Ultimate Ninja 4: Naruto Shippuden Review
Okay, I’ll be brutally honest: I really don’t care about Naruto or anime at all. In fact, I find most all anime to be unappealing and even embarrassingly bad in some cases, which is why I always have difficulty keeping an open mind when I review the latest CyberConnect2 production. I struggle through long enough to write an accurate review, but I always dread doing it; I just fail to see the attraction in a bunch of poorly drawn, terribly voiced characters running at each other in seizure-inducing battle scenes. However, all this being said, I actually had fun playing Ultimate Ninja 4: Naruto Shippuden (although it may have had a lot to do with the fact that it’s not a fighting game). I really played for quite a while and I didn’t regret the time I spent, and while it’s far from a must-buy for everyone, it will certainly give the fans a relatively fresh and entertaining adventure. Provided you can handle the ultra-drab backdrops, lackluster soundtrack and some of the repetitiveness found in Master Mode, you’ll likely get your money’s worth. But just remember: it follows that you should be a Naruto fan. If not, as solid as it may be, it’s not worth your attention.
The graphics bounce between artfully depicted cut-scenes and those aforementioned boring environments. The problem with the latter is that we rarely see much of anything in the way of detail; most everything is either the same rock, tree, crate, barrel, or what-have-you, as there’s not much that can be considered impressive or even pleasant. Really, it’s a fairly harsh visual display a lot of the time, but they make up for it a bit with the well presented cel-shaded cut-scenes and some appreciated enemy and combat detail. This wouldn’t be so bad if you spent the majority of your time fighting, but you don’t in the main Master Mode. Things get better when you switch over to Hero Mode or Free Battle, where you really are engaged in battle most of the time, which allows the game to shine a bit. But outside of some decently designed characters, there isn’t much to get excited about. For the most part, one could argue that it’s your standard PS2 production and by now, CyberConnect2 is well acquainted with the hardware in question. We just wish they could put a bit more effort into the overall look and feel, despite the occasionally surprising presentation quality.
The sound is a low point, only because the soundtrack is either mediocre or non-existent throughout, and the voice acting ranges from good to downright atrocious. I’m not sure why the makers of anime believe that viewers need to be yelled at all the time, nor do I see how some truly competent voice actors got mixed in with the utterly worthless. It’s just too jarring to bounce back and forth between certain characters; some you really enjoy hearing while others…well, you want to mute the TV. The sound effects in battle aren’t bad; there’s a fair amount of variety (especially when you learn the more advanced moves), but it’s just not in-your-face enough. It could’ve helped to negate the lack of kick-ass music, but as it stands, the combat effects are merely passable and a semi-bright spot in this category. Apparently, the developers didn’t really see the need for some captivating tracks to place over the intense battle, and that’s always a mistake. This generation, we’re finding that game makers are starting to recognize the importance of sound, but playing titles on the old PS2 hardware reminds us of a time when designers didn’t pay enough attention.
The gameplay, as always, is the prime focus. And contrary to what you may believe, this isn’t like the Dragon Ball Z games that fell into the fighting genre; Ultimate Ninja 4 is an action/adventure title. Well, it is so far as the main single-player Master Mode is concerned, as you really only engage in combat in both the Hero Mode and Free Battle Mode. You may want to practice in either the latter mode or in the Practice arena before you embark on your Master Mode quest, but it’s not exactly necessary as you will learn quickly enough. After going through Master Mode and collecting the Memory Pieces that can be found throughout the areas, you can then enter Hero Mode and learn more about a particular ninja’s back story. Then there’s your obligatory Collection option that lets you check all the goodies you’ve nabbed, and if you so desire, you can alter the controls in the Options menu. Clearly, though, Master Mode is the meat and potatoes of this particular Ultimate Ninja installment, and CyberConnect 2 did manage to deliver an accessible, entertaining, and mostly rewarding adventure. It just doesn’t fire on all cylinders, if you catch our meaning.
Naruto can jump, double jump, and destroy crates and boxes to find items and money. In this way, it plays very much like any other action or platforming game you’ve played in the past, but it actually incorporates the random battle technique found in old-school RPGs. Well, that’s not entirely accurate: in certain places, you will run into set battles; you won’t just encounter enemies while running along, so there won’t be any annoying baddies just waiting to knock you off that precarious ledge. When you do enter battle, you have to fight until every enemy is defeated, and the combat itself is – as expected – fast-paced and fairly intricate. At first, all you can really do is attack with the Circle button and toss some shurikens with the Square button, but you will rapidly add to your arsenal. Dash attacks, mid-air attacks, and new special moves fueled by the Triangle button will become available as you level up via gained experience. Sometimes during the fight, a button prompt will pop up and if you hit in time, you can extend your attack. So, if the Triangle shows up for a Jam Attack, hit it fast and watch the fireworks.
You can also block with either the R2 or L2 buttons, and the only real problem revolves around the troublesome camera, which can also be frustrating when exploring. It sits a little too close to Naruto and can be erratic in its movements; one minute it’s sluggish in turning left to right and the next, it easily sips upward. It’s not too loose and it doesn’t cripple the gameplay, but the camera is far from perfect and can be an issue at certain times. The other issue is the balance: you’ll likely tear apart many of the standard enemies you encounter in your travels – many times without even being touched – but a few of the boss encounters are quite challenging. Some like the concept of brain-dead drones that lead up to a difficult boss, but we’d rather have it be a logical, linear progression. Also, as we mentioned before, there’s too much in the way of repetition in the Master Mode. During the first quest, for example, which involves the Shadow Demon and a crystal cave, you really do too much of the same thing over and over. Jump, hit switch, bash boxes, and occasionally fight a few shadow thingies that pose no challenge whatsoever. It’s kinda fun, but it gets old too fast.
The good news is that the entertainment factor doesn’t dip very far, especially if you’re fighting a lot. Fighting is great fun, as Naruto is appropriately effective and a joy to behold. It’s the way all main characters should be in action games, especially when that character is a freakin’ ninja, and we had a blast kicking lots of ass (heeey, that rhymes). It put us in a good mood, but that good mood turned out to be somewhat short-lived as the previously mentioned issues began to rear their ugly heads a little too often. Still, it should give Naruto fans many hours of smiles and grins, ‘cuz their combat skills won’t go unrewarded. The Hero Mode adds more flavor to the game if you managed to collect all (or most) of the Memory Pieces in Master Mode, and upgrading Naruto is simple yet satisfying. It just needs a bit more “oomph” the whole way around. As it stands, Ultimate Ninja 4: Naruto Shippuden is a decent action game that might be great for hardcore fans, but falls shy of appealing to a wider audience.
6/23/2009 Ben Dutka