An admission: I bloody love Naruto. It's nothing to be ashamed of, but there's a certain stigma that comes attached with watching kid-friendly anime such as this. When I was (only slightly) younger, I cracked through 200 episodes in just over two weeks, which a little bit of maths will reveal is about 14 episodes a day. That clearly is something to be ashamed of, especially when I was supposed to be revising for exams. Still, it all worked out in the end, because now I'm qualified to write a Naruto Ultimate Ninja: Storm 2 preview and know what the hell I'm talking about. So, Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is an RPG / fighting game hybrid that follows the Shipuuden storyline from its first episode up until rather recently.
A word of warning before going any further: this preview will feature an abundance of strange looking words like 'Shippuuden'. I'm working on the assumption, though, that the majority of my readers are also fans of Naruto, and so I'll continue to bash out the crazy ninja vocab.
The main menu offers three game modes: Adventure mode - which is the narrative driven core of the game, Free Battle mode, and Online Battle mode. I jumped straight into Adventure mode, which joins Naruto on his return to his hometown, Konoha. After several years of intense training with his master, Jiraya-sama, the excitable young ninja couldn't be happier to be home. Konoha village is one of several hubs in which Naruto can accept missions, purchase new equipment, and chow down huge bowls of ramen. The 3D character models are brought to life with some truly excellent cel-shading, whilst the town itself is assembled from hand-drawn 2D backgrounds. It's very JRPG in feel, and pads out an otherwise shallow 3D fighter.
After paying a visit to Tsunade, the Hokage (read: village leader, for those of you perplexed by the ninja lingo), Naruto is given his first mission - a training match against his former sensei (and coolest character in the show) Kakashi. The mission is offensively simple: retrieve a pair of bells from your old sensei. That's it. It's the same mission that was given to Naruto in one of the first episodes when he was a whippersnapper, but the same problem remains: Kakashi is a complete bad-ass, and will use all his ninja know-how to make things as difficult as possible for you. It might only serve to acquaint players with the basics of combat, but the battle that ensues is of fairly epic proportions.
Fights take place in 3D environments, and play out in a similar fashion to the Power Stone series back on the Dreamcast. The controls are tight, but combat itself is a little on the simple side. B is your go to button for attacks, and will launch Naruto into one of his combos, all of which end in a familiar move from the show. There's no denying that the moves looks great, but it's all a bit one dimensional. Normally, fighting games require a little manual dexterity to pull off a combo, but here you need only hammer away on one button. Pressing A will launch Naruto into the air, with a familiar 'fwooosh' sound to accompany it. The X button is used to hurl Kunai knives at your opponent, whilst the Y button channels chakra (a kind of magic ninja energy) through Naruto's body, from which state a range of special moves can be unleashed.
That's about the gist of it, combat wise, although things are made slightly more interesting with short QTE sections that dissect a battle. Now I'm not normally one to sing the praises of QTEs, but Storm 2 does 'em in style. The action is so well choreographed that it's hard not to get excited as you furiously tap away at buttons indicated by the screen. Depending on how quick your reaction times are during these events, you'll earn a certain number of stars. If you amass enough stars, you'll unlock little anime vignettes from the show, which flesh out the story at that particular point in the game.
Naruto is joined in battle by his team mate, Sakura, who will patiently wait off screen until summoned with a tap of the bumper buttons. She's actually fairly instrumental in defeating Kakashi, and must be hauled into action at precisely the right moment to have any hope of inflicting any damage on him.
After running about on the surface of a pond, dodging dragons made of water and leaping to solid ground whenever a lightning attack is on its way, the battle reaches its dramatic finale. Launching himself miles into the air (achieved through the correct QTE button presses), Naruto unleashes his signature move: a mass shadow clone jutsu. The screen fills with hundreds of Narutos, who rain down on Kakashi in a ninja storm. It's at times like this you realise just what a fantastic job CyberConnect2 has done with the visuals. If I was feeling particularly adventurous, I might go as far as to say that that Storm 2 has the best cel-shading I've ever seen, but of course that would conflict with the comments I made about Ni no Kuni after TGS. You can decide for yourself which you prefer.
The game will sell well regardless of what critics like me say about it - the word 'Naruto' in the title will make sure of that - but Storm 2 seems to be a competent game in its own right. Ultimately, it's a very casual game; a simple fighter carried along by the strength of its characters and story. It recreates pivotal moments from the show fantastically well though, and as a Naruto fan it's hard not to get excited watching it all unfold.
Naruto Ultimate Ninja: Storm 2 is available for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 on October 15