Naruto Falls Back
If you walk into a game store and ask for a Naruto title, you will be bombarded with options. From the story-intensive Naruto RPG series to the action-heavy Clash of Ninja, and even the mini-game-centric Ninja Council series, the Naruto franchise is certainly expansive. However, if you asked my opinion about which Naruto option was the best, I would tell you that it was the Sony-exclusive Ultimate Ninja series. With titles on the PSP, PlayStation 2, and PlayStation 3, the Ultimate Ninja series has always featured a consistent battle system, excellent visuals, and immersive battle-based gameplay. However, Ultimate Ninja 4: Naruto Shippuden does not keep this trend going and defied my high expectations for the series.
In case you are unfamiliar with the Naruto Universe, the Shippuden subtitle is fairly significant, as it begins “phase 2” of the series. Several years have passed since Sasuke’s departure, and Naruto has been hard at work training with the frog sage, Jiraiya. Although a lot has changed in the years between the two series, the beginning of the Shippuden spinoff sees Naruto returning once again to the Leaf village to continue his path towards finding Sasuke and bringing him back.
If you played the last Ultimate Ninja for the PS2, Ultimate Ninja 3, you may recall that the main story mode, Ultimate Contest, was overhauled to incorporate new fighting styles and an RPG-like quest system to give it a little bit more staying power. Ultimate Ninja 4: Naruto Shippuden eschews all the progress made from the first title, and goes right back to the format of the first Ultimate Ninja game; an almost completely linear story with non-random battle events and ridiculously simple level-based puzzlers interspersed between levels. While I might have forgiven this shortcoming if it were any other franchise, Ultimate Ninja 2 and 3 had made such progress in regard to the main story mode that it was all the more disappointing when Shippuden failed in this regard.
Although the gameplay in the main mode is rather boring, I do have to give it some credit in terms of story. The Ultimate Ninja series up to this point has basically only retold events that happened in the anime, and if you are an obsessive franchise player like me, the same old same old wears on you after awhile. Luckily, the story here is completely new, revolving around Naruto and Jiraiya’s discovery of a hidden village that must make human sacrifices to an evil demon overlord in order to stay alive. While most in the village seem to tolerate this idea, Naruto has a problem when he sees the young girl who is to be their sacrifice walk into the demon’s cave to meet her death. The story is actually rather morose, considering the events of the previous Naruto series, but it is a nice transition into the darker Shippuden series as a whole.
Another thing that is different this time around is the character roster. Instead of having a single “character select” area for multiplayer matches, you are able to choose from different tiers of characters, which sort them by affiliation and time period. So for instance, if you wanted to play as the Shippuden version of Sakura, you can go to the Shippuden character menu and select her. But, if the person you are playing with wants to play as the younger version of Sakura, from the original series, they can select the second tier and play against her older form. In addition to all your favorite characters, some new ones have been added specifically from the Shippuden series including Sasori, Chiyo, and art-obsessed bad guy Deidara.
Even though the story and the roster have changed quite a lot since the previous Ultimate Ninja games, one thing that has stayed faithfully the same is the battle system. The controls are almost identical to Ultimate Ninja 3, as they still use the Circle button for your main attacks and the Triangle button for chakra attacks. Although, for some reason, this game refers to the chakra attacks as “Jet” attacks. But name change aside, the controls are just as simple to learn as they have always been, but the chain and combo mechanic still provide the battle system with some necessary depth. One thing that Ultimate Ninja 4 did keep from its predecessor was the onscreen combos, which pop up when your character has enough chakra built up to do a special move and is in-range.
Though the controls might be essentially identical to Ultimate Ninja 3, one area that is significantly different is the visuals. Although, I can’t say that this change has been for the better. Before I go on, let me point out that I am well-aware that the years have not exactly been kind to the PlayStation 2 and as a system that has been around for nearly a decade, you have to substantially lower your expectations. But still, this game just looks like a mess.
While Ultimate Ninja 3 had smooth character designs and rich, detailed environments, Ultimate Ninja 4 has jagged lines, plenty of seaming, and blandly-textured environments. Even the series’ trademark cel-shading has taken a huge hit since the last entry in the series, and the characters are missing a fair amount of detail that used to be present. Now, while I realize that this game is technically older than Ultimate Ninja 3, I still wish they would have focused on giving the game a facelift before releasing it here, much like they did with the Wii’s Clash of Ninja series (which got all-new character designs during localization.) But instead, the visuals come to us as dated and technically inferior to the last two entries in the Ultimate Ninja series previously released on the PlayStation 2.
Despite the poor visuals, Ultimate Ninja 4 does have a good soundtrack. The music is sampled directly from the Shippuden anime, which has some seriously good tunes, so the background music as well as character themes never disappoint. The game’s voiceover is again available in Japanese and English, and all the original Seiyuu and Voice actors reprise their roles for the game.
I was more than excited for this game to premiere in the US, simply because fans have been waiting since 2007 for the Shippuden saga to come stateside. However, I have to say that I was very disappointed with this title, as it takes several steps back in regards to the Ultimate Ninja Series as a whole. With poor visuals and a lackluster story mode, this title certainly didn’t live up to its potential and is a step back for the Ultimate Ninja Series on the PS2.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 2.0 Graphics
The graphics are poor, even by last-gen standards. Persistent seaming and jagged edges mar the character design, and the environments lack detail. 4.0 Control
Controls use the standard Ultimate Ninja template and are easy for newbies to learn and series veterans to recall. 4.0 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Music is good, and both the Japanese and English voiceovers use the original seiyuu/voice actors from the anime. 2.9 Play Value
The mission mode is not very deep, and it’s almost completely linear. Although there is a fair amount of content in hero mode, it just isn’t enough and can’t measure up to UN3. 3.2 Overall Rating – Fair
Not an average. See Rating legend above for a final score breakdown.