The relationship between video games and media licenses is equivocal to that of Jason Voorhees and college students. For every Goldeneye or Matrix: Path of Neo there are twenty cheap, broken cash-ins that nobody in their right mind would ever fish out from the bottom of the bargain bin. It’s mystifying because video games have the potential to be an excellent representation of their license if cards are played right. The Naruto Ultimate Ninja series has – to my persisting astonishment – consistently been fun and entertaining, and I could even see it appealing to some people who have no understanding of Naruto. Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 builds on its predecessor’s design and presents itself well, and the result is a surprisingly engaging game.
It must be said that your appreciation of the story will depend on how much you like (or dislike) Naruto because the main mode, Ultimate Adventure, follows the second arc, Hurricane Chronicles, very faithfully. Titular character Naruto returns from a three year period of intensive training and goes through story arcs delving into a series of conspiracies watered-down to be accessible to younger audiences. Perhaps understandingly the game assumes you’re familiar with Naruto but is forced to cut out a lot of development and people unfamiliar with the series will probably develop a cursory understanding of what’s going on. The English dubbing continues the terrible standard of the anime but thankfully the language can be changed to Japanese so you don’t have to listen to the grating English voiceovers.
By far the biggest strength of Ninja Storm 2 is that it really feels like a cohesive narrative. A lot of fighting games just feature expositive text walls or cutscenes but there’s a full open world to explore here. Ninja Storm 2 could arguably be described as having RPG elements. As you proceed through mission arcs you’ll have allies join and leave you at regular intervals and you gain money, which can be used to purchase items that can be used either outside of combat or mapped to the D-pad and used during the middle of a fight. Throughout your travels you can find materials that can be used to create newer, more powerful items that can give you a much needed advantage against harder opponents.
Ninja Storm 2 goes as far as including side quests available from locals scattered around the populated areas of the Naruto world, although the necessity of most of these is debatable. While a few of them make use of the combat mechanics others are just running around talking to people or interacting with whatever it is you’re looking for. The game makes use of a “Friends” system where doing side quests for main characters increases your friend rank and subsequently lets you see special scenes with that character, but it’s not really sufficient motivation for the tedium. It’s still admirable to see something as simple as a fighting game vary the gameplay, even if it doesn’t always work.
Another aspect that makes Ninja Storm 2 exceptionally rare among licensed media games is that it actually takes advantage of its source material, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the combat. There’s a huge variety of characters available and most of them feel unique in either subtle or significant ways. Different martial arts styles, different weapons and preferences of strength or speed contribute to the feeling of uniqueness among the large ensemble, but Ninja Storm 2 utilizes the diversity of the Naruto cast abilities. One character can manipulate sand, another can create giant explosive animals made of clay, and another is an expert in snake magic. One character is a hive mind of six human bodies. The list goes on and on.
Naruto fans will also bask in the litany of unlockables and bonus content. Money can be used to purchase individual music tracks and videos of scripted boss fight events and ultimate jutsus. The forty characters, which are unlocked as you play, include alternate costumes. Titles and trading cards are available as unlockable or purchasable collectibles that can customize your profile for online fights, and story scrolls and memory crystals will regularly pop up that fill players in on moments from the first season. This probably won’t mean much to people unfamiliar with Naruto but Ninja Storm 2 manages to be both an accessible game and a love letter to series fans.
What doesn’t work is the tedious amount of walking around you’ll do. While the open world is a great way to connect the events of the game there’s no fast-travel system and it gets repetitive very quickly, especially if you plan on doing side quests. One main mission has a team led by Kakashi traveling to an out-of-the-way area to fight two villains, and then after that battle you cut back to Naruto’s backup team which then has to travel the exact same route to the same location. The world isn’t big enough that it’s too monotonous but given how many bells and whistles are in this game the lack of a fast-traveling is perplexing.
Ultimate Adventure is also where a few performance issues come into play. Loading times are fairly frequent and lengthy enough that I wound up installing the game on my hard drive so the screens didn’t feel quite as agonizing. There were also a few minor bugs, namely NPCs in the Hidden Leaf Village getting stuck and clipping into a wagon or another character several times.
Combat itself is simplistic but accessible in a manner reminiscent of Super Smash Bros. Brawl. You have one attack button to chain melee combos, a ranged attack that functions more as a support role, and the ability to jump and dash around your battlefield. On paper this seems like a shallow system but combat is refreshingly fast-paced and manages to be lively owing to the usefulness of items in battle, support characters who can be called in to provide brief backup, an Awakening mode that can be triggered when low on health, and great looking ultimate attacks. It’s gratifying to see any fighting game where you don’t need to memorize 15-button combos to do damage and is accessible to a casual fighting game enthusiast.
Boss fights are particularly dramatic in Ninja Storm 2 and, in addition to being visually spectacular, they make an impressive effort to spruce up the gameplay in between standard one-on one combat matches. Boss encounters all have rapid-fire quicktime events that are spectacular to watch, give you a reasonable amount of time to execute them, and don’t punish you too severely for messing them up. Some boss fights have phases that utilize rail shooting or facing a much larger boss and finding an opening to attack that actually work really well and do a lot to make these battles unique.
Ninja Storm 2 still smacks of the usual gameplay and difficulty padding almost omnipresent in fighting games. NPC opponents develop an aggravating habit of just leaping around the battlefield and dancing around your reach rather than actually attacking you. This one obnoxious boss nearly ruined the game because his unlimited wind shurikens knocked me clear across the map. I had to madly strafe around hammering the guard button just to get within striking distance. Some fights in the story impose arbitrary restrictions like not being able to use your ultimate jutsu or your awakening, which makes sense early on but later in the game you still deal with them occasionally.
Beyond being beautiful in terms of graphics, Ninja Storm 2 offers a unique style reminiscent of actual anime. Everything is crisp, detailed, and has a unique appearance to it that isn’t cartoony as much as different in the way that cel-shaded games are. The musical score is generally solid all around: The tranquil theme of the Hidden Leaf Village, the mournful themes taking place during some of the more personal battles between characters, and the intense music for the frantic quicktime event boss battle scenes all fits beautifully.
CyberConnect2 could have made another addition to the bargain bin that so many licensed media games are, but they put a lot of effort into Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 and tried a lot of new things. A lot of them worked, others didn’t, but it’s extremely impressive to see this kind of ambition both in a genre as worn as fighting games and in the subset of licensed media games, whose reputation precedes it most unfavorably. Ninja Storm 2 won’t win any game of the year awards and non-fans may not find the appeal of a lot of extra content, but it’s a thoughtfully designed and surprisingly well presented title.
The anime-style presentation looks fantastic and the Naruto universe is brought to life through the excellent world map
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The simplistic combat is fast-paced and fun and boss battles are extremely memorable, but side quests and tedious travel time tarnish gameplay
Music is expressive and well composed, and sounds of battle are excellent. English dubs are terrible but you can change the language to Japanese with subtitles
There's a solid ten hours plus of content including the main story and extra missions, though be warned, a sizable chunk of it is Naruto fan service
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is fun, ambitious, and works beyond its material with great results