A Beguilded Love Letter, Burdened By It's Own Clumsiness
As I sit down to write this review, I feel conflicted. I've made it no secret that I hold the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja line of fighting games in extremely high regard. Back in the heyday of the PS2, these often overlooked games were the pinnacle of non-traditional fighting games, desperately trying to find a place to exist during the drought of the fighter. Using its popular licence for extra pull, CC2 crafted games which mirrored their own enthusiasm for the Naruto line, giving diehard fans exactly what they clamoured for every time. I would seriously urge you to find the PS2 games and give them a spin if you ever have a spare minute and a few extra dollars, they truly are excellent (Just start from 3).
However, as time and technology changed, the now simplistic graphics from the PS2 era titles simply weren't enough to be the show stopper they once were. Enter Naruto Storm for the PS3, an interesting but extremely flawed game that pulled the series into the third dimension. It was a decent attempt at creating something new and interesting with the series, a hearty framework that could be added upon, but more importantly, fixed in the future.
So now, I find myself at an impasse. I have to look at Naruto Storm for what it is, and not what I wanted it to be. My expectations were incredibly high going into this game, I had been looking forward to it for months since its first announcement. I've tried to stay objective, but I can't help but be disappointed in the result. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's look at what this game is.
What this game is a beautiful piece of fandom that is tailor-made for anyone who has ever watched or thought about watching Naruto. Starting at the beginning of the Shippuden line (the 3 year timeskip after the original Naruto series ended) the story follows Naruto Uzumaki as he returns from his leave of absence, spent training with his reluctant Master Jiriaya. The story is followed loosely, certain negligible details left on the wayside for brevity's sake, but you're always left getting the gist. And that's what's important here; this game assumes that you have seen all of Naruto, it is tailor-made for the fan, which is why the story mode boss battles are so interesting. Rather than simply throwing more health or faster speed onto a particular character, Cyber Connect 2 had completely redone important story events, turning them into QTE laden special battles. These battles are the shimmering coat of the game as they are, without a doubt, breathtaking. A few of them can get bogged down by interesting gameplay variants like a Panzar Dragoon-esque shooting mini game or an odd improvised turret system, but each and every boss battle is truly something to behold, the fight choreography and combat sequencing often surpassing the source material. There WILL be times where you curse the QTE nature of the scene itself for forcing you to divide your attention between the timing controls and the stunning visual. And, throughout the experience, the game never really stops being beautiful. Whether in combat, walking down the narrow corridors of Konoha, searching around the overworld map for various hidden items, the game never stops looking fantastic. The movement of the characters mouths can look a little robotic at times, but that's a very minor niggle in the long run.
The story mode itself, where you will be spending almost 8 to 12 hours if you want everything in the game (and you do) is...woefully traditional. I can understand why CC2 decided to return to the roots of the series and use a pre-rendered background style overworld map for the exploration of the game. In the previous storm, the entire city of Konoha was laid out for you to freely traverse, much like 2 Ubisoft games Namco had been competing with at the time. However, it does have its hitches and makes the regular act of traversing the world and communicating with its characters feel rather dated. Cameras locked into one position can make navigation frustrating as you watch the loading bar pop in and out with each accidental return to the previous area. The method in which you take on missions feels outdated as well, often asking you to move from one side of the entire world to the other, complete a single task which usually does not involve fighting at all, then returning to where you started from. A more streamlined approach would have been appreciated, either that or simply put more fights along the path. But this isn't unique to Storm 2, every Ulimate Ninja, and indeed, most CC2 games do this. It is a part of their mantra and was to be expected, and it isn't TERRIBLY annoying, just something I wish they would have cleaned up a bit first. And the load times in this game are fairly terrible. Every fight, every scene, almost every time you enter a new room on the map, load time rears its ugly head. The initial mandatory install was particularly terrible; I had downloaded, played through the demo, purchased, and completed the first world or Super Meat Boy in the time it took for the initial install to finish.
So then, the fighting. Well, on the surface, it's not bad. A lot of issues have been fixed from the first game so it's not terribly buggy. Each action, evading, throwing shurikens, loading chakra and performing advanced attacks or defenses is all very seemless, simplicity being the name of the game. And, in the campaign or free battle, it works pretty well. The AI is decent enough to provide a challenge but never seems too overbearing. I played through most of the game on hard and found the computer to be squirrely enough to keep me focused and not be bored. There are 46 characters to choose from, though you will be working your way through the almost 12 hour campaign to unlock them all, which is a bit of a chore. In the world of 2010 fighting games, having to do silly things like that needs to end. Games like Tekken 6 and Super Street Fighter 4 picked up on this, I think all the others should as well. Save unlocking for extras, not vital pieces of the game.
But, this is a fighting game by nature and design, and unfortunately while the combat is perfectly serviceable against AI, when you bring in another human player, it completely falls apart.
While some of Storm's bugs have been fixed, the loose nature of the combat hasn't been tightened up at all. Most engagements in the game will result in two combatants throwing shurikens or launching assist characters at each other, trying to find an opening in which they can approach. The problem there in lies within the basic attacks of the game. The close combat element of the game works on a sort of rock paper scissor system, involving attacking, blocking and throwing. Attack beats throw, Throw beats block, block beats attack. The problem lies in how attack strings work. If someone starts a combo and is blocked, a block stun goes into effect which prevents them from counterattacking. However, some of these strings are so long and have such labored animation that the person blocking can simply walk out of most combos unscathed. There is also a system where if one blocks just as their about to be hit, they will teleport behind their attacker and have the ability to counter attack. And again, because of the labored animation, the person who had been previously attacking is now wide open for almost any sort of attack. What this all means is that attacking in close quarters is never safe, which isn't truly the problem. The problem lies in the fact that, because attacking up close is so risky, human players will simply never attack up close. In the roster of 46 characters, there are no characters that are required to take the fight close in. Because of this, most, if not all matches you encounter consist of both players jumping around the screen launching assist attacks or special attacks from afar for 99 seconds. It is the equivalent of every character in street fighter having a fireball, both characters staying at the far opposite ends of the stage and simply spamming hadukens all day until someone dies. There are systems put in place to discourage that, but none of them are strict enough to stop or even deter a human player from repeating this. In the end, much like the previous game, it is hard to come away satisfied by playing this fighting game where, when playing against other people, you rarely actually fight.
And while some of Storm's bugs have been fixed, others have risen to show their ugly heads. Animation glitches, Frame exploits, speed issues, item imbalances, dozens and dozens off issues come to light after only a few online games. Unfortunately, these are simply the result of little to no play testing, which, again, makes me wonder what CC2 really classifies this game as. As a fighting game it feels broken and unfinished. As an action game, it feels archaic.
So in the end, it boils down to what this game does right and what it does wrong. Who is this for and who should stay away. Well, if you have ever wanted to see Naruto but know how long it is and didn't want to deal with literal months of episodes in order to get caught up, this game is for you. The story of the salad days of Naruto is told wonderfully here; acting as the loveliest version of anime cliffnotes you will ever see. If you already watched and liked Naruto, this game is for you as well. The redone action sequences from important milestones in the anime are absolutely top-notch and WILL make you just as excited as you were the first time you saw these fights. This game is absolute eye candy and dripping with style that everyone can get into and appreciate. But, if you are looking for...even a competent fighting game, go elsewhere. The fighting system in the game is filled with so many exploits and glitches that any sort of competitive play seems nothing more than a joke or some wayward pipe dream. Anyone looking for a set of concrete rules will be left wanting, a very frustrating experience left in their laps. I would hope that most of the glitches would be patched out, but given CC2's track record in the past, there's almost no hope of any meaningful changes coming down the line. In the end, at 60 dollars, I can't recommend this game. However, later this year around Christmas time, if you're looking for something to play through, you might wanna pick this up after its first price drop. There is good amongst the bad, and you don't have to dig that hard to find it. This is an oddly written love letter from Naruto fans at CC2 to Naruto fans around the world and the care in the story telling is clear. I only wish they had spent as much time on fighting system as they had on their visuals.