Naruto is no more. No, I’m not spoiling the ending of the series (though Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4’s story mode will if you haven’t read all 72 volumes of the manga or are waiting for the dubbed version of the anime to catch up) but after seven years, hundreds of episodes, and a lot reading, Masashi Kishimoto’s saga about a hot-headed young ninja that dreams of being the leader of his village has come to a ridiculously flashy ending.
The problem, as previously stated in both this review and my previous preview, is that it will ruin the end of the series for fans that like dubs, though curiously the game has a full English voice cast with every major player in the series reprising their roles, or having them lifted from unreleased episodes. So in respect to my fellow philistines (I prefer dubs, Steve Blum is Spike Spiegel), I am going to keep the details about the story’s narrative content as light as humanly possible.
With this in mind, the game’s story mode covers the ninja world’s final confrontation with the horrible buggers that want to destroy it, covering the final volumes of the Manga and 17th -19th series of the anime pretty much in its entirety (with filler episodes removed of course)
Aaannnd that is basically it. There’s some nice call backs to some early scenes for continuities sake, but that’s your lot. It takes about 12 hours to get through and since, unlike previous entries in the series which covered more ground, it bloody feels like it. On the plus side, it feels like a fully interactive version of the show brought to life in exacting detail. There were moments where the game flitted between stills from the show and in-engine action, and I had to do a double take before I could figure out which was which. The animation is incredibly fluid and brings the ostentatious spectacle of the show’s climactic battles to the fore with renewed aplomb.
The moment-to-moment play has also been refined to a fine point. What works has been kept, what didn’t has either been nixed or reworked into one fluid series of systems that all work together in harmony. The basics are mostly the same. Simple single button combos handled with B/Circle can be augmented with a push of Y/triangle that will infuse your attacks with chakra. One tap before you attack unleashes a special attack while three taps before an attack will fire off your secret technique. There are flashy super moves that decimate your opponents’ health reserves and destroy half a city block. These all use chakra, of course, which you’ll need to recharge by holding Y/ triangle. However while doing so, you are open to attack. You can also toss kunai at an opponent to stop them charging up their chakra by tapping X/square or stop an onslaught by your opponent by hitting LT/L2 to Substitute Jutsu to safety.
Combat is a brilliant game of cat and mouse as you attempt manage your chakra while trying to do as much damage as humanly possible. There’s also the occasional QTE to contend with, but they never feel overused and are very much from the Shen Mue school, in as much as the inputs correspond well with the on screen action and don’t just feel like an elaborate play button.
There’s a nice mix of styles to be found in story mode too. Along with straight one-on-one fights, there are also free battles that are akin to the Muso gameplay of Tecmo’s Warriors series in which your character fights waves of easily beaten-opponents and collosal boss fights in which the player takes on the role of the tailed beasts in battles reminiscent of Space Harrier or the on-rails sections of Bayonetta.
When you’re actually in control of the action, story mode is a delight – a flashy yet simple brawler replete with show-stopping set pieces that does an admirable job of recreating the look and feel of the series that its fans know and love.
However, it does such a great job of recreating the series that it also inherits one of it’s biggest issues too: the pacing is all over the place. Some missions only take a couple of minutes while others go on for over half an hour, with only a few minutes of actual play time or action bookended with a whole lots of melodrama and over-wrought monologues about friendship and dreams and all the usual guff that stops the series dead in its tracks.
Technically it isn’t filler, but the much smaller time frame of the story mode in Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 makes it feel like more of a slog at times, not to mention less welcoming to the uninitiated than previous entries. While earlier games in the series had much larger spans of the manga and anime to cover in their story modes that helped those not already au fait with the series to get an abridged version of events, and with it some semblance of what was actually happening, the source material used for Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is so far along in terms of the series narrative with all the jargon that goes along with it that to outsiders it is not only overwhelming, but more than a little off-putting.
Still, for lapsed fans that just want to know what happened at the end, it’s once again, a much quicker way of seeing the climax to the whole thing than sitting through several series of the anime or reading the final volumes.
Once you’ve put the story mode to bed, it’s time to give adventure mode a whirl. Set after the events of the series, adventure mode tasks players with exploring a semi open world as Naruto, Sakura, and Hinata while carrying out various requests from characters in the series. These are usually simple things like going to a certain area and talking to someone or giving them certain items…then having a scrap, because remember this is a fighting game, before being told to go to a new area and do it all over again. I found the bulk of my time spent hunting for memory fragments – small crystals dotted around the map which allow you to take part in notable battles form the course of the series such as Naruto’s battle against Gara during the Chunin exams, his tense battle against Pain and many more besides. Though none of these skirmishes reach the same cinematic levels as the story mode, being little more than simple versus matches against the computer, they’re a fun little distraction all the same and a nice bonus for long-time fans of the series.
Finally there’s battle mode, a straight up three-on-three fighter bolted onto the game for good measure. Complete with both single and multiplayer modes allowing you to battle both online and offline, these include versus, survival, and league modes, which though fairly standard, are well put together. The most impressive part of the experience though is the sheer size and variety of its roster. To call it comprehensive is an understatement; there are five versions of both Naruto and Sasuke alone, along with practically every minor character from the series also getting a look and more planned for DLC to boot. Each variant character also isn’t merely the same character with a different skin.
They all handle differently; young Naruto handles very differently to his “sage” version, for example. Likewise, certain characters can also work together to pull off special combination jutsu (finisher) moves. With over 50 characters to choose from at launch, that’s a lot of potential moves to find. Luckily the game does help by preselecting corresponding team mates for you while you build your team. For example, pick Naruto and the cursor will automatically move to Sasuke afterwards, then chose Sasuke and Sakura will be selected. It’s a small touch but certainly a welcome one.
Online play for the most part works well, featuring both player and ranked matches as well as an endless mode. While online I encountered only a couple minor problems with lag, though since the release of a new launch-day patch these should all be cleared up.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is a fantastic finale to both the videogame and anime/manga series alike. With a comprehensive roster of characters, spectacular presentation and hours of content to enjoy there’s plenty of fun to be had for fans of the series. However, newcomers are likely to find the story mode incomprehensible, though there’s certainly fun to be had in battle mode’s flashy and fun brawling regardless of your history with the show. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is a love letter to existing fans and the perfect a send-off for the knuckle-headed ninja and the inhabitants of the hidden leaf.
Developer: CyberConnect2 | Publisher: Bandai Namco | Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One | ESRB: T | Release Date: February 4, 2016 | Controls: Mouse/Keyboard, Controller
Reviewed on PS4. Review copy provided by publisher.