Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm has a very pretty loading screen. It’s a widescreen digital painting of Konoha village from a long way off, so you can see the whole skyline and the carvings in the mountainside behind it. In the foreground, the tall grass and wild flowers on the hillside are rendered in detail, and the whole works is neatly animated, so frogs and fireflies wander around in the grass while birds fly across the full moon up above.
Even the finest loading screen wears out its welcome after long enough. It would have been nice if Cyber Connect2 had been able to smooth out the memory management in this game just a touch. As it is, players have to admire that one loading screen much too often.
Load times aside, this is an entertaining romp as Naruto video games go. The Ultimate Ninja series has taken an interesting tack here – instead of spending all their efforts on making a denser, more detailed versus game, the developers have focused on building up the single-player adventure instead. There’s a whole lot of fighting in Ultimate Ninja Storm, but there’s exploration and communication and puzzle-solving too. While the new free-roaming game world isn’t as fleshed-out as it could be, it’s a sign of good things to come.
The centerpiece of Ultimate Ninja Storm is a detailed 3D version of Konoha village, the home base of our ninja heroes in the Naruto comics and TV cartoons. It’s a heck of a piece of modeling work, especially if you’re familiar enough with the series to pick out all the little details. The big landmarks are there, like the Ichiraku ramen shop, but so are less obvious locations – climb up on top of the village hospital, for example, and you can find the exact rooftop where Naruto fought Sasuke in episode 107.
In terms of scale and interactivity, it’s no Liberty City – it could stand to be fleshed out with a few more townspeople and different things to do. Still, it’s fun to wander around the village and find all the different extras hidden in dark, dusty corners. Running and jumping and climbing up walls eventually reveals new combat items, new support characters, and some fun side-quests to complete alongside the missions that re-create the story from the original comics.
Those missions span all five major arcs from the first half of the series, ending with the big confrontation between Sasuke and Naruto. The story doesn’t go beyond the “time skip” that recently hit the American version of the comics, but it covers just about everything else. There aren’t many gaps in the character lineup, either. A couple members of the Sound Four are missing (the villains from the “rescue Sasuke” storyline), and likewise a few of the supporting characters on the Konoha side (minor jonin like Asuma Sarutobi are off the list). Otherwise, anyone who was a major player in the story is probably playable here.
Flip Out, Kill People
For all there’s a lot to do besides just fighting, this is still a fighting game at heart. Most of the single-player missions have clear and simple victory conditions – face an opponent and beat them up.
Ultimate Ninja Storm doesn’t have a lot in common with a traditional 3D fighter, though. In some ways, it’s simpler than the average fighting game. Each character has a relatively short list of attacks and special ninjutsu moves. Even when you throw in the ability to call up other characters for support attacks (like in Marvel Vs. Capcom), there aren’t all that many options when it comes to direct offense. This is a 3D fighter in every sense of the term, though – you can run around the arenas in any direction and attack from almost any point, on the ground or in the air – which makes defense a lot more complicated than just holding down a block button.
As a two-player game, it isn’t as satisfying as Eighting’s Clash of Ninja games. Versus battles tend to break down into an endless stalemate of dodging and evasion, and since the free 3D movement requires a constantly shifting camera perspective, both players are probably going to wind up confused at best and motion-sick at worst.
Fighting the computer AI, though, is usually a good time. Special victory conditions and different combinations of characters mix up the story missions in some interesting ways, and Naruto Uzumaki isn’t always in the lead. He is the player’s character in the majority of the single-player campaign (he’s the hero of the story, after all), but several key missions and side-quests involve fighting as other characters. That goes a long way towards keeping the solo game from feeling too repetitive.
In The Next Chapter…
Players who came looking for a game like Clash of Ninja – a head-to-head fighter, good for talking smack on the couch with a bunch of friends – may find this one disappointing. The 3D modeling and animation look great, from the massive cinematic jutsu attacks to the smallest little tics of character animation, and hardcore Naruto fans will appreciate Namco Bandai’s decision to leave in the Japanese voice track, but the fighting system isn’t at its best when two human beings square off.
What it’s chosen to do, though, Ultimate Ninja Storm does fairly well, and another game along these lines should be a whole lot better. Expanding on the concept of a free-roaming Naruto adventure with more areas, more characters, and more kinds of missions could eventually add up to something genuinely special. They might want to cut down on the load times, too. Or at least come up with a few more pretty pictures to admire while we wait.
Article Written By: D. F. Smith