Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3
Reviewed by William Mabin
Despite a rather wordy title, this Namco Bandai series of Naruto video games has been cited by critics as the leader in anime brawler video games more than once. The Manga comic, on which it is based, written and illustrated by Mashashi Kishimoto, also happens to be one of the best-selling series, selling about 126.5 million copies in Japan alone. If you’ve watched local television in South Africa lately, you will also see that re-runs of the also popular Dragon Ball Z, have been replaced by the televised anime series that is also based on the Manga. A question that jumps up, like a ninja wielding a throwing star, is whether such a game can possibly gain enough attention to make it successful in its own right. Naturally, the property’s owners are going to have more than their fair share of profit and it is the third game in the series that is based on exactly the same story as the first two. Will the deceptively cutesy ninja in the orange jumpsuit rise to the occasion, or will he be struck down and unable to find enough energy to continue the fight?
There are plenty of fighting games out there and there have been for a long time. A fascinating study for me is watching how Mortal Kombat’s storyline evolved over time, becoming less of an excuse for fatalities and a viable cinematic plot. Naruto, charged with over a decade of creative narrative hardly has to try to develop a new story. For those unfamiliar with the story I shall try and give a brief explanation. It is based in an alternative timeline that is neither quite now or then. 12 years ago a nine-tailed demon fox attacks the village of the Hidden Leaf. Fearless warriors called Kage manage to imprison the spirit of this monster inside the protagonist Naruto.
Meanwhile an evil clan of ninjas known as the Akatsuki seek to unleash the beast once more, along with several other similar monsters that also happen to be imprisoned inside people’s bodies. This clan of terrorist assassins is led by the formidable Madara who also wishes to corrupt Naruto’s best friend Susuke.
In typical tradition, this type of plot may seem strange to some members of western society. However, the story also seems cleverly crafted to include contemporary global problems such as imminent nuclear war, embodied by the many-tailed beasts. The five-Kage Summit which members of the ninja clans are meeting seems reminiscent of a global summit, or a major meeting by the UN. This type of analysis helps to show how relevant the story of Naruto is. The idea that one hero can champion a band of evil thugs and save the world is part of what has always made video games so great and Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 makes short work of drawing you in right from the start.
The game is split into two single player modes: Ultimate Challenge, or story mode and Free Challenge, or quick battle mode. In Ultimate Challenge mode you take control primarily of Naruto, briefly his ancestor the first Hokage and other characters. In between major battles you will navigate towns in third person, in which you can buy items, and complete simple side quests, that can feel a bit mundane and irrelevant, but help to draw you into being the character. At certain junctures you can choose to pursue Hero storylines or Legend storylines. Completing each one gives you a number of Hero or Legend points depending on what you choose.
This ability allows the player to decide what branch of the story he’ll follow. Items that you purchase or receive can be used when fighting enemies. Unfortunately, when fighting the game tends to focus around the use of one-button-at-a-time techniques, instead of having to combine different button combinations. For instance, X will throw a ninja star, B will heave melee combos and Y will charge your chakra, or ninja energy. You will also have the opportunity to enter a button entering mode where you have to hit the right button or button combo at a time. Fighting huge enemies involve dodging massive attacks and leaping from building to building in order to do so.
Overall fighting enemies requires you to be awake at all times, make use of different abilities such as summoning or growing larger and you have to know how your character works in order to use him effectively. The fighting mode contains a large array of characters that have interesting powers which generally make it a joy, except you feel like you should be doing more with your hands. There is also a more arcade ‘mob-fighting’ style that occurs during the story mode. In this the one button style starts to make a lot more sense, but there should’ve been better translation from this beat-em-up mode to the one-on-one fighting parts.
It’s been a while since I have been so awed by a video game’s graphics that is seeking to mimic the kind of masterful, theatrical anime that is available these days. The opening stages of Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 will blow your hair back if you are any type of fan of the genre. You can really appreciate the level of detail that goes into the character’s appearances and the effects used to show the force of their powers. Despite the fact that this has always really been the case in the Ultimate Ninja Storm series it has obviously only got better with the increasing technology of the time. My only criticism is that the gameplay is often interrupted by cutscenes, instead of allowing for more user-orientated control time. Then again, some of them are so epic in their entirety I almost don’t mind.
When it comes to sound: Sometimes in semi-cutscenes characters lip-synching is horribly off, probably due to dubbing issues and they do not always complete their sentences while you are running around town. Luckily doesn’t seem to happen during major cinematic moments and text boxes and subtitles fill you in anyway. The music and sound during cinematic and confrontational moments is superb and helps to make the story as immersive as the box advertises.
There are a variety of online modes to choose from including endless and tournament style play. Playing with a friend in your living room is also possible and this always receives high ratings from me. This is especially because there are lots of modes available such as team and tournament competition. The online play has been given a fair bit of attention, functions well and the availability of a lot of characters serve multiplayer well. Your player will be ranked according to your abilities in combat.
In a confrontation with the Rakage, overlord of ninjutsu, Naruto is told that he is a brat that knows nothing about the way that the world works and that the elimination of his friend is justifiable because the world needs it. The refusal of the Rakage to listen to Naruto’s emotional pleas for his friend’s life echoes the sentiment in the individual that perhaps one man cannot change events that are beyond his control. The idea that Naruto is a hero that can change global affairs because of his superpowers is perhaps one of the oldest hooks that has attracted do many people to the world of comics, animation and video games. Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 broadcasts Naruto’s quest to use his powers to suppress his own evil in order to help other people brilliantly. The anime styled art flows brilliantly and draws you into Naruto’s struggle.
The game features a huge array of characters and abilities and the ability to change the course of the story is a nice touch. It suffers severely because of the fighting dynamic in which different buttons aren’t assigned to different limbs and actions exclusively enough. This is an unfortunately critical blow to an otherwise masterfully created fighting game. The story stays faithful enough to the original manga and it is an overall beautiful experience to watch. Hopefully in Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 the fighting mechanics will get an upgrade because at the end of the day a lot hinges on its playable aspects. It is after all, not a film, but a video game.
Lasting Appeal: 7/10
Predominantly reviewed on the Xbox 360.