Review: Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 2

Naruto_UN2_cover.JPGPlatform: PS2
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Cyber Connect 2
Release Date: 6/26/07
Genre: Fighting
Players:
1-2

With the popularity of Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto franchise still going strong, Namco Bandai has been keeping PlayStation 2 gamers busy with a number of increasingly cooler games based on the anime and manga series. Back for a second round with a number of excellent improvements, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 2 packs even more of a punch than the first game and is a highly recommended instant buy for fans. Cyber Connect 2 brings back the manga-style characters on detailed 3D backdrops and adds more playable fighters and unlockables to the mix in this latest installment. Even if you’re not a fan of the series, you’ll want to give this one a shot just to see how much depth lies hidden on this shiny silver disc. Granted, you might be lost in the plot or hung up winning a particular fight if you’re not a regular viewer of the show, but that’s where paying careful attention comes into play.

In case you missed the first Ultimate Ninja, the game is a story-based fighter that’s designed to look like a moving manga, complete with panel transitions, Japanese sound effects and dynamic “splash page” special moves. For reference purposes, gameplay is an inspired cross between Capcom’s Power Stone and Treasure’s Sega Saturn classic Guardian Heroes, with a dash of Super Smash Bros. for good measure. Although you’re battling it out in 3D environments, during combat your movements are restricted to hopping between two planes or fighting from above or below opponents while collecting a wide selection of cool power-ups that can turn the tide of battle in a split second. Ultimate Ninja 2 tones down the pickup count, adds more animation and ups the number of special attacks each character can use. There’s a lot more here once you get into the game’s custom character feature, but I’d definitely recommend new players hit Training mode to see how the fighting system works. Merely hopping into Ultimate Road unprepared can be hazardous to your Dual Analog controller.

The single player Ultimate Road mode drops you into a story that’s partly derived from the anime and manga series with some new content specifically created for the game. As Naruto, you’ll travel a nicely rendered set of 3D environments, talking to characters and either competing in challenges or playing some really fun mini-games. As the roster of playable characters has been bumped up to over 30 (the first game had a mere 12 fighters), you’ll soon be unlocking new characters by using them in challenge battles. Unlike your standard one on one fighter, sometimes you’ll need to hop into a series of matches as different characters in battles where assorted winning conditions apply. This gives the game a nice sense of unpredictability as it keeps even the most jaded player on his or her toes.

The simple but deep control setup is back from the first game with a less complicated of pulling off special attacks. A single attack button opens up the game to all, but mastering timing and character placement is key to victory. In the original, you needed to enter the same button commands for each character within a specific time limit. In this installment, you’ll either be jamming on a single button or spinning an analog stick furiously in order to outpace your opponent’s blows or potential dodge moves. While some fans might find this too easy, it actually makes you work a lot harder. Granted, you’ll probably wear out a couple of controllers on the harder modes or in the two-player versus matches where you and a friend will be jamming and twirling your PS2 pads into piles of smoking plastic, but that’s the mark of a good fighter, I say.

To keep things interesting, if you try to play cheap by staying on one plane too long, evil looking “pest characters” will pop up to annoy you. You can smack these guys around if you like, but they tend to go nuts and lay the smack down on both you and your opponent. Randomly picking up and using items can also be deadly if you happen to thrown down something that affects a wide area such as an explosive or poison scroll. Using the entire fighting area is not only recommended to avoid stuff like this, you’ll also uncover hidden items if you’re constantly in motion. After a fight, you’ll see a scorecard that tallies up bonuses for different types of attacks, damage dealt, how much life you have left and so on. This keeps fights from degenerating into simple button crushing and adds highly to the replay factor.

Where the first game had a straightforward approach in regards to storytelling, you’re allowed to explore Hidden Leaf Village and its surroundings this time, making for a more immersive experience. There are some light RPG elements to the game, such as side quests, earning tons of Ryo through mini-games and purchasing helpful items to use during battle. If you’re clever, you can exploit the money earning element a wee bit too much right after the first battle by playing the hilarious Tree Climb mini game multiple times. In it, you need to guide Naruto deftly up a massive tree avoiding branches while seizing speed pickups and trying to beat the time limit. There are a number of other fun mini games (handstand racing, posing challenges, et cetera) that net you varying amounts of loot, so feel free to experiment and rake in the Ryo.

Graphically, the game blends its well-animated characters and rich 3D backgrounds perfectly in both free roaming and battle modes. In a way, the game looks and feels like a multimedia overload of manga, anime and game elements blended as flawlessly as possible on the PS2 hardware. Although CyberConnect 2 is obviously restricted in what they can do with the characters and storyline, the game pulls off its storytelling quite well with a number of solid cut scenes using the in-game engine. Another impressive aspect is the sound design, which features all the US voice actors from the show doing their thing as well as some great music and sound effects straight out of the show. As solid as the gameplay is here, I’d actually love to see CC2 do some sort of old school Naruto RPG using this art style, but we’ll have to see what the future brings.

Overall, there’s really nothing negative about the game to speak of unless you absolutely have a bias against Naruto or dislike anime-based games in general. However, in terms of quality and overall impact, the game is absolutely a gem to pick up and play. I’d say that this is one of those games that just might change the minds of open-minded gamers who can get over Naruto’s er, overly enthusiastic “can-do” spirit and some of the supporting cast’s questionable quirkiness. Namco Bandai is on a roll this year with this and with two more Naruto titles on the way (Ultimate Ninja Heroes on the PSP and Uzumaki Chronicles 2 on the PS2), it’s clear that their dedication to anime-based games and fans of these types of games is rock solid.

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