The blond, spiky haired ninja named Naruto has been around in Japan since 1997. However, even with the lengthy anime series finally hitting western shores, it’s taken quite a while for the hot headed shinobi to reach our gaming consoles. In 2006, Naruto: Clash of Ninja was finally translated and released, but felt completely outdated because it had already been out in Japan for three years. A simple fighting engine and limited un-lockable content meant that it was received pretty critically from the media and fans. Since then the Gamecube and Nintendo Wii have been playing catch up, importing and translating a wealth of Naruto beat-em ups as the anime series progresses.
In 2007, Ubisoft changed all of that by releasing Naruto: Rise of a Ninja. They were the first company outside of Japan to take on the franchise and made a few radical changes. Firstly there was a huge step forward in the visuals, producing a unique cel-shaded look for the 360’s high definition capabilities. The game also consisted of two very different play types; it included the one on one brawls very similar to the Clash of Ninja series, but also a story mode that focussed on platforming, exploration and collecting. The team behind Rise of a Ninja received praise for recreating Naruto’s home town, Konoha in excruciating detail too. The story mode took the player through the first 80 episodes of the anime series, right up to the invasion of Konoha (for those that know the series well).
Although it was way too easy and the fetch quests were a pain, I thoroughly enjoyed the sheer variety of game types. Rather than an endless slog of beat-em up tournaments, racing around a vibrant village and collecting power ups meant that the story mode never tired. It was a good groundwork for a franchise and I’ve been waiting with baited breath for a sequel. Naruto: The Broken Bond came out last November and now that I’ve had a chance to complete the story mode, I can finally give some of my views. Has Ubisoft brought the animation to life, or stumbled with this sequel?
In almost every way, Naruto: The Broken Bond is a more expansive and polished experience than its predecessor. Right from the start, the game puts faith in its game engine by cutting out all of the anime cut scenes, which looked incredibly tired and stale in Rise of a Ninja. The 3D, cel-shaded visuals have been given extra detail this time around and actually do a better job of portraying the story than the anime did. Japanese voice acting comes included as standard and can be switched on or off in the main menu. With all the original voice actors in tact, it certainly adds to the authenticity if you’re a fan of the series. The game begins straight after the invasion of your home town, throwing you into the shoes of the Third Hokage as he battles against Orochimaru (one of the franchises’ primary villains). Without a summary of past events, newcomers will be bewildered by what is happening and probably quickly detach themselves from the emotion in the story. It’s a shame, because although fans will find everything they need here, Ubisoft should never assume that every player has this background knowledge.
This time around you don’t just play as Naruto, but one of many familiar faces from Rise of a Ninja. Kiba, Neji, Rock Lee, Sakura and many more (including my personal favourite, Jiraiya) can all be included in your three man team as you proceed through the individual missions. Pressing either down, left or right on the D-Pad allows you to switch between these on the fly and utilize their individual strengths. For example, you may be infiltrating a nearby village and see a warning mark appear above Naruto’s head. By switching to Neji and using his Byakugan vision, the screen filters to blue and you can clearly see a set of trip wire traps laid out before you. This time around there are lots of small puzzles to work out, usually requiring you to separate your team and use their individual abilities. They’re never as challenging as something like The Legend of Zelda, but they’ll make you stop and think for a few minutes before you proceed. The campaign also boasts a considerable amount of play time as Saskue, Otaku fan favourite as he descends into revenge and hatred. I would actually liked to have seen more time devoted to him, as the corridor sequences portrayed in his mind have a fragile nature that really engaged me as a player.
Konoha village and the surrounding forests are represented impressively in a watercolour style similar to Okami, offering a wealth of enemies and NPC’s to interact with. They’re not as stunning as Eternal Sonata, or widespread like Fallout 3, but there is always enough to keep exploration interesting. Moving between these areas is split up by a first person tree action sequence, where you try to avoid traps and jump between branches as quickly as possible. It’s a nice distraction that is very faithful to the source material, but becomes tiring when you’ve put in about twenty hours for the campaign. Although there are a lot of fetch quests, what really impressed me in The Broken Bond was the quality and diversity of game types. Puzzling, racing, fighting and platforming have all been given due care and attention. After a winter of being overwhelmed by First Person Shooters, it’s just refreshing to see an Action/Adventure title done so well. Once the story is over there are a wealth of side challenges to get stuck into, which are a little tedious but help in adding some substantial length for fans.
Online fans wanting to prove themselves as the number one ninja will be pleased to see the online mode expanded. Although a few of the characters are simply alternative costumes for Naruto and Saskue, players can choose from thirty fighters rather than the sixteen from last time. They each have strengths and weaknesses, so it’s important to spend some time with all of them to learn who suits your play style best. The fighting system is still quite basic in comparison to dedicated franchises such as Street Fighter and Dead or Alive, but new tag team options, arenas, aerial techniques and combos mean that anyone can enjoy some fast and furious ninja showdowns. The tournament system is back, so you’ll find yourself gaining experience points and ranks as you improve. If you’re new to beat-em-ups I would say that this is a fantastic introduction, complimented by a fairly deep combo system that isn’t too baffling to look into.
Improved visuals, gameplay and soundtrack make this a big step forward for Ubisoft’s ninja franchise. It doesn’t do anything ground breaking, but similarly it never does anything poorly either. Casual players may be turned off by the storyline and Japanese influences, but for the fans of the anime this is one of the best representations of Naruto to date. Ultimate Ninja Storm on Playstation 3 may have the better fighting engine, but Naruto: The Broken Bond has everything else stacked in its favour. Even if you’re just looking for a new platforming title, I recommend trying this with a rental.