a move right out of the anime, such as Naruto's Rasengan. Chakra and the shuriken button combine to throw a larger and more deadly weapon. Chakra and the dodge button make it easier to catch up to an enemy.
This makes chakra management a big part of the game. You can recover chakra by standing still and charging up, but for obvious reasons, it's not something you can do for long. Spend chakra on a bad move, and you might not have the ninja energy to use a Chidori on a vulnerable enemy. It maintains the fast-paced and energetic combat because you can't really afford to slow down. Even if you're playing keep-away, an enemy can use a chakra dash to get close and punch you in the face. It's rare that your attack is meaningless because you could be tricked into wasting a chakra bar on an enemy who avoided your attack.
The other, and far more important, technique is substitution, which is the ninja art of vanishing and tricking your opponent into attacking somewhere else. In-game, this is represented by a character teleporting away from an enemy attack and leaving behind an object (usually a log). Substitution can be used at pretty much any time when you're being attacked and allows you to instantly go from the defensive to the offensive, attacking an enemy from behind while he's attacking you. You can even chain substitutions, turning combos into repeated feints to get the enemy off balance. The trick is that substitutions use up a dedicated substitution bar. You only have a handful at a time, and while the bar gradually refills, you're at a massive disadvantage without a substitution. Most of the battle is focused on getting the enemy to waste his substitutions.
Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations also includes Awakenings, which is a "comeback" mechanic. They're basically used to represent the various special transformations that characters can undergo, such as Naruto's "Nine Tailed Fox" transformation or Hinata using her Lion-Palm technique. When you're low on health, you can charge up your chakra to enter a transformed state. While in this state, you are much more powerful and often gain access to new moves. Naruto's Nine-Tailed Fox mode changes his regular moves into fast claws or deadly energy blasts. The Awakenings only last a short time but can pretty easily turn the tide of a match. Characters also gain access to up to two support characters that can use various special battle moves, ranging from a defensive shield to a paralyzing dust to a massive explosion. Like everything else, they're limited in use, so you have to manage them to use them effectively.
Naruto battles tend to be less about who can pull off the best special moves and more about who has a better grasp of positioning and meter management. While the game boasts 70+ characters, there isn't much difference between them. There are differences in playing style, but it is relatively easy to go from playing one character to another. Victory depends on you managing chakra and substitutions well enough to pull off the necessary moves. If you can control the pace of battle, you're assured a win against powerful opponents. It may sound simplistic, but it allows for exciting, fast-paced gameplay. With so little focus on the complexities of special moves, it is easy to focus on the battles. A good match is lightning-quick, with characters teleporting, throwing special moves, substituting and acting like fast-paced anime ninjas.
There's quite a bit of available gameplay in Generations. There are multiple story modes dedicated to the various characters both old and new, covering both the original Naruto series and its sequel Shippuden. The story modes tend to be simplistic overviews of a character's plot with a few handicaps for good pleasure. For example, Naruto spends most of his plot unable to use Awakenings because the cartoon's story line says that he has no control over it and shouldn't use it. Sometimes these limitations feel rather arbitrary, but most of the time, they are focused on keeping things accurate to the show. There's nothing here to help newcomers understand the Naruto franchise, but non-Naruto fans wouldn't have much reason to play the game anyway.
There are also various types of online battle modes. Most are the usual player-versus-player combat that you'd expect from a fighting game. The most noteworthy is probably the Ninja Info Card mode, which allows players to customize their fighter with special attributes to create a faux trading card to use before a match. The winner of the trading card battle wins match boosts. You can even use real-life trading cards to get boosts; it's a neat idea, but the reliance on physical cards to power up your video game character might be a bit frustrating. Fortunately, the Ninja Info Card battles are only a part of the online mode, and regular fights can occur without the cards.
There are also a ton of unlockables, both good and ill. There are special animated sequences that never appeared in the television show, allowing players to see fully animated versions of stuff that never appeared on-screen, as well as pieces of artwork, music, and different things to use as a substitution item (aside from a log). On the downside, a huge percentage of the game's cast is unlockable. You have about one-tenth of the available cast at the start of the game, and the others must be unlocked. It's annoying to see an interesting character and have to figure out how to make him or her playable, especially since there doesn't always seem to be a direct connection.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations does a fantastic job of capturing the feel of the animated show. The character animations are bright, crisp, colorful and incredibly smooth. They're good enough that one could almost be forgiven for mistaking a battle for one of the animated show's actual fights. They're a bit simplistic in places, but never in a bad way. They're almost entirely dedicated to mimicking the feel of the show wherever possible. There's a lot of cast overlap, with multiple versions of most characters from different points in the series timeline, but it's a minor problem and fans will probably be happy for the chance to use their favorite version of Naruto. The voice work uses characters from the original show and allows players to pick Japanese or English voices, so everyone can have their favorite actor voicing their favorite character.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations is clearly a game for fans. It is packed to the brim with fan service and references that only Naruto die-hards will understand. Surprisingly, it's quite an excellent licensed title. You lose a lot of the impact if you can't tell Sasuke from Kakashi, but the game is easy to pick up and play. It's probably not worth purchasing if you aren't a Naruto fan, but it's a strong enough game that you can play it with friends who could care less about neon-orange ninjas. As long as you're one of the franchise's faithful, there's a lot to like here among the plethora of unlockables, an in-depth story mode, and solid online play.
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