While many game developers are content to release lackluster video game tie-ins to television shows and movies, the Naruto series of games has proven that the genre can be something more. The most prominent example of that fact is the Naruto: Ninja Clash series of games, giving birth to a totally new style of 3D fighter while remaining authentic and tied to its roots. With Naruto: Powerful Shippuden, Namco Bandai is taking a more whimsical shot at the series, presenting a mission-based side-scrolling brawler, featuring super-deformed versions of many of the series’ popular characters and a quirky, humorous script style. It’s a big departure from games past, but is this one a powerful new entry in the Naruto franchise?
The game’s story picks up right after Naruto finishes his two-and-a-half-long training period with his mentor Jiraiya, and follows a large portion of the story arc featured in the Naruto: Shippuden series of manga and anime media. The game is split up into missions that tell bite-sized portions of this over-arching plot, and most of them feature dialogs between characters before and after the mission takes place. The story will be extremely familiar to Naruto fans, but is easy enough to follow for players new to the series as well. While the story is great on its own, what really steals the show here is the game’s presentation style. All characters are presented in a cartoony, mini-size version of their normal counterparts, and act just as silly to match; in fact, I was surprised to see how early the characters were willing to break the fourth wall and let slip that they know they’re in a video game. This makes for some hilarious dialog between characters, and the game’s quirkiness evolves each character’s personality above and beyond their anime versions. The silliest of characters (such as Might Guy) will make you laugh out loud, and even normally-serious ones such as Gaara will garner a giggle or two in response to their effective (and seemingly-accidental) deadpan delivery. The developers have done an excellent job of pandering the story to all age groups – the cuteness of the story’s presentation will certainly appeal to the younger crowd, but even older gamers will find plenty of endearing qualities to enjoy.
It’s really the relationships between the different characters – and the art style that enhanced them – that make Powerful Shippuden’s presentation so endearing. These little details make themselves just as important as the overall plot. You’ll be playing as both Naruto and Rock Lee, and both characters serve as equally-important protagonists to the game’s plot. The gameplay supports this idea very well, and encourages you to switch between the two characters to complete story missions in each of their mission maps. Some missions for one character can only be taken once making some progress in the other’s mission map, so there is a lot of presence from both main characters.
The game does unload a bit of backstory on you in the first few minutes of play, but it’s not so much to leave you chomping at the bit to skip the cutscenes and dive right into the gameplay. It’s a real achievement to be able to say that the story isn’t just supplemental to a game’s overall enjoyment, but is actually a central component of it.
Powerful Shippuden isn’t the first side-scrolling adventure game in the franchise’s history, but it’s clear that Namco Bandai took cues from the other games in its history to heart when creating the game’s combat system. There’s a good mix of the familiar and the fresh here, and remains accessible while rewarding players who delve deeper into the game’s mechanics. While there’s a lot of depth here, the game does a good job of presenting new gameplay elements to you at a fair pace through its tutorial system; it’s handled very well and teaches you the game without feeling like a chore.
Each character can unload a series of normal strikes by repeatedly hitting the Y button, or use some of their Chakra to use special techniques and strikes with the X button, which are more powerful and may be helpful in taking down tougher opponents. These moves can be chained together to form powerful combos. Chakra is also used defensively, allowing characters to dash quickly from enemy to enemy, block attacks, or even avoid them entirely, and is refilled by collecting Chakra orbs or by landing normal strikes. If a particularly-strong enemy crosses your path, you can perform a special technique by pressing R+Y, which will use up a chunk of Chakra but is usually guaranteed to take an enemy out in one hit.
Both Naruto and Rock Lee have access to the abilities listed above, but that’s where their similarities end. The two protagonists present completely unique combat styles to master; Naruto is a competent fighter but also has a selection of tricks up his sleeve, being able to summon Shadow Clones to fight for him and take down tougher foes with his Rasengan. Rock Lee, being unable to utilize Ninjutsu at all, focuses on being a strong fighter, and can unleash a flurry of powerful blows to knock enemies flat. He even gains the ability to enter a super-powerful state by activating his Eight Gates ability, allowing his strikes to hit a lot harder but being unable to regenerate Chakra through attacks during the duration of the ability. Eight Gates can be toggled on and off (almost) whenever it’s needed, so it’s not uncommon to blaze through a swath of foes and then disable it to regain your Chakra.
Each of the game’s missions has the player trying to complete a victory condition (such as defeating all enemies or reaching the stage’s exit by a certain time) while avoiding a defeat condition, but there’s also a lot of leeway in letting you play a mission the way you want to. Each mission also feature five personal challenges to choose from, placing an extra stipulation on the mission (such as completing it within a time limit), but rewards the player with an experience point multiplier if they succeed. There’s no downside if you fail to meet those conditions, so it never hurts to pick one before entering a mission. You can repeat completed missions later on to try to beat your score and earn additional experience.
Speaking of which, experience points are earned as you complete missions, and are given based on your performance in performing combos and meeting objectives within a time limit. These points can be spent on improving your character’s strength through extra health and attack power, extra Chakra reserves, improving special abilities and techniques, increasing resistance to status problems, and even powering up your support characters and granting access to special ninja items. This system rewards experimentation, and allows the player to withdraw any experience points spent on a certain aspect of their character to assign elsewhere.
Similar to some of the Naruto fighting games (and others, such as Marvel vs. Capcom), your character can also collect support characters to call on during a mission, requiring time to charge up but presenting unique and powerful attacks and support abilities whenever they’re ready. Up to three can be brought into a mission, allowing you to customize your support team to fill in any gaps in your strategy. If a particularly tough group of foes is stacked on a spot, call on Sakura to smash them with her fists. If your health or Chakra is low, call in Tenten to throw you a random assortment of recovery items while launching throwing weapons at your foes. There’s plenty of characters to collect, so it behooves you to complete as many missions as possible to collect them all.
Powerful Shippuden’s gameplay mechanics don’t take any major risks, but is great because of how well it blends several well-established gameplay styles into an overall-enjoyable experience. The missions are varied and exciting and lend themselves well to the game’s pick-up-and-play style. At the same time, the addictive combat will keep you itching to try out that next mission or unlock just another upgrade to improve your character. It may not be groundbreaking, but Powerful Shippuden is a rock-solid gameplay experience.
Where Powerful Shippuden falls short of perfection is in a couple of features it could have included. Most glaringly-absent is any sort of co-op mission mode, normally a staple of side-scrolling beat-em-ups. Given the ability to go back and re-play missions, it would have also been cool to have had an online leaderboard system to allow for competing with your 3DS friends for high scores. Despite this, there’s plenty of play to get out of Powerful Shippuden.
One of the Naruto series’ trademarks is its beautiful art design, and while Powerful Shippuden may not boast the jaw-dropping 3D cel-shaded graphics of its console cousins, it takes the series in a new direction and presents a game centered around a cast of “chibi” (or super-deformed) cartoon characters. The artwork is beautifully-rendered and appears crisp and clean on the 3DS’s dual screens. The characters are drawn in an adorable, endearing style both in dialogs and in gameplay, and while the animation may not be as fluid as other current 2D games, it harkens back to the style so prevalent in 90’s arcade games, adding a nostalgic touch.
The game’s missions place character sprites in front of 3D backgrounds; these backgrounds add a sense of variety and vibrance to the action taking place and are surprisingly well-detailed, but don’t steal the show either; instead, they really let the characters in the foreground pop off the screen. The 2D sprites used for characters and items do appear slightly pixilated and scaled down during missions (unless the camera zooms in on you), but are not immersion-breaking. Perhaps one of the greater aspects of the game’s graphics is the full use of the handheld’s 3D capabilities. Characters in the foreground pop out from the backgrounds behind them, and create a true sense of depth during special abilities, which may engulf the screen in vibrant special effects. Landing a particularly-powerful blow on an enemy may even send him soaring out towards you, leading to some hilarious results. Powerful Shippuden may not push the 3DS to its limits, but it’s no slouch, and serves to admirably enhance the game’s presentation.
Powerful Shippuden’s sound direction really works to capture the unique flavor of the Naruto mythos. The series’ trademark musical style is present here, blending traditional Japanese influences with modern rock guitar riffs and rhythms. The music always fits the mood of the situation, from the whimsical to the insense, and though the same tracks may come up frequently, it’s hard to get tired of Powerful Shippuden’s soundtrack. The Japanese voice actors from Naruto Shippuden are present, and even if you don’t speak the language, it’s easy to tell that the cast performs their roles admirably. There are no conversational oddities here – each character’s lines are delivered well; the right tone always comes through. These voice-overs are really only delivered during missions and are limited to simple exclamations, but they do their job. The game’s sound effects are also adequate, with familiar slashing and clashing sounds to accompany battle sequences, as well as whimsical and comical effects during really hilarious moments. Overall, the sound quality is very good in-game, with music, voices, and sound effects coming through crisp and clear on the 3DS’s speakers.
Overall Score: 17/20 = 8.5 out of 10
Naruto: Powerful Shippuden is a fine example of how the experience of a television or movie franchise can be extended and enhanced through video games. Namco Bandai didn’t take the easy way out, but rather delved deeper into a portion of the Naruto storyline with excellent gameplay elements and a delightful, whimsical presentation style. Not just a game for the kids, Powerful Shippuden is an excellent portable game for series fans and newcomers alike.
+ Mechanics are simple to pick up but reward exploration and practice
+ Story presentation is delightfully funny
+ Missions provide a nice variety and encourage play with both main characters
+ Look and feel of the graphics and sound direction are authentic to the series
– Story may be predictable for Naruto fans
– 2D sprites appear pixilated at times
– Lack of a co-op mode or leaderboards
A special thank you to Namco Bandai Games for providing us a review copy for “Naruto: Powerful Shippuden”!