If there's something that is a constant in the world of video games, it's the fear that a franchise has over-saturated the market and has run its course, and gamers can only hope that a developer and publisher have the wherewithal to know when to cut and run. Unfortunately for Namco Bandai and the Naruto franchise it looks like they've hit that point. With the latest game, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations gamers will find that the franchise might finally be tapped for ideas. Favoring an experience that strictly focuses on storyline and combat, developer CyberConnect2 has tweaked the gameplay to favor faster fighting action in both online and offline battles. However, this focus has unfortunately resulted in one of the most bland games in the franchise, offering little outside of a decent combat system.
Fans of the Ultimate Ninja Storm games will find that the combat gameplay has been tweaked to its absolute finest point. The game is a blast to play, and battles are exciting throughout. The subtle changes also make a world of difference. Gone is the ability to constantly use substitution jutsu to evade attacks. Instead players will be limited to the amount of times it can be used, and will have to balance out their use while the substitution jutsu meter refills. This in turn makes some of the long-range game a little bit more important and keeps battles constantly moving. Another new addition is the “Awakening Mode” that allows players to turn the tide in battle, with Naruto turning in to his Tailed Beast Chakra Form, and Sasuke summoning the great warrior Susanoo to fight alongside him. There is also a bump in the number of playable characters, taking the total to more than 70 characters along with 15 support characters. While this may sound like a ridiculous number, be aware that a lot of the characters are variations. For example, there are four different versions of Naruto himself, meanwhile there are four versions of Sasuke. That is already ten percent of the total cast. Now granted each version does have differences between them it still feels like a number that is padded with fluff, especially when it comes to characters that are viable for online play.
Online play has received a significant tweak in allowing players to augment their combat experience with cards that can be unlocked and purchased as players complete segments of the story mode. These cards can increase attack power, defense, and chakra regeneration, which actually makes getting in to online play a bit more difficult for gamers who are waiting to pick this game up. It actually turned me off to playing online against players with characters who were decisively top-tier in terms of combat prowess. The match-making system is functional, but I found a few instances where I would be placed against players who were way above me in terms of skill when I was looking for matches where I would be on equal footing. For the more competitive types, CyberConnect2 has implemented a tournament mode along with an endless battle mode, similar to the implementation of Street Fighter IV. Participants can also watch matches online in real-time which is always a welcome addition. Players can also unlock titles and quotes to place on unique gamer cards in what is quickly becoming a popular customization tool.
Outside of the online play there isn't much in the way of a single player experience beyond the story mode. Players are given story lines to follow that take place throughout the Naruto franchise. Players can play the part of Naruto from the very beginning all the way up to Nine-Tails Chakra Mode. Gamers can also follow the stories of characters like Sasuke Uchiha, the Sage Jiraiya, Gaara, and a few other characters with less major parts in the Naruto story line. The most surprising addition is that of Zabuza and Haku, two rouge ninjas that Naruto's Team Seven faced early on in their adventures. Though the outcome of their story remains largely unchanged from how events played out in the show there are some changes that are different, which is slightly confusing. There also isn't much content with some of these bit players, so going through their story arcs is a short affair. The Zabuza and Haku arc was a total of four fights before being completed. A typical run through a character's story arc will take about an hour and is peppered with scenes from the anime series along with still frames used to convey the story. In addition to the new character perspectives there is an hour of new animation that hasn't been seen in the anime or manga, adding a fair amount of additional story elements.
Here's where things become awfully bland. There is nothing to break up the fighting, the game just takes players from fight to fight. The exploration aspect of games past is gone, which in a way makes sense because of the focus on so many story arcs. But this design decision really cuts down on replayability and variety that the previous games were able to provide, making this experience terribly one-dimensional. Sure the fighting system is solid and a lot of fun, and the exploration from Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 wasn't as fully featured as it could have been, but sometimes I like to take a break from the fighting, and losing that exploration gameplay aspect for me was a crippling blow. Character story arcs don't really do much to vary up the gameplay either, and while I appreciate the effort to make storylines for so many characters, it's still taking place in the same arenas and against a lot of the same opponents, which doesn't really give players much need for the included Survival mode either. The new card collecting and player titles systems offer a carrot at the end of a rather short stick, since most are simply unlocked by playing through the game, much like all of the character unlocks.
Visually this is the most impressive Naruto game to date. CyberConnect2 has completely captured the essence of the show and translated it to a game perfectly, which is no small feat. Characters move fluidly on screen with over the top attacks that are ripped straight from the show. Everything about the game is a faithful recreation and is definitely one of the high points for the game. The audio also fares well with tracks that fit the theme perfectly, and fans of either dubbed or subtitled games will be happy to know that the game supports both English and Japanese vocal audio tracks.
It's a bit of a shame that the latest in what is a really good series of games feels like a shallow rehash of past games. The decision to take away some of the RPG and exploration elements of the previous games was a huge let-down for me and while I understand that it would have been impossible to do considering that there are so many overarching story lines spanning a number of areas in the Naruto franchise, I'm still a bit disappointed. In losing one of my favorite aspects of the past game, do I think the overall package suffers? Absolutely. But let me make it perfectly clear that the core gameplay and combat is probably the most balanced in the series and stands up well on its own. Fans of the Naruto franchise don't have much to fear in picking up this new game unless they were a fan of the gameplay in previous games like Ultimate Ninja Storm 1 & 2. I'd actually recommend picking either of those games up over Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations just for the variety of gameplay that they provide. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations is great for gamers who can't get enough of the great fighting game mechanics that CyberConnect2 is known for and might even be great for first timers of the franchise, but for people on the fence, the old games will look much more appealing.