It's understandable that the expectations for a game based on an anime license wouldn't normally be set very high, especially for gamers that aren't anime fans. In the past, there hasn't been much in the way of licensed titles that would appeal to the gaming masses, and much of that has to do with the fact that little effort has been put into widening the appeal of these titles. This all works to the favor of Naruto: Rise of a Ninja, giving this ninja game the element of surprise. I began the review process expecting to play a visually updated next-gen rehash of prior Naruto fighting titles, but found that Ubisoft had packed a lot of love into this game. The result is not only the best Naruto title available, but also one of the best anime licenses out there as well as one of the most visually outstanding titles for the Xbox 360 yet.
Naruto: Rise of a Ninja (Xbox 360)
Developed by Ubisoft
Published by Ubisoft
Released on October 30, 2007
As with any licensed game, anime or not, gamers want to know how accessible a title is to the uninitiated. The very nature of Naruto: Rise of a Ninja makes it totally accessible to anyone interested; it puts the player in the shoes of Naruto, letting them experience the anime's story from the very beginning. As you play, you'll work your way through the first 80 episodes of the anime, covering the time from Naruto's birth all the way up to the Chunin Exams. Naruto:ROAN is interspersed with video clips pulled directly from the anime, and while most of the time is spent actually playing Nartuo's story, the more intricate plot details are left to these video clips. By the end of the Story Mode of this game, players will be well versed in beginnings of Naruto.
The majority of the gameplay is centered around Konoha, Naruto's home town. Newcomers to the series may have to take an anime fan's word for it, but Ubisoft pulled out all the stops in the recreation of the hidden leaf village. Konoha is a sight to behold and a blast to explore. It seems that even the most minute details from the anime have been accounted for in this town's realization, and every landmark has been reworked in a style true to Kishimoto's art. The developers have spared no expense to make it feel like you're running and jumping through a real hidden town of ninjas in the woods.
Konoha's charms aren't limited to its scenery; some of the best experiences that Naruto: Rise of a Ninja holds are in this vast town's exploration. It's a lot of fun to just get lost and do what you please, sandbox game style. At the height of your ninja powers, you'll be able to scale walls and enjoy the impressive view from the tops of tall buildings. The feeling is somewhat reminiscent of Assassin's Creed, although the difference here is that Naruto isn't out to kill anyone in his home town. From wide open city thoroughfares to dark narrow alleys, the town is packed with varied inhabitants, while they may not all like you, their inclusion really helps to make Konoha seem like a living, breathing village.
You'd think that playing through the back story of multiple seasons of anime may be a lengthy undertaking, but Naruto:ROAN manages to condense it down to less than 10 hours of gameplay. There are only a handful of key story elements that players are forced to experience, and the rest of the time is given to optional missions to build skills or gain favor of the townspeople. These missions range from fun Crazy Taxi-style ramen delivery missions to terribly boring "I lost my purse in the forest" item quests. Much like anime's famed filler episodes, these missions are necessary evils, and not everyone is going to appreciate them. Some of the missions are enjoyable, but it seems that the developers may have run out of steam by the time they created them, and there's probably one too many item fetching quests. Granted, these are mostly optional, but just like grinding in an RPG, you'll want to do some of these to become more powerful.
On these missions, you'll control the orange-clad ninja who has special magical powers called jutsus. Your successes and training equal more powerful jutsus, and these will come in handy during some of the mandatory quests. These powers are taken directly from the animation, and you'll find that Naruto can clone himself, walk on water, climb walls, and even transform into a naked girl. These moves are executed by holding down the left trigger button and quickly inputting a sequence with both analog sticks during the alloted time.
Aside from these powers, gameplay in the story mode is of the 3D platforming variety. You can expect your standard timed hopping and double jumping, though you'll eventually acquire a super high speed running skill that is an absolute blast...until you run into a wall. Outside the village you'll find yourself hoping over spiky bamboo poles and swinging logs [damned logs!] to get to the next village. One highlight is the high-speed ninja-style tree jumping seen often in the series. Timed button presses let you hop from branch to branch, building more speed with each successful launch.
Travel is broken up with random encounters with "bad" ninjas. These are usually bandits or thieves that need a quick ass kicking. Upon encountering an enemy, the game switches from third-person platformer to a standard fighting engine. If you survive the brawl, you're free to continue your mission. You'll sometimes feel like you're fighting the same half dozen bandits over and over, but you'll make quick work of them when you get stronger.
The fighting is simplistic, yet totally approachable and quite fun. There's only a couple of attack buttons, and success relies on chaining simple combos and blocking at the right times. The previously mentioned jutsus do add a bit of spice. If you can manage to pull off something like the shadow clone jutsu during a fight, you'll have the chance to input timed button presses to do some major damage to your enemy. These are not unlike RPG summon spells, but the difference here is that these are interactive, rewarding, and visually impressive.
Naruto:ROAN is mostly polished, but its faults mostly stem from the high number monotonous item fetch quests. I remember one particular quest where I was forced to scale walls, dodge spikes, balance on ropes, and traverse long distances for a bag of potatoes. What sense does that make? And, while the running at "ninja speed" aspect of the game is novel at first, there's probably one too many "do you want to race me?" challenges in the game. One mandatory timed race took this honest reviewer 17 attempts to successfully complete, though frustration set in after about 5 tries.
Other problems lie in how the story is told. The voice acting varies from character to character. While most of it is qualifies as passable (and one or two characters, like Sasuke, are actually great), some are just plain terrible and make me wonder how the dialog made it through quality assurance. I found blatant mispronunciations of names, Japanese words (like "ramen"), and locales, and there are even a few instances of characters that are so mumbly and unclear that you'll need the screen text to get by. Luckily, a downloadable content pack that includes the original Japanese voice acting is said to be on the way soon.
The sounds effects and music are pulled straight out of the anime, and during gameplay you'll be treated to high-quality, polished surround audio. It's a real shame that the anime cutscenes switch to lower quality, compressed-sounding audio that's several years old. Combine with with the obvious visual difference (the cell shading looks better than the anime!), and it seems like the anime cutscenes are almost like a slap in the face. It's not that the cutscenes are bad, but you'll definitely see a jarring difference.
Don't let a few crappy voice overs and a few tedious coin quests get in the way of trying out Naruto: Rise of a Ninja. In the end, this game exceeded my expectations, and Ubisoft should be commended for doing something different and ambitious with this anime license. The story mode is worth the price of entry alone, and the fun fighting and excellent online matches are both wonderful bonuses. Of course, this is an absolute must for Naruto fans, but those looking for a solid adventure title for the Xbox 360 should take notice as well.
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