One clear advantage the Naruto games have over Dragon Ball Z games is that the series is still actually going on, meaning gamers can always look forward to reliving a new story arc with each subsequent game. Whereas DBZ has to rely on rehashing saga after saga, Naruto fans get treated to what essentially amounts to an interactive Anime, with some sprinkle of RPG elements and an incredibly fun, if limiting fighting system. And boy are fans in for a treat with Ultimate Ninja Storm 3.
Needless to say, if you've somehow never caught on to the Naruto craze, and you have no idea what a Sharingan, Hokage or a Jutsu is, this game is absolutely not for you. UNS3 wastes no time with diving straight into the Shippuden storyline, starting with the Five Kage Summit Arc — meaning casual players and onlookers will certainly be confused.
With that said, the story is as close to the original source material as ever. Naruto fans know that filler plagues the show from time to time, and thankfully, the game completely cuts it out, relying simply on telling the story that matters. And what a story it is. Every action-packed moment and every emotional conversation is faithfully recreated in the gorgeous cel-shaded style that the first Ultimate Ninja Storm game made popular. It's clear that CyberConnect 2 has a lot of love for the Naruto franchise, and it shows from every aspect of the game.
Even with filler taken out, expect to sit through some long cutscenes. One arc in particular, where Naruto meets his mother for the first time, lasts at least 30 minutes in length, and none of it is playable mind you. It's handy then that these scenes are entirely skippable, especially if fans have already experienced them in the show. All is not lost, though; if you plan on re-watching it at a later time, the Ninja Timeline will prove mighty useful.
The Ninja Timeline recounts the events of the entire game, broken into chapters. This handy feature lets you replay fights, as well as rewatch major story points. For someone like me, who is actually simultaneously watching the same Arc that I was playing, I would say watching the cutscenes on the game are almost preferable since the talking is somewhat cutdown. Like I've stated previously, all the filler has been taken out completely.
Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 also boasts a new Hero and Legend choice during key battles, which can slightly alter the presentation. It won't alter the game's story, however, as it tries to stay as close to canon as it possibly can. One of the best examples I've seen is during the first fight with Naruto and Sasuke. Midway through the match, as kunai and swords clash, you have the option to relive their first fight from Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 (or more appropriately, their first encounter in the Shippuden storyline) or relive their fated battle at the Valley of the End in the original Naruto storyline. It doesn't alter the outcome of the fight; instead, it gives fans a choice in how they want their encounters to play out.
Selecting Legend over Hero will always be somewhat tougher, but completing each one will allow you to level it up and unlock the ability to carry increasingly better consumables into battle. It's trivial, but a nice addition none the less.
The exploration, though limited, is appreciated. Once again, it makes you feel like you're actively participating in the show, rather than just playing a game. Some of the running around can be monotonous, and the side quests are absolutely forgettable, but I like that UNS3 went back to its free-roaming structure rather than just presenting fight after fight like Generations.
Dragon Ball Z games have also struggled to emulate the fast-paced combat of the show, with the controls being either too complicated (Raging Blast series) or too shallow and unsatisfying (Ultimate Tenkaichi). Naruto has managed to trump its Anime rival by having simple and easy-to-understand controls, coupled with flashy, over-the-top animation. Even something as simple as dodging an attack while throwing shuriken at your enemy looks awesome. Couple that with a few QTE events that are sure to get your adrenaline pumping, and you have yourself an easy-to-grasp and visually dazzling fighting mechanic that anyone can pick up.
A new feature in this game is the inclusion of mob battles. At certain points in the game, you'll be able to battle a bunch of enemies on the free-roaming map. The combat mechanics stay largely the same; however, there is now a teleport function that allows you to dish out hits on an enemy, and then immediately teleport to the next one. It's a handy technique that's plagued by slow down. Playing the Xbox 360 version, each time I would execute this move would literally freeze the game for a second, which completely broke up the flow of battle. Those who are familiar with the fluidity of these games will know that breaking up that flow is a big deal.
The roster expands to over 80 characters, which means fans of the series will find their favorite character to duke it out with. Original Naruto characters make an appearance, as well, meaning you can totally kick young Naruto's ass with young adult Sasuke. You can then take any of these characters online in either Player or Ranked matches. I did have some trouble connecting, and that was with the game being out for two weeks. When I did connect, it worked fairly well, with only a few stutters here and there. Thankfully, this isn't a fighting game that requires the counting of frames or being familiar with each characters hitboxes, so I could overlook these slight annoyances.
If there is one gripe I had with the game, and with the Ultimate Ninja Storm series in general, it's the complete lack of the official soundtrack. While the game's soundtrack is certainly reminiscent of it, it's just not the same thing. I still remember the opening scenes of Naruto: The Broken Bond, in which the Third Hokage has just died, and the song Sadness and Sorrow was playing in the background. I felt like I was part of the actual show. It's just surprising, given Cyberconnect 2's dedication to the series, that they, or Namco Bandai, don't secure the licensing to use the official soundtrack from the show.
If you're a die-hard fan of the Anime, you absolutely need Ultimate Ninja Storm 3. With a near-perfect retelling of the major Arcs that lead up to the Fourth Great Ninja War that leaves out the pointless filler, it's a fan's dream come true. The combat, though mostly the same, goes back to being over-the-top, with amazing QTE sequences and giant boss battles. In short, this is the most authentic Naruto experience outside of watching the show or reading the manga.
In closing, I leave you with my best/worst Killer Bee impression:
♪ Naruto fans, take this game for a test drive. It's so good, we gave it an eight point five. All right! ♪
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]