Most anime to video game adaptations have suffered in some sort of digital purgatory since time immemorial. Buying one based on your favorite show was usually a sign of some sick delusion—a delirium that ate at the senses until they were numb to pain. Did anyone import the Neon Genesis Evangelion game for Nintendo 64, or stumble through the anime sludge that’s graced the last few console generations? Maybe, but no one’s talking. It’s something to shove under your mattress while pining, “Maybe next time.•bCrLf
Needless to say, it was somewhat of a shocker to find that Ubisoft’s Montreal studio was working on an open-world Naruto game, making them the first non-Japanese development team to tackle the franchise. Running through the leaf village at break-neck ninja speed, exploring at will, and advancing your skills seemed like the perfect fit for the series and, thankfully, the end product fulfills most of the expectations that the optimistic previews provided.
Rise of a Ninja follows Naruto from the beginning (and continues through the Invasion of Konoha arc), dropping the player in a world where our bright blond hero is loved by few and hated by many, troublesome but well-meaning scamp that he is. What will immediately stick out once the game starts is how beautiful the visuals are. This was obviously a game crafted by fans of the series, as everything—from locales to the individual character models—has been lovingly recreated in cel-shaded 3-D.
Controls are tight when running around the lush environment, employing all of the standard action game practices in an RPG-like world that requires the player to complete tasks for the villagers to make them happy, which in turn makes them helpful to whatever your current mission may be. More often than not, the demanding locals will have you double-jumping and sprinting about on fetch quests, ramen runs, or races; tasks that, while fun, can get a bit repetitive as the game goes on.
The repetition of these errands, which are mostly optional anyway, is broken up by adventures along the path of the main quest. These have you fighting bandits and other ninja, completing grueling field exams, and battling tough boss characters via the one-on-one fighting system. In this regard, Rise of a Ninja is basically an RPG/fighting game hybrid. Encounters can spring out of nowhere, and they immediately thrust you into a 2.5-D plane, on which you’ll use an expanding list of combos, throws, and Jutsu, powerful spells conjured by working the mojo of the two analog sticks. The fighting system works pretty well overall, but at times it can be a bit tiring. Some of the boss fights, especially the one against Orochimaru, could have benefited from a less restricted playing field; some 3-D action that would fall more in line with the exploring aspects of the game. It becomes a stronger feature when playing against friends, online or off, an arena that might not have worked as well had the developers not gone the traditional one-on-one route.
The game’s story is regaled through clips of the show, which will be great for some, but disappointing for others. On the one hand, it’s a fantastic way for the unfamiliar to experience the show’s sprawling narrative. At the same time, it lacks a lot of the emotional punch when you’re only seeing bits and pieces of animation in a more condensed time frame. Longtime fans of the series may appreciate the refresher course, but some will prefer skipping past scenes they may have watched multiple times, especially if they’re not fond of the English dub. It might have been wiser to stick with the in-game engine for storytelling, but it’s certainly enjoyable enough as is.
Unless you go for 100% completion, the story mode can be a somewhat brief affair, potentially tackled in an afternoon or two of generous gaming. Still, the experience as a whole is well rounded, gorgeously designed, and will surely lead to at least one sequel. Not following it up would be a shame, considering how many Naruto fighting games have seen release since the show first started generating products in the interactive world. It’s certainly not without its flaws, but there’s a lot more story to tell within the Naruto universe and, thus far, Ubisoft has proved its camp to be the most capable of telling it
[Excerpted from the April 2008 issue of Otaku USA magazine]