"Do you care about Naruto?"
For many, that's the only question they'll ever need to answer regarding the need to play any Naruto-based game. Or, for that matter, any licensed game. Just replace "Naruto" with the name of the license.
If their answer is "No", then they need not read any further, because Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is a Naruto game, through and through.
For the purposes of this review, however, I'd add a last response to that "No", which is:
"Oh. Well, that's a shame."
It's a shame because while folks are perfectly within their rights to ignore Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 for all its Naruto-ness, they'd be missing out on a game that's pretty great on its own merits.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 (PlayStation 3 [Reviewed], Xbox 360)
Mechanically, Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is almost identically to the original Ultimate Ninja Storm game. There's a button for throwing shuriken, one for melee attacks, one for jumping, and two buttons for summoning support attacks from selected teammates. Timing the block button just right teleports players right behind their opponents, allowing for long, seemingly endless strings of combos as fighters constantly switch places to get in the next hit.
As before, it's the "Chakra Load" button that plays the most important role, modifying nearly any in-game action. When tapped, the power of Chakra turns a punch into a Ninjutsu, a shuriken into a Fuma Shuriken, and a slow run into a faster-than-light dash. Tapping it twice charges up the flashy Ultimate Jutsu with which to nuke enemies to oblivion. Then hold the button down to charge it back up for more craziness.
The big new additions are the "Team Gauge" and "Awakening" modes. The Team Gauge fills up as support attacks are summoned, and when full, starts to call in team members automatically and without cost. It's a fun feeling when one of your mates jumps in to shield you while you charge up, or sneaks in a sucker punch that sends an opponent airborne, ripe for juggling.
When Awakened, characters temporarily move faster, hit harder, are immune to Ultimate Jutsu. It's cool and can serve as an interesting panic button for players on the ropes, but doesn't seem to "fit" with characters who don't really have an "awakened" state per se. Sure, awakening Naruto turns him into the Four-Tailed Fox (complete with different attack properties and move set), but most of the other characters just "get serious" for a few seconds.
That's all well and good, but the real heart of the game is actually in the ancillary material, namely the game's "Ultimate Adventure" single-player campaign.
Folks familiar with the first game need not fear, though. The hideously repetitive minigames are all gone. Instead, Cyberconnect have replaced all that tree-climbing and hide-and-seek with what is essentially a set of PS2-era JRPG conventions. I'm talking about 3D models walking around static, fixed-camera 2D maps, cutscenes, dialog boxes, NPCs that repeat the same line over and over, item shops, and even a low-rent version of a Persona game's Social Links, where Naruto's response to characters' mail messages unlock special "Friendship" scenes.
Following the plot of Naruto Shippuden from the beginning through the Invasion of Pain, players careen from duel to duel, completing side quests and collecting collectibles along the way. Occasionally the game will switch viewpoints to follow Sasuke on his hunt for Itachi or Jiraiya during his infiltration of the Hidden Rain village. The plot and specifics of various encounters have been embellished a bit to shoehorn in more opportunities for fighting, but overall events proceed in lockstep with the manga.
And in all of that storytelling are the grandiose boss fights. Expertly choreographed and lovingly detailed, boss battles are the game's real party piece. Each unfolds differently, and some encounters even script in alternate gameplay mechanics. Gaara's fight against Deidara, for example, brings up a Panzer Dragoon-style aerial shooting sequence. Everything is constructed with an eye for the dramatic, and a few scenes even match the "interactive cinema" bent of games like Metal Gear Solid and God of War.
While this JRPG-lite storytelling style of Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 gives game a sense of substance far beyond the kind you might find in other licensed fighting games, it brings with it some of the frustrations of that genre, like a lot of tedious backtracking and walking around. If the boss battles are the best part of the game, why should players have to backtrack all the way to where they happened in order to unlock the ability to replay them? And if the fun of regular battle is seeing a lot of characters belt out their unique take on ninja chaos, why should players have to grind out so many Storm Points to unlock everything for use in online (and local) multiplayer?
These anachronisms put a damper on the experience that could easily have been avoided, and risks alienating less dedicated fans before they can sample all of the available content.
That said, fans that can muster that kind of dedication (or find someone to do the grinding for them) will find a charming, accessible, excellently polished, beautiful-looking title that allows players to fully participate in the show's best moments. A non-fan could play this game to completion and come away with a better impression of Naruto than a fan who simply watched the show instead.
In a way, that's the best thing one can say about any licensed game.
8.5 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)
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