Friday, December 19, 2014

Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3: Full Burst Review

For a blog called the Shonen Otaku Corner, I haven’t written very much about anime or manga.  It’s been almost entirely focused on games instead of what the term “shonen” is usually applied to.  This is because, at heart, I’m a gamer first and as much as I love the action-packed stories of shonen, I find the way they can translate into kickass action games (and vice-versa) captivating.  Sometimes the games can be better than their source material, as is the case with the rock-crushingly popular shonen franchise Naruto.

Naruto, being as extraordinarily popular as it is (especially in America), has a great many licensed products: a card game, accessories, plushies (I have 2) and even special contact lenses don’t even begin to fathom how much Naruto stuff you can find.  There used to be American commercials for the stuff, but I never see those anymore.

Naturally these licensed products include a great multitude of licensed games too.  Naruto may rival Dragon Ball Z in having the most licensed games based on a shonen franchise, including RPGs, beat-em-ups, fighting games and even a platform fighter based on the Naruto parody spinoff.

Of all the Naruto games, the three game series that get the most recognition are the Clash of Ninja games, Ultimate Ninja games and (in recent years) the Ultimate Ninja Storm games.

All three licensed series are well worth playing, but the Ultimate Ninja Storm games are the ones with the most notoriety, because they aren’t just good fighting games or good retellings of the Naruto story.  There are some that find them more entertaining than the series they’re based on!  I am one of such people.

The truth is, I don’t actually like the Naruto manga or anime very much.  The manga is as fun an action-packed read as any popular shonen, but I’ve always found the art direction and fight scenes to be just a little bit lacking.

The anime improves on this with great art direction (though not without some animation awkwardness), and English voice acting from a huge array of experienced anime voice actors.  When it gets to the good parts the Naruto anime kicks ass, but its high points don’t shine on a regular basis and much of the anime is badly-paced and filled with… Well, filler.  It’s Dragon Ball Z all over again.

The games rectify the anime’s problem by cutting the crap and going straight to the story and flashy fighting the manga presented.  In the Ultimate Ninja Storm games, this highlights the specialties of the game’s developers, Cyberconnect2.

CyberConnect2 is primarily known for its licensed games, having produced various titles in the .Hack franchise, all the Ultimate Ninja games and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: All Star Battle.
They have, however, also made some IPs of their own, such as the Nintendo DS adventure game Solotarobo and the QTE-slathered super-powered god-annihilating epic Asura’s Wrath.

The majority of CyberConnect2’s games have one thing in common: They look amazing!  Even outside of the HD game systems, their games push the hardware’s limits and couple that with great art direction to deliver stories that are presented well no matter what the gameplay may be like.  Just look at a few of these and keep in mind that it’s all rendered on the PS2:

The Ultimate Ninja Storm games are one of CyberConnect2’s most famous properties, with a new entry being released each year (just like the Clash of Ninja games up until 2009).  For this article, however, I am only looking at one: Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 (and its update, Full Burst).

As you’d expect from a licensed fighter, Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 retells its source material of a world of (very colorful) ninjas that battle using the ever plot convenient mix of mental and physical energy called Chakra in order to perform spectacular ninjutsu with high-speed martial arts.

For those not aware, the second and third Ultimate Ninja Storm games take place after a time skip in which all the characters have been training and are now stronger and older in the era of the story titled Naruto Shippuden.
After having made a short appearance in the first part of the story, Shippuden largely has an evil organization of rogue ninjas called the Akatsuki serve as the main antagonists with the goal of extracting 9 incredibly powerful tailed beasts from ninjas they are sealed inside known as Jinchuriki (Naruto’s being the nine-tailed fox).

Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 ended with Naruto defeating the Akatsuki’s leader, Pain, in a spectacular battle after the latter devastated the Hidden Leaf Village Naruto resides in using what is essentially an extremely powerful force field.  Thankfully the game animated it properly the whole way through, as opposed to...

Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 continues the story with the manipulator behind Pain taking charge and declaring war on all the nations of the ninja world using an army consisting of clones of his underling and reanimated ninjas so that he may get his hands on the 2 Jinchuriki remaining.  The war is the central conflict, but there are various plots of other characters that go on as well, including Sasuke’s vendetta against the Hidden Leaf Village (particularly one of its elders) for conspiring against his clan and leading them to their deaths, the ninjas meeting with old reanimated friends and the Hidden Leaf Village trying to keep Naruto unaware of the war so that they can hide him.

Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 goes over the most crucial plot points in adequate detail, even expanding on a few of the fights the source material only touched upon, such as one with the 7 Swordsmen of the Hidden Mist Village.

But, sadly, there are also a lot of rather important plot points the game glosses over or doesn’t mention, particularly when it comes to the explanation of powers.  Sometimes that's good and means less talk and more action, but some details seem too relevant to leave out.  The most painful example has got to be Sasuke’s battle with the Leaf Village elder Danzo.
In the series, it’s a very climactic battle where Danzo reveals what’s under the bandages he keeps his right arm wrapped in.  In the game, it’s a normal battle where it’s possible (and likely) to beat him before he even has a chance to reveal it, as it’s simply Danzo’s powered-up awakened form, which many characters have.  The game builds up to the fight right, but doesn’t pay off.

Beyond that there are simply missed opportunities.  A rather important point of character development for the character of Sai is cut entirely.  Instead there’s a chapter focused on Darui, one of the most minor of minor characters there are, which would be fine if Darui’s fights felt eventful, but they don’t, and it’s especially frustrating that he briefly fights Kakuzu as a slightly stronger enemy instead of the ultra-powerful super boss he was in Ultimate Ninja Storm 2.

How come you don't just do THAT, Kakuzu?
But I doubt anyone complains about the additions or omissions to the story unless they’re specifically asked, because what Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 has in its story is excellent.

Fitting name.
It’s divided into 4 modes of gameplay: The one-on-one fights the series is built around, multi-man brawler stages in which you fight several weaker enemies at once, spectacular one-on-one boss battles that mix the usual combat with flashy quick time event sequences the developers are known for and an explorable overworld that connects them all.

The staple combat of Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is of the easy to learn, hard to master variety.  There’s only one button for melee attacks, so the complicated punch and kick button combinations of The King of Fighters or the Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure Capcom fighter do not apply.  Simply mash the B button when you’re close to your opponent and you’ll unleash your character’s stylish combo, of which you can switch up a little by tilting the control stick up or down mid-combo.  But of course, if it were that simple it wouldn’t have any depth.

Using a melee combo on your opponent requires getting close to them, and unlike the Clash of Ninja games, you aren’t always so fortunate.  The stages are very large and open, and fighters can dash around the stage throwing shuriken, expendable projectile items or projectile jutsu to keep their opponent at bay if needed so that they can charge the chakra they need to enhance their dash, power up their shuriken and, of course, use their jutsu.

Each character and their variants have 2 jutsus: A normal one and an ultimate one.  The normal jutsus take a chunk of chakra to use and usually cause some form of moderate damage to the enemy if they hit.  The ultimate jutsus are the flashy cutscene moves that show off CyberConnect 2’s presentation prowess.  They do over half a health bar’s worth of damage and require about 70 percent of a full chakra gauge to use.

Finishing the match with one even adds a little character detail by cutting to a freeze frame of the anime with the user giving one last line before landing the final blow.  Sometimes the line and frame used changes depending on who’s being finished off by who.  Touches like that are some of the best parts of licensed fighting games.

Tenten gets almost no attention in the series, but she does in the games.
There are other factors in the fighting too, like the substitution jutsu that bails you out of an enemy’s combo, teammates you can call in to assist you and powered-up “awakened” forms that can only be used when you’re low on health.

The entire game centers itself around this combat, with the brawler sections in some parts of the story playing the same way, just without locking on to a single opponent.

But the real highlights of the game’s story mode are when the combat is mixed up in the more elaborate boss battles, as they’re almost as fun to watch in action as they are to experience yourself.  If you want an example of how a badass battle is done, look no further.  The fast-paced combat against foes of varying sizes is interspersed with cutscenes that are brilliantly shot and invigorating, with no characters stopping mid-battle to analyze the situation like they do a little too often in the anime.

All of this is helped by the perfectly casted voice actors from the anime, particularly the English one.  Neil Kaplan’s deep Billy Zane-like villain voice secretes evil every time the main villain is onscreen, Beau Billingslea’s rough and raging voice is fitting of the Raikage, and I’ll never forget his rapping badass Jinchuriki brother Killer Bee, voiced by none other than The Black Baron himself (and plays a very large role this time)!

The Baron is ready to play.
I have to admit, however, that Ultimate Ninja Storm’s overall dedication to presenting the story of the source material can be a detriment at times.  There are a couple of points where the story sequences go on for an extremely long time before you finally take control again (the longest being at least 25 minutes) and you’re forced to do the final few chapters with no chance to save.  You have no way of knowing whether or not you’re going to need half an hour or an hour to finish a part of the story.

And you can’t expect to do anything in the main adventure in between the story missions either.  You’re railroaded into the story until it’s over, playing as all sorts of different characters in different locations.  I said before there’s an explorable world outside of the fighting, but until the end of the story it’s only there to move you from point A to point B and save.  If you try to move anywhere other than where you’re supposed to in the story, you’ll be told to turn back and go down the Final Fantasy 13-style linear hallway.

People following the manga may realize something odd about the phrase “until it’s over.”  At the time of Ultimate Ninja Storm 3’s release, the last story arc it covers wasn’t finished.  As a result, the game’s ending is a cliffhanger that doesn’t exist in the series proper, which will likely be extremely disappointing for some.  Not me though.  Without giving too much away, the final boss fight sequences are titanic and climactic enough to work as a conclusion.  I was expecting to be disappointed, but I was not.

I like these odds.
The update to the game, Full Burst, alleviates the unfinished story issue just a little.  In addition to some visual enhancements and bonus modes, Full Burst adds one more bonus chapter that continues the story with a truly damning boss fight that has Sasuke teaming up with his dead brother to fight Kabuto, the one who used the reanimation technique.  But Kabuto doesn’t need to fight with zombies this time, because he knows how to use sage mode, something only a few other characters in the series were able to do!  As expected, the game doesn’t tell you anything about how he managed to do it.

This fight with Sage Kaubto has to be one of my favorite bonus boss fights of all time.  It’s long (6 health bars?!), extremely challenging, peppered with quick time events and the whole way through Kabuto unleashes stage-wide jutsus using the powers of the Sound 5 from part 1 of Naruto that you have to maneuver around and dodge.  The music is suspenseful and Crispin Freeman, Yuri Lowenthal and Henry Dittman all call their attacks in traditional shonen fashion.  Truly it is a battle to remember.

You would think after the story is all said and done there wouldn’t be a whole lot to do other than fight with all the characters you’ve unlocked.  That is a major draw of the game, as there are TONS of characters with several variants on their appearance and jutsus, including every single fighter from Ultimate Ninja Storm 2.  All except for Lars Alexandersson, but whose idea was it to put a Tekken character in a Naruto game anyway?

Even though playing with all the characters can keep a gamer occupied for hours, there’s still a lot more in the single player adventure’s world to do once you’re given free reign.  As you explore all the different nations you can finish side quests and find Ninja World Timeline pages that allow you to (somewhat) recreate key fights from Naruto’s history.
Completing side quests and timeline pages earn you money, items for battle, experience points to allow for more and better items, and substitution items that can replace the generic log shown when you use a substitution jutsu.  The substitution items are taken from all over Naruto’s history, like his frog friends, the water balloon he used to practice the Rasengan, his blank answer sheet from the Chunin Exams and his frog purse.  The substitution items are my primary motivation for going back to the adventure mode.  They’re fun to collect kind of in the same way as trophies in Super Smash Brothers.

The story itself (which can be replayed from the start menu) also adds replay value with the occasional branching choice that generally equates to taking the easy way or difficult way to winning a battle, like fighting all the Swordsmen of the Mist at once or splitting them up.

I’ve been playing Ultimate Ninja Storm 3: Full Burst for the past month and I don’t see any signs of stopping for a while.  It has strong single player and multiplayer content with a story that practically surpasses the source material and enough collectibles to keep me coming back.  It is everything that an action game, and especially a shonen-based one, should be.

I give Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3: Full Burst an 8 out of 10.

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