Like the previous Naruto titles before it, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm revolves around a young ninja in training, Naruto Uzumaki, who manages to be both more and less than he seems. Based on the popular anime series of the same name, the Naruto games feature characters, settings and key events from the TV show, as well as plenty of excellent fighting action, and this first foray into next-gen territory is no exception.
The game has two playable modes: Ultimate Mission is a free roaming, story-driven mission mode, set largely in Hidden Leaf Village. The setting has expanded since the last game to encompass a larger map area, and is full of interesting nooks and crannies to explore – both at ground level and from the rooftops. Despite its increased dimensions, the place still seems semi-deserted, with none of the hustle and bustle and background noise you’d expect in a place of its size. NPC interaction is minimal, and dialogue is text only.
Granted, Ultimate Mission mode is not the main draw card of Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm, but given that you must spend quite a bit of time in it to get your money's worth, surely it wouldn’t have been too difficult to breathe a little more life into the village?
No less than 100 missions await you in Ultimate Mission mode, following many key events from the first 130-odd episodes of the anime. In keeping with the Ultimate Ninja ethos many of the missions take the form of battles, but there are other types to provide a bit of variety. There are also a couple of mini-games thrown into the mix, however these quickly wear out their welcome once the repetition sets in. Some mundane missions – such as travelling a certain number of steps in the game - are achieved without any real effort on the player’s part, whereas others require the defeat of an opponent under specific battle conditions.
It can take several attempts to taste sweet victory, but once you become au fait with the controls it is easier to determine which method(s) of attack will produce the desired result. The boss battles are definitely the highlight of this mode, with powerful, gargantuan opponents that literally fill the entire screen. Sadly there’s only a handful of these, so make the most of ‘em!
Scrolls are awarded for successful missions; don’t expect them to just fall into your lap, however. Naruto must run around the village on a scroll hunt, sometimes shooting down airborne targets and performing well-timed acrobatics to retrieve them. When sufficient scrolls have been collected they can be traded for new jutsus for support characters (fellow ninjas who provide back up during battles). Completing missions in Ultimate Mission mode is the only way to unlock new moves and combatants, which may prove tiresome for gamers only interested in slugging it out, ‘ninja styles’… which leads us to the other section of the game.
Free Battle mode is really the heart and soul of Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm, and the place to go for those fast paced, exhilarating head-to-head fights. The new battle system, including new features such as Awakening Mode (basically a transformation power-up for combatants who have taken a bit of a pounding), plus the 3D setting and blisteringly fast action provide plenty of distraction from the fact that there are only 25 playable characters. Something more difficult to ignore is the distinct lack of online play; the fun factor would have increased tenfold if you had the option to throw down the gauntlet to gamers outside your own living room.
Chakra (energy - always in short supply) is used to enhance your attacks and moves; the more chakra used, the more profound an effect it has, whether it be launching yourself around the arena or using attacks - both basic and the more powerful jutsus.
It is particularly satisfying to execute a jutsu which your opponent has failed to block, and watch him or her fly through the air like a rag doll, to go down for the count. As with previous Naruto titles there are items and jutsus unique to each character, which brings an exciting lolly scramble of possibilities to each battle. You can also add up to two support characters to your team, and customise their jutsus (once you have unlocked them) to provide optimum offensive power against each opponent you face.
Fighting on walls is another cool feature found in Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm, allowing combatants to trade blows from what should be a physically impossible position… but the law of gravity only reasserts itself once one of the combatants is knocked down. The 3D aspect does take a little getting used to; initially it can be tricky judging distances and angles, but we soon learned to appreciate (and exploit) the extra dimension.
Unlike its predecessor there is no training mode, which means you will endure a few humiliating thrashings before coming to grips with the controls. Sure, most of the attacks involve variations on mashing the circle button, but a tutorial would have been beneficial for the uninitiated. One last gripe before we move on: the load screens for both modes, while fairly short in duration, are frequent and tend to interrupt the flow of play.
The cel-shaded 3D graphics look stunning on PS3, with the wow factor further enhanced when viewed in HD. In-game environments are rich and vibrant, animation flows swiftly and fluidly (the jutsus in particular are spectacular to behold), and those crisp, clean outlines reproduce the hand-drawn anime feel - even though we noticed jaggies aplenty. It looks so good in fact, that at times the line between game and anime becomes blurred; in this respect the developers have certainly done what they set out to do.
As you would expect, the visuals are accompanied by a first rate musical score, and voice talent – featuring actors from the TV show, is also of a very high standard. You can switch from English to Japanese speech, if you want an authentic Naruto experience (or a bit of a laugh).
While the game is not without its niggles, playing Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm on PS3 is like watching a slick, feature-length episode of the show… except you can directly influence the outcome. It’s probably a safe bet to say fans will find the most enjoyment (and a few plot/character-related nit-picks), but fight fans who enjoyed Naruto on PS2 will not be disappointed either.