Among the hottest manga/anime properties of the last few years have been "Naruto" and its sequel "Naruto Shippuden," which tell the story of the world's No. 1 knucklehead ninja (Naruto Uzumaki) and his quest to become leader of Konoha, the village hidden in the leaves.
So it should be no surprise that countless video games have been released — and are in the works — to take advantage of Naruto's popularity.
One of the latest is "Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2," which I'm surprised to find is a rather decent fighting game. I just wish the developer had managed to come up with something ninja-like for players to do in the story mode between fights.
Nah. What would I do if I didn't have something to complain about?
Anyway, about that story mode: It retells the "Naruto Shippuden" saga from the beginning — our main character's return to Konoha after three years away — and culminating (sort of) with his battle against the superninja Pain. I'm sorry, however, super fans: Some details have been changed in order to streamline the story, but it's nothing too egregious.
During this mode, you spend a large part of the time running around various locations in Naruto's world, talking to people, visiting shops and searching for ingredients for new ninja tools and battle-boosting meals. There's no jumping between rooftops, no using trees as your highway through the forest — basically, no ninja-like behavior at all, unless you want to count hitting the jump button as you run. Quite frankly, it's a wasted part of the game, except as a means of getting to the next encounter.
Yet once you get to a battle, "Ninja Storm 2" goes from "meh" to "yes, please" in no time flat. Somehow, the developers have created a strategically deep fighting game with an exceedingly basic, easily mastered control scheme. The left stick moves your character about; the triggers are used to block; and the four main buttons activate a ranged attack, melee attack, chakra (spirit energy) charging, and jumping.
Most fighting games require players to master complicated button patterns and finicky joystick movements in order to unleash a character's powerful abilities. But in "Ninja Storm 2," accessing any character's skills — even their most powerful ones — is astoundingly pain-free. You just tap the chakra button once or twice and then one of the other buttons once and — blammo — you've just executed Naruto's rasengan wind attack or Kakashi's chidori lightning blade strike. The result is over-the-top mayhem that closely mirrors the action you see in the cartoon or comic book.
With such easy controls, fights become less about finger dexterity and more about a sense of timing and strategy. After all, knowing how to unleash a character's ultimate ninjutsu is useless if you don't manage to hit your opponent with it.
In a general sense, all fights are one-on-one, but you and your opponent can both have teammates leap into the fray to lend a hand momentarily, either to bolster your defense or as an added attacker. Utilized properly, teammates can turn the tide of battle in an instant.
And so can ninja tools. In addition to your standard ninja throwing knives (your ranged attack), you can carry up to four ninja tools into battle. Some will give you a boost, temporarily raising your attack power or defense; others will weaken an opponent, poisoning his or her ability to use chakra or weakening his or her defense, or just harm them outright.
Now, in the game's two pure fighting modes — free battle and online battle — that's as complicated as it gets. You duke it out with your opponent until one of you is left standing. But in the story mode, some clashes from the anime are a little too complex to communicate this way. So you've also got extended quick-time event sequences, where you must quickly respond to a command flashed on the screen or face defeat.
Normally, I greet QTEs with disdain, but in this case, I really don't see any other way to do what they were trying to accomplish — so it's OK. Plus, if you hit whatever buttons fast enough, you'll regain health lost during battle and maybe unlock a special hidden scene.
On one final note: At first, I was intimidated by the prospect of taking "Ninja Storm 2" online. I was sure well-practiced opponents would hand me my head in no time flat — especially since I decided I wouldn't use Naruto as my main fighter.
Yet I managed to hold my own pretty well, because every characters' moves are so accessible. Whether i won or lost was less about using some super ninjutsu and more about timing and tactics. And somehow they've created an online system where lag isn't an exploitable factor in a match. The game just takes a break so things can buffer, and neither player is given an unfair advantage.
"Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2"
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Publisher: Namco Bandai.
Rating: T for teen.
Recommendation: A worthy rental for any fan of fighting games. And if you're a fan of Naruto, a decent purchase.
Images courtest of Namco Bandai
First image: Naruto Uzumaki, in the orange jumpsuit, runs around in the village of Konoha.
Second image: Naruto uses shadow clones of himself to fight Pain, supposed leader of the Akatsuki, a villainous group of ninja.
Third image: Choji, known for his prodigious appetite, is joined in battle by his teammates Shikamaru, who attacks using shadows, and mind-manipulator Ino, during a clash with another member of the Akatsuki.