It’s safe to say that the Ultimate Ninja Storm series of Naruto games have been some of the finest games the franchise has received. Sure, Generations may have been a little wobbly in comparison to the prior two installments, but with a return to meaty story content Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 seems, in theory, a return to form.
It’s a safe assumption too, as UNS3 is the first game to go over the story following the Pain story arc, such events such as Naruto’s training with Killer Bee and the eventual Fourth Shinobi World War. It’s less that there is some great content to work from, but rather that there is a huge stack of opportunities to create some more of those awesome combat sequences that we've seen in previous titles, as well as Asura's Wrath.
Sounds good so far, right? Time to find out if it all holds up, so come join me after the jump!
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 (Xbox 360 [Reviewed], PS3)
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Release date: March 5, 2013 (NA), March 8, 2013 (EU), April 18, 2013 (JP)
[Note: This is a review of the UK version of the game. As far as we're aware there are no differences in content in the North American version.]
The game dives straight into the action, choosing to start with Minato, the Fourth Hokage, and his confrontation with the Nine-Tailed Fox and the masked man. After a little bit of scene setting, you are given a choice. Yes, there is some choice making in Ultimate Ninja Storm 3, dubbed "Ultimate Decision Mode", and you must pick whether to be a “Hero” or a “Legend”. Depending on your choice you will gain different bonuses, fights may play out differently and the dialogue will change. In this particular example, choosing “Hero”, rated at 4-star difficulty, allows you to pursue the masked man to try and stop him. Picking “Legend”, rated at 2-star difficulty, has you ignore the masked man to try and stop the Nine-Tails from destroying all of Konoha. The differences between each path are clearly outlined, so you know exactly what you are letting yourself in for.
Straight after this, you enter into one of the famously fun fights that has a little quick time event action on the side. You’re playing as the Third Hokage, bouncing off rooftops to fight a raging Nine-Tails, using other ninjas to help suppress the beast. The sequence can get pretty hectic, even suffering from a little slowdown at times, but it proves to be a very satisfying prologue to the games story mode. Unfortunately from here, the pacing takes a dive for the worse.
This is where you are given the ability to roam freely around a Konoha that is rebuilding itself from the events of the Pain fight. There is no stunning Konoha map to travel across like in the original Ninja Storm game, but you are given a rather bland environment that really only serves to pad the game out a bit. This was ringing alarm bells for sure, as these Konoha sequences seemed to only serve as something to do in between fights, and this continued on into the Land of Iron and the Island Turtle. These sections do occasionally hold a shopkeeper or two in order to serve some purpose, but more often than not you’ll finish a cutscene, sit through a loading sequence, walk from one end of a small map to the other via waypoint, then enter another loading sequence as the next cutscene starts. It’s not a deal breaker by any means, especially when these games are all about the fights, but the entire process could certainly have been streamlined.
You can tell what kind of a fight you are in for as the game is loading up. If you’re going to duke it out without any special events going on, as if you were loading it up in versus mode, the characters will appear as 3D models in the versus screen. If you’re in for a large battle with plenty of quick time event sequences (and to be clear, these are by far the best part of the Ultimate Ninja Storm games), you’ll see the participating characters rendered in 2D art on the versus screen, as well as the name of that particular showdown. This is probably to make it easier to replay, which is nice if you fancy giving it a go again. As you would expect, the versus mode-style fights occur far more regularly than the more adventurous key battles, but I feel that for the most part you are simply playing to get to the next one. It’s not just because they are more exciting, but more so that they have competent enemy AI. The regular battles do not.
Because of this, these common fights are far too easy. At the start of a bout, all you must do is tap the ‘Y’ button twice followed by the ‘B’ button, which will make Naruto launch forward with a rasenshuriken attack. It does a considerable amount of damage to the defending character, who nine times out of ten will not defend against it, and the time they spend bouncing along the floor you can spend charging your chakra to repeat it again. When the toughest of these fights in the game came from my brother in versus mode, who had never played an Ultimate Ninja Storm game and had been briefly taught by myself in one round, you know something is up. It’s a different case with the scripted fights as there is usually a lot more going on, such as dodging attacks or moving around the battlefield, but it’s certainly a concern when most of your time will be spent in fights like this.
There is also an alternate fight mode found in the story, where you must fight your way through small groups of 'grunt'-like enemies. It's very reminiscent of Tekken's "Tekken Force" game mode, but with the addition of some instant-kill quicktime abilities and a large focus on trying to get behind enemies in order to do the most damage. It's a neat little aside from the regular battles, and used sparingly enough to not overstay its welcome.
Putting the story mode aside, Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is definitely going to be a game worth digging out when you have friends over. The game is simple enough to pick up, and with a roster with over 80 characters, there are plenty of options to suit everyone’s tastes. It is against another human player where the combat really shines, as strategic use of ninja tools, substitutions and special jutsu will help pave your way to victory. You can fight one-on-one, or opt to bring along two assist characters each. Characters chosen for assist roles function in different ways, such as launching a forward strike or healing you a little. There are definitely plenty of characters to experiment with, and there are also 7 unique characters that are assist-only. They’re minor characters for sure, so while there was no way they would be included as fully playable characters, it’s nice to see them in the roster at all.
Both sides of the Naruto fandom will find themselves satisfied with the audio, as both Japanese and English audio tracks are present in the game. It is worth noting that the cutscenes were made with the Japanese vocal track in mind, and the mouths don't sync up well at all if you are listening to the English audio. It's pretty much a given with Japanese games these days, and it certainly won't ruin the game for you, but it is worth noting. The soundtrack is also particularly good, especially the battle themes, though it would be nice if there was a little variation in the Konoha village music. You hear it pretty often and it isn't exciting enough to appeal for too long.
Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is chock full of cutscenes that use the cel-shaded character models and locales from the game. There has quite clearly been a lot of work that has been put into these, as they all look great and run very smoothly. As mentioned before, the characters mouth movements are great for those listening to the Japanese audio, but fans of the English dialogue will no doubt be a little annoyed at how often a character continues to waggle his or her jaw long after the talking stops. Cutscene lengths vary immensely, ranging from less than a minute to a massive one towards the middle of the game that seemed to border TV-episode length! It may be the Metal Gear Solid 4 of Naruto games in this respect, but it’ll depend on the player whether this is an issue or not.
While the game is definitely fun to play, you can’t help but wonder what it would be like with just a little extra polish. It’s the little things like the odd spelling mistake, menus that take way too long to appear/disappear and the camera that flicks between being controllable and uncontrollable that make a bigger issue out of things that really shouldn't be a problem. They’re all largely forgettable and minor nitpicks that only start to shine through as they add up.
For example: Those of you familiar with the series will know that there is a certain fight that takes place beneath a bridge damaged by a large explosion. In a cutscene after this explosion has happened, the bridge continually changes from pristine to damaged with shifts in the camera angle. There really shouldn't be continuity errors in a video game cutscene, especially one as obvious as this.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is yet another fun excursion into the land of super-powerful ninjas. It's an awful shame that the game, that has obviously had a lot of hard work put into how characters play and how the game looks, would stumble on some of the more simple things that we've come to take for granted. Still, you will already know if you are interested in this game, and fans of the older games or the Naruto series as a whole will definitely enjoy their time with it. The good far outshines the bad, that much is certain, it's just a shame that it didn't have just a few more months in testing to iron out those minor issues.
8 -- Great (8s are impressive efforts with a few noticeable problems holding them back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.)