October 22, 2010
When I played the last Naruto title, early in 2009, I was more than surprised by the quality on offer in terms of action and the storyline. So much so, that I went out and started to watch the manga series that it had been based on. Talk about a sudden conversion. With the 360 having missed out on the last title, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is the latest update in the series and introduces us to Naruto and friends a few years down the path of life. Can the series continue to offer the same blend of high octane combat, lush visuals and intriguing story development – or is it time for us to go flooding back to Astro Boy?
Considering how popular the series has become, Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 was never going to be a hard sell to the die-hard fans, but it is nice to see just how much effort has gone into making it so accessible for newcomers. At the most basic level, it’s a straight-up fighting game, but the expansive adventure mode almost fools you into thinking otherwise thanks to a lengthy array of missions, battles and general exploration. Simply put, this is no ordinary fighter.
The main stumbling point for most players will be just how much of the Naruto story they are familiar with, as the game follows the Shippuden arc which sees our heroes returning a little older, stronger and wiser. Well, some of them are wiser – Naruto himself still craves ramen first and foremost. The main focus, as you would expect, is on Naruto and his former comrade Sasuke as they seek to gain power in their own unique style. The game tries to fill in some of the blanks with flashback scenes and viewable memory crystals of the original story, but it does not totally fill in the blanks. This can leave newcomers a bit in the dark when it comes to following all of the characters and their relationships with one another, although if you stick with it, the events will start to flow together coherently and you’ll genuinely care about the outcome.
The second you start the game you’ll be struck by just how beautiful it looks. The cel-shaded visuals are truly special, and really make the whole experience feel like one long episode of the show. There are a few jagged edges here and there, and the lip syncing can be a touch off at times, but on the whole, this is a feast for the eyes. It’s also nice to be able to run through all of the iconic locations from the series, defeating evil doers as you go. Step into battle and things are just as impressive too, with no hint of slow down and a string of brilliant super moves, team attacks and quick time sequences that will leave you craving more. Being able to hear all of the original voice cast, for both the English and Japanese versions, brings a real sense of character to the roster.
The combat on offer is surprisingly simple, and yet, at the same time, remarkably tactical. There is one button for attacks, one for ranged attacks, another to block and then one to jump. The real trick is mixing your moves in with the Chakra button that lets you unleash special attacks, super dodges and team combos. You can also select two team mates to cover your back and then get them involved at the touch of a button, whether to cover your back or help string together a combo. Before battle you can equip special items that you can activate during a fight for a strategic boost to your abilities, or even to attack your foes. Not to mention the ability to chow down on various bento boxes before combat (though only in adventure mode) for a variety of beneficial bonuses.
Battles are a mix of fast paced attacks, support players leaping in and out and strategic management. A new player could stand a chance against an expert right away, but, by the same token, mastering the best combo strings and moves can take some time. Especially the substitution jutsu that sees a perfectly timed block transport you behind your opponent for a sneak attack. The boss battles are even more spectacular, mixing a variety of combat styles with quick time enhanced cutscenes that are pretty awe-inspiring. Unlike most quick time events in games, they also serve a purpose here too, as doing well in them will earn you stars, which will heal you mid-fight and also unlock a secret bonus scene at the end of the battle if you get enough of them.
The main event is easily going to be the lengthy adventure mode, which basically plays out as a series of battles interspersed with exploration and missions along the way. The battles range from regular sparring to all-out boss showdowns, and everything in between, but they all stay remarkably true to the story and help to progress events. It also has the handy side effect of making you use most of the characters and get to know their strengths and weaknesses rather than stick with a few choice favourites, not to mention the fact that after each fight you can net “Storm” points to unlock more of the roster for use in the other modes. You can also scour the land for items to unlock new battle equipment and find crystals that allow you to replay previously beaten battles, view flashbacks and enjoy the cutscenes all over again. Sadly, some of the side quests can be a touch tedious and non-fans may get sick of the amount of seemingly inane chat that goes on, but on the whole, this plays out perfectly with a nice balance of action and story.
Outside of adventure mode you can also enjoy Free Battles and the Online arena. Free Battle is for local play or matches against the AI and you can use it to hone your skills or even just watch the computer go at it in a bid to see some of the more obscure combos. Head online and you can prepare to meet up with the series veterans who will quickly show you how it’s done; still, with the option to play people of the same level, you should be able to put up a good showing and the battles are immensely enjoyable. The added benefit here is the ability to earn more Storm points in either of these modes as well, which will help you unlock more characters to use. You can also unlock new titles and pictures or buy them in adventure mode, and customise your online avatar to make you look even cooler than your skills may suggest. It’s a bit of a pain that not all of the characters are available from the off, as you will need hundreds of thousands of points to unlock them all, but at least you have something to work towards and once you get some of the later unlocks it’s well worth it.
The achievement list is pretty solid too, in keeping with the rest of the game. For a fighting game it’s nice to see that only a few points are specifically for the online offering, though be warned that you will need to rack up more than the required ten wins for some of the titles tied to another achievement. Most of the points revolve around the story, unlocking characters and doing the various quests on offer. You’ll also need to S rank all of the major boss battles, but that’s not too bad thanks to the ability to replay them once you find the appropriate crystal. Regardless, you’ll have to grind out points and coin though, but most of your points will come with natural progression. A very balanced offering that’s bound to keep you interested for more than a few hours.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is without a doubt the best anime title by quite some way; the graphics are superb and the combat is top notch. The adventure mode does stall at times, but give it a chance and it’ll soon draw you in – it’s nice to see a game that goes well over the regular ten hours play time too, and it never feels like time wasted thanks to the vividly realised world. There are some niggles here and there, including some rather lengthy and persistent loading screens, but nothing that breaks the game or makes it anything other than thoroughly entertaining. It may not be for everyone, but fighting fans and those who love the series should make this a must buy. Everyone else should at least give it a go. You owe it to yourself.
Great voice acting by the original cast, especially with the Japanese dub, and the backing tracks are easy on the ears as well.
Beautiful to look at and it’s almost like you’re watching the show rather than playing a game. There are a few rough edges here and there, but nothing to detract from the lush visuals.
Simple to pick up and play, but with a tactical edge to combat that gives it some depth. Some of the random tasks in adventure mode can be a touch dull though and the online veterans can make things intolerable.
It’s hard to think how this could have been any closer to the source material and the whole look and feel is totally spot on. Although that does make it a touch unwelcoming for people who’ve never followed the show.
A very solid list, and one that thankfully focuses more on single player entertainment than online grinding. The balance is just about perfect.
Only the rather bland nature of some missions, ever present loading screens and the sometimes murky plot - at least for newcomers - stop Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 from being up there with the greats. As it is, the game is wonderful to look at, brilliant fun to play and is easily the best anime related title out there.