By Jacob Mertens
If you haven’t heard of Naruto over the last several years, you may be living a sheltered life. The popular Japanese manga and anime series has permeated into Western culture, bringing with it Cartoon Network syndication, bound comic novels that strangle the aisles of Barnes and Noble, and video game adaptations both well crafted and hastily put together. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 follows in the footsteps of the well received Ninja Storm series, and takes on massive climatic battles the likes of which previous games could not hope to muster. And so, it would follow that this game would clearly be the best of the three, having all that momentum driving it forward. Unfortunately, the game has a few hang-ups that keep it from rising above the pack, but for the fan faithful it still delivers an enjoyable romp into Naruto’s world.
To begin with, Ninja Storm 3 looks amazing. The cel-shading gives the game a polished feel, and the animation sequences easily rival the anime. Meanwhile, the battle system allows smooth transitions in and out of cut scenes, and quick time events can, at times, rival the scale and urgency of the God of War series. This polish also extends to an easily accessible menu system, overhauled from the elegant simplicity of Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2. However, the game’s presentation suffers from an abundance of loading that weighs the progression of the game down. In one of the more ludicrous moments, Ninja Storm 3 slowly loads into a scene in which two lines are delivered, then loads out of it again. This may be understandable given how often the game’s story jumps from one location to another, but it still becomes terribly aggravating to play through.
"...for the Naruto faithful this game is as good as it gets, and compared to some of the dreck that other anime studios have pushed into the gaming world fans can do a lot worse."
The story itself picks up on the most recent anime arc, detailing the beginnings of a ninja war that spans the country. The titular character, Naruto Uzumaki, stands as one of the most powerful ninja involved in this war, having been the son of a former Hokage (something akin to a ninja king) and having inherited the powers of a mythical creature known as the Nine Tailed Fox. For those unfamiliar with the Japanese series, Ninja Storm 3 offers a very truncated retelling of events as the game installs. However, despite the developers attempts to keep the game friendly for the uninitiated, Ninja Storm 3 remains a title that Naruto fans alone should own. The game might prove passingly enjoyable for those just picking it up, thanks to a deceptively well made fighting system and a cacophony of outrageous, otherworldly action set pieces. However, the greatest moments of the game come from being able to relive events in Naruto’s story as an active participant. For those who enter Ninja Storm 3 knowing nothing of Naruto’s world, they will undoubtedly feel they are missing something vital for the experience.
Furthermore, gamers could digest the story by playing through the first two titles of the Ninja Storm series, but all three games rely on the anime and manga to fill in gaps of knowledge. Without the burden of a more detailed story, Ninja Storm can provide a tight, streamlined game that condenses all the greatest battles in the Naruto universe, harnessing a constant barrage of action. More importantly, the Ninja Storm series will, at times, take small moments in Naruto’s story and make them disproportionately epic. The best example in Ninja Storm 3 comes from Naruto’s struggle to control the Nine Tailed Beast that resides within him. In the anime and manga, this struggle passes by quickly, leading to an important reveal about Naruto’s parents. However, in the game, the battle of wills with the Nine Tailed Fox becomes a boss fight, and Naruto’s victory over the creature feels far more important for the time invested. Once again, the narrative impact of the moment is dependent on knowledge of the anime or manga, and together they provide a more complete understanding of the story.
In terms of gameplay, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 starts on shaky feet. The game opens with a prologue full of action, but does not properly re-introduce gamers to the mechanics of the fighting system before throwing them into the fray. In fact, Ninja Storm 3 floods the game with a series of useless tutorial windows, not bothering to remind gamers of the basic buttons used to fight enemies and to load chakra, which essentially comprises the game’s “magic” gauge. Meanwhile, a boss fight featuring a towering monster wreaking havoc on a small village lends Ninja Storm 3 a brilliant sense of scale that would make Godzilla fans proud. Unfortunately, this early battle is maligned by a camera that cannot quite follow the action.
As Ninja Storm 3 continues, these early issues become less and less pronounced. The fighting system features very little change from Ninja Storm 2, and all for the better because there was nothing wrong with it. Indeed, Ninja Storm’s fighting mechanic succeeds through its simplicity, affording the gamer no great catalog of combos to memorize, but instead alternating between physical attacks, magical attacks (known here as ninjitsu), and a plethora of in-game items ranging from electrified kunai to herbal pills that boost speed and defense. It may take a little time for a new player to pick up the basics, or for a returning player to jog his memory, but once these basics are learned the game really flies. On the other hand, issues with the camera occasionally rear up again, but for the most part it does not take too much away from the experience.
The new gaming component that really sells Ninja Storm 3 is the choice to alternate between different paths during major story events. During these moments, gamers face two opposing routes, that of “hero” or “legend”, and depending on which they take the ensuing match becomes more or less difficult. This addition works well for two reasons: it encourages gamers to play through Ninja Storm 3 again, simply to see how battles differ from each other, and each path levels up a corresponding Hero and Legend gauge that unlocks new items. This choice also reinforces the charm of the Naruto games, reinterpreting a well loved story while staying true to heart of their source material.
Sadly, Ninja Storm 3 suffers its greatest drawback by adhering to aspects of Naruto’s story it cannot change. The game must necessarily jump back and forth between a vast array of scenes and locations, following the rising climax of the overall Shippuden arc, and as a consequence the open world of the prior two games remains intact but utterly useless. Simply put, Ninja Storm 3 runs on rails worse than Final Fantasy 13, with the open world acting as little more than a bridge between battles and cutscenes. If the developers had found a way to better incorporate side quests, encouraging gamers to explore the world outside of major story events, then the title would clearly stand tall as the best Naruto game ever made. Instead, the game gives little to no incentive to forestall the next epic battle, and sacrifices the grand scale and depth of a truly developed open environment.
Ultimately though, and despite any shortcomings in the campaign mode, Ninja Storm 3 shows a lot of life with its multiplayer. After finishing the campaign and unlocking several characters in the process, the game bolsters a massive roster of bloodthirsty ninja for its PvP fighting engine. Gamers then have a choice between a local battle of wills or the staggering contests of strength and guile found online. Ninja Storm 3’s online matches avoid significant frame rate and lag issues and readily connect to new matches, while battles actually play better against other people than in the context of the game (and landing a particularly nasty piece of ninjutsu becomes much more satisfying). There is nothing terribly innovative about the fighting system, it is just simple and fun. Sometimes that is all a game needs to be.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 could have been great. It could have completely defied the expectations of an anime-inspired game and reached out to a broader audience. Instead, Ninja Storm 3 lives and dies with its anime and manga counterparts. And yet, for the Naruto faithful this game is as good as it gets, and compared to some of the dreck that other anime studios have pushed into the gaming world fans can do a lot worse. As for those unfamiliar with Naruto, do yourself a favor and save the money. Rent the game, buy a used copy after the price goes down, borrow a friend’s copy, whatever you like. Ninja Storm 3 can still be fun, but if you spend $60 you had better be invested in the story.
Release date : 2013-03-08
Publisher : BANDAI
Developer : CyberConnect2
Gameplay : Fighting & Wrestling
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