Naruto fighting games tend to follow a specific formula. The console versions of the Shippuden series have been some of the best fighting games in the franchise, but the content hasn't really been super fresh, as it follows the familiar storyline of the television series.
While the games are ever improving on the home consoles, the portable systems haven't been given as much love. Enter Powerful Shippuden, a unique take on the series that, for once, doesn't exactly focus on the titular hero, nor does it adapt to the standard fighting game form.
And these are actually good things.
Naruto Powerful Shippuden (3DS)
Developer: Inti Creates
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release: March 5, 2013
For starters, this isn't exactly based on the Shippuden series. In fact, this is based on the Naruto spin-off series: Rock Lee & His Ninja Pals, where ol' Bushy Brows is actually the lead character. Players can select either Rock or Naruto and play through intersecting storylines. While Naruto's story somewhat resembles parts of the Shippuden series, Rock Lee's episodes are a mishmash of craziness, sometimes making no sense at all as an excuse for comedy. Personally, I'm all for that, as any excuse for a game to not take itself seriously is an excuse for me to enjoy it. Powerful Shippuden is very self-aware and repeatedly makes reference to the fact that its characters know they're in a game.
The humor can be a bit juvenile at times, but that may stem from the super deformed chibi art style. Characters have big heads and overly expressive faces, and just about every moment has them reacting over-the-top during cut scenes. In-game, the characters are well animated, and the chibi style suits the mechanics and 3DS platform well. The 3D is never intrusive, and while it's not really a stand-out feature, it adds a certain flair to the goofy look of the game.
This isn't really a one-on-one fighter like its console brethren. Powerful Shippuden is more of a brawler, where each character fights through different stages of waves of baddies in order to advance the plot or unlock more techniques. Each level has a certain set of parameters to meet, and passing them rewards the player with XP which can be used to level up, boost stats in defense, increase your chakra meter, add skills, and more.
This minor RPG flavor helps differentiate the title more from the usual Naruto games, as it not only influences how you play but also helps breaks up the monotony that can come from beating up the occasional waves of birds and wolves. There's even a small bit of wagering involved, where setting certain parameters before the level (such as betting you can finish the stage in under a minute, for example) will yield a multiplier on how much XP you gain from that mission. It's a neat little diversion that can certainly be exploited early on for those who like to grind out the stats on their characters.
As you progress, certain stages may be locked, and only through obtaining keys from other levels will you be able to unlock them. Sometimes this means switching from Naruto to Rock Lee's campaign, which allows players to get a feel for how different each character and their accompanying storyline is.
While Naruto is a master of every form of jutsu techniques, Rock Lee cannot use ninjutsu at all, so his combat is more physical and close-quarters. Both characters may have differing movesets, but it all really comes down to just basic brawling action, and once you pass the initial first few tutorial-like missions, action is definitely what you'll get.
Each character can also call upon support characters in battle, selectable with a button press or a tap on the touch screen. The touch screen is where you'll select your mode changes (such as switching Naruto to his Nine-Tails form) and where most of your stat divisions are as well. Beyond that, however, there's not a whole lot of interactivity with the touch screen. Still, as it is essentially a fighting game, stretching a finger out to the touch screen (or somehow using a stylus to do it) in battle tends to break up the flow of combat.
While the art style and the comedy are aspects that really make the title enjoyable, and the combat is simple enough to learn and execute, sometimes the repetitive nature of the missions can hamper the experience. After beating the 1,432nd generic bad guy, things can become a tad stale. Thankfully, it's never that way for long, as boss fights and story missions move things at a decent pace. But between those missions you'll be fighting those generic baddies again, so it depends on how much grinding you can tolerate before you get to the good stuff. Also, I found certain missions to be unnecessarily difficult at first because there were no explanations for what certain power-up items did.
Some missions are timed, giving you only a minute on the clock to reach the end of the level. You're told at the beginning you can add more time by picking up icons, but they don't show you what the icon looks like. As one mission started, I saw and grabbed a bunch of batteries floating there, but it didn't add to my time, and I always ran out mid-fight. It was only after my fourth or fifth pass-through that I noticed the rocks with numbers on them. The numbers signified how many hits they would take before they broke, and when they did, stop watches would pop out, adding to your time. It was a frustrating series of failures before I finally discovered that (and even some of those rocks are booby trapped).
It may not be a perfect brawler, but it's certainly a fun one, and one that any Naruto fan would enjoy. Don't let the art style dissuade you from enjoying the action here, as the RPG-esque elements of stat boosting and defense increases add a special something that future games in the genre should take note of.
The humor may also not be for everyone, but if you're like me, you'll love the fact that the game doesn't take itself seriously. It fits the art style as well as the general goofy nature of the characters and situations. Plus, with it being based on Rock Lee's spin-off, you're already getting a unique experience gamers haven't yet tapped into. It's the ideal mix of fun and funny, without being too over-the-top.