I pity the unwary gamer who picks up Naruto: Uzumaki Chronicles drawn solely by the lure of ninjas. The main character is, after all, not some shadowy black clad assassin, but a preteen boy in an orange hoodie with a somewhat grating voice and an attitude to match. While there are ninjas aplenty, they draw not upon the traditional image of stealthy assassins, but rather from the ninja mythology created in the Japanese anime/manga series Naruto.
N:UC assumes previous knowledge of the original work, to the extent that it's confusing, if not downright impenetrable to the uninitiated. What is a Hokage? Why is one of my ninja's powers the ability to turn into a semi-naked woman? Eight trigrams 64 what?
However, if you're an prior Naruto fan, however, you'll be pleased to know that a large number of your favourite ninjas and favourite ninja jutsu are included in this game. The use of the voice actors from the TV show help the experience feel immersive and make the game feel like a valid extension of the world created in the anime. The game does suffer at times from some awkward English phrasing, though no translations seem downright wrong or too ridiculous.
A lot of terms are left untranslated though, which, depending on your perspective, either enriches the experience or is a result of lazy localisation. Either way, you should go into this game knowing your Sensei from your Genin. It would be ideal to go into this game having seen at least the first 20 or so episodes of the anime, as the game appears to be set sometime around the Chuunin exam story arc.
The game is split up into missions, with only a few of them being compulsory to complete the game and the rest essentially excuses to put Naruto into battle. No matter how quirky the mission descriptions can be (one mission involves fighting monkeys in order to take back a man's gambling equipment, for example), the non-essential missions boil down to random battles with grunts, and while they increase the length of the game, they also increase the tedium.
Luckily, the controls for N:UC are assured and intuitive, allowing you to easily unleash various ninja powers at the touch of a button and enabling you to mow through packs of no-name ninjas (or monkeys). The skills, including the Clone jutsu, the Sexy jutsu, the Substitution jutsu and the Power Strike are all well implemented and easy to use during combat. Naruto powers up into his Nine Tailed Fox mode when a combo gauge is filled, is perhaps overpowered, but the boss fights can be challenging enough to require that. The moves are all introduced at the start via a rather hefty tutorial section, which can also be accessed from the main menu. Having virtually all of the abilities unlocked at the start instead of working to unlock and upgrade them removes some of the incentive to keep playing and level up, however.
While the fights can be fought well, there isn't much point. As mentioned before, the random battles are all against very generic, boring enemy ninjas. The AI controlling these is poor to the point where the enemy will quite often stand still and stare at you instead of fighting. The fun in the fights is instead with the boss fights against the other characters. Here they show off their signature moves, which look good and are adapted well into video game form. It's also possible to create a party and take control of the other characters. This occurs in a tag-team format, with the L2 button switching in the alternative character. Given the scarcity of healing items, it's probably for the best that each character has a time gauge for how long he can remain in combat rather than an HP meter. Being able to fight alongside a teammate would have been better, but there's nothing intrinsically wrong with the existing method. A two-player fight mode would have been a fun inclusion, but is only slated to be included in the sequel.
N:UC goes the Kingdom Hearts route of having the enemies burst into brightly coloured balls upon death. "Virtue" balls are dropped, which are part of a rather unique levelling up system. Virtue is used to buy pieces which enable stats upgrades, and those pieces are fitted, puzzle-like, onto a board in order to be activated. Upon filling the board completely, a bonus is obtained, and different boards can be won through completing different missions. This forces the player to play more strategically, and for RPG players who love tweaking character stats it should add an extra dimension to the game.
Despite being called an action RPG, apart from the fighting style there is little action about it. Everything takes place within tiny combat environments, cut scenes or on the world map, and none of these encourage any sort of exploration. The game was first released in Japan in 2005 and it shows. The combat arenas are mostly drab, grey-green slightly blocky forests and grasslands that look more like they were inspired by an FPS than a vibrantly coloured anime.
Unlike the fellow PS2 Naruto game Naruto: Ultimate Ninja, N:UC is not cel-shaded, and thus visually it appears out of place when compared to the rest of the franchise. For a game that relies so heavily on cut scenes, the cut scenes are awkwardly animated, with stiff movements and sharp edges everywhere. The varying levels of voice acting can also get irritating after playing for too long. As a slight aside, it's interesting to note that Naruto swings his arms when he runs in battle, but has them stuck out like in the anime in the cut scenes. The world map is nice, but hardly a pinnacle of design.
The soundscape of the game lacks the signature sound of Toshiro Masuda, the composer for the anime. The generic oriental background music is acceptable, but means the game lacks the aural punch of the TV show. The lack of the catchy Japanese pop-rock tunes from the anime may also be a disappointment to fans.
N:UC is a game targetted purely at fans of the existing franchise. While the game has many faults and many aspects which could have been improved, it offers a reasonably entertaining and immersive extension to the world of Naruto. The game's main strength is in the appearances of characters that fans know and love, and the way the game, for the most part, feels like it's part of the franchise. The RPG elements are generally well handled, despite the fact that the action aspect is lacking in certain parts. Provided you have completed all the missions though, N:UC has almost zero replay value, due to unskippable cut scenes, little interactivity and repetitive gameplay.
For a while, the Naruto TV show went through a phase of playing endless "monster-of-the-week" type filler episodes where the characters never developed and nothing ever really changed, in order to allow the original author to catch up and write more plot to animate. In a similar way, N:UC is unsatisfying. N:UC is an action RPG that is both a halfhearted action game and to a lesser extent a halfhearted RPG, and the two halves do not make a whole. Overall as a game it is neither truly excellent nor godawful, and thus the deciding factor on the amount enjoyment you'll take from it is whether you love the franchise and the characters enough to play interactive filler material.