Going into Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3, I had next to no experience with the franchise, aside from a couple brief matches with one of the earlier games in the Ultimate Ninja Storm series. I haven’t ever read the manga nor have I seen an episode of the anime. So I went into this game as a complete blank slate Naruto-wise, and that had me a little nervous.
Though a fighting game at its core, Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is more about the story mode (called Ultimate Adventure) than straight versus battles. Ultimate Adventure is the first option on the menu, so it’s clear right off the bat that the developers want to throw you right into the beautiful recreation of the anime.
And beautiful it is. The game retains the anime look, slightly adjusted to allow to still be a three dimensional game. Before starting the game tries its best to catch you up with the story up to this point. For those familiar with Naruto, it likely serves as a way to refresh the memory before being thrown into the thick of things. But for me it acted as my introduction to the world and - try as it might - no amount of text would be able to properly catch me up with all the characters and goings-on in this vast and convoluted world.
And that is what stopped me from fully enjoying the opening hours of the story. Much of the references and titles went right over my head. While none of this is a problem for long-time fans, the game doesn’t do a great job introducing players to the world. At some point though it became less of a worry for me to memorize titles, names and characters pasts and I just came to enjoy the story being told.
If you’re familiar with Naruto, the game picks up with a huge set-piece that leads into the story of the Five Kage Summit. New to Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is the “Ultimate Decision” system. This gives the player the opportunity to make one of two decisions either immediately before or during a battle. The only noticeable difference between options is difficulty, with the Legend route proving the tougher (often with choices along the lines of “Let’s take them all on at once”) and the Hero route being easier (often splitting up groups of opponents or giving you backup). The changes to narrative are negligible if there are any at all.
Throughout the entire story mode, which is lengthier than expected (I clocked in at around 14 hours when all was said and done), I couldn’t help but enjoy and be gripped by the tale being told. There were a few very emotional moments in the game, one in particular during a big battle that actually turned the entire experience I had up until the point from decent to a very good one. Cutscenes are often long and bridge the story between battles. Each chapter consists of anywhere between 2-5 battles and also free-roaming, the latter of which seems pointless. You run from one end of linear map to the other with little to no benefit to the overall game. You can collect “Ryo” during these runs (used to buy items) but the amount you find is inconsequential in comparison the how much you earn after each battle. The game could have done without these segments.
Voice-acting is hit and miss for the most part. Some of it is cringe-worthy (which I guess is par for the course with most anime) but there are some standouts. Madara in particular was a joy to listen to every time he was on screen. The localisation is laughably bad though, with lip-syncing being off by up to 3-4 seconds at times. Watching a character move their mouth long after the audio ended had me shaking my head on more than one occasion.
Similar to how the game treats catching you up on the plot, you aren’t really taught the intricacies of combat. Tips are given during load screens and you can check the pause menu to find out how to do particular moves, but aside from a brief tutorial in the beginning there is no hand holding here. I was learning new moves and combos right up until the final battles. The phrase ‘easy to learn, hard to master’ is quite fitting here.
Battles consist of at least two combatants (at times more though) fighting in a arena of sorts, dashing towards one another and hitting the attack button while moving the analog stick. Timing your stick movement results in different combinations and adding in “Chakra” can make for a flashier, and far more damaging, attack. Add in heavily scripted quick-time moments and the battles are a lot more about being great to look at and less about skilled competition.
Pulling off long combos is satisfying and mixing up regular attacks with those used with “Chakra” couldn’t help but put a smile on my face. Finishing off a match with an “Ultimate Jutsu Finish” move is among the most rewarding things I’ve done in any game recently. Movement doesn’t feel very precise, but it gets the job done for what the game is doing. The difficulty scales appropriately as you progress from chapter to chapter, but aside from a couple big scale battles at the end that had me nearly tearing my hair, the game isn’t very hard.
Outside the Ultimate Adventure mode players have the same standard options in fighting games. The Free Battle mode lets players match up against the AI (or each other), set up tournaments for between 4-8 players, or a mode solely to practice. The online mode also gives fans the chance to match their skills against others, and in the matches I played the experience was seamless. I ran into no lag at all and the fights felt the same as they did offline. You can either take part in quick ranked/unranked matches or jump into a lobby.
I think the best compliment I can pay Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is that it has convinced me to watch the anime. Over the course of the story I became attached to characters and interested in the story being told. If you’re familiar with the franchise, you’ll be able to jump right in and relive the anime. If you’re like me then the barrier to entry is high. But if you’re able to look past the vast and convoluted story and get a hold of the mechanics, there’s a very fun experience to be had here.