Anime-based video games are far from a rarity within today’s industry, but the lack of advertising means many a release skates under the average gamer’s radar. Imagine the publisher costs promoting the numerous manga-inspired brawlers that land on store shelves each month. The Naruto series alone accounts for more than 50 titles, so what’s one more to the list? Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations is brought to you by the developers at CyberConnect2, famous for their work on prior Ninja Storm titles and Asura’s Wrath – two series that do their over-the-top button Japanese roots proud.
Now if you aren’t a fan of the Naruto anime or manga, I will refrain from summarizing the 500-episode narrative. At this point, you’ve either jumped ship or hopped on the bandwagon. Generations’ story mode does a fair job of highlighting the grander canonical fights while leaving many of the filler bits to the drawing boards. Instead of battling through the defining plot points of the franchise's dozen or so protagonists, Generations selects from the more established characters, including the orange jumpsuit-wearing hero Naruto, the emo rival Sasuke, and the mysteriously masked Kakashi. The heavier individual focus would not be such a detriment, but more tales unlock only after completing available storylines.
Some readers may remember that Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 released just last year. There’s little differentiation between the two games, but for the first time, gamers can play as both the young Naruto generation and the older Shippuden generation on the same disc. Many of the fights shown here, however, appear in prior Ninja Storm titles. Not only that, they received the appropriate backstory treatment and beautiful cel-shaded cutscenes. Cutscenes are more of a rarity in Generations, appearing only at the opening and the ending of an arc. Instead, dialogue is primarily delivered through plain comic-like slides. Remember the detail I just mentioned of filler scenes being mostly scrapped? Well, some additional exposition in the form of never-before-seen footage, presumably, brings a definitive conclusion to each character’s storyline while withholding convincing arguments for other design cuts.
You wouldn't be the first to exclaim, "What the hell am I looking at?"
The simplistic combat makes up for the empty story mode. Fights cannot be won by simply hammering the attack button, although 15 hit combos of nothing but B, B, B, pause, B, and repeat are common. Ranged attacks prove even less useful until you combine their effects with chakra. Chakra, the energy meter typical of any other fighting game, contains the key to the characters’ ultimate moves, and this life force can be replenished only when holding the Y button while stationary.
The overly stylish Ultimate Jutsus are the pinnacle of the presentation. Unleashing these devastating combos consumes the screen and dazzles the eyes with flashy lightning blades, heat-seeking fireballs, and animal summons as characters sustain otherwise irreparable amounts of injuries. Thankfully, these health drainers are avoidable. A quick tap of the LT uses a substitution, allowing your fighter to teleport in a puff of smoke and escape unscathed. While these get out of jail free cards gradually refill over time, expending all substitutions too quickly will leave you open for a relentless barrage of punches, kicks, and shuriken.
Awakening mode marks the series' newest feature. (The most apt comparison would be X-factor from Marvel vs. Capcom 3.) Once a character’s health falls below the halfway point, a full chakra meter can be expended to call upon the ninja’s inner beast. Movement speed and attack power greatly increase for a brief amount of time, giving players a chance to turn their misfortune into a win. While this mechanic may sound cheap, the large 3D arenas provide more than enough room for players to go on the defensive until the opponent’s Awakening wears off.
Managing the user interface while keeping pressure on the opponent presents its own challenge.
Those looking for gameplay depth should steer clear. Items assigned to the D-pad are less of a focus when being pummeled into a crisp, brightly colored pulp, though paper bombs, rice balls, and combat pills afford varying offensive, defensive, or support capabilities, ranging from slowing enemy movement speed to one-time chakra refills. Unfortunately, you’ll often spend more time digging through the shop to find the few items suited to your play style.
Items comprise a dozen or so of the thousand unlockables available for purchase in the game’s store. Player cards, card titles, substitution logs, and other such useless tidbits are up for grabs with ryos, the story mode’s currency. Smart sort features do allow you to find that one player card image faster, but scarcely do they provide any sort of help in combat.
All 72 fighters for your viewing pleasure.
Multiplayer amends many of the standard difficulties of taking the competition online. Generations lets players form their own online tournaments, and the matchmaking does a better-than-expected job of pairing opponents of similar skill levels. Otherwise, balance is the gravest offender of fun here. Players that put in the story mode man hours will unlock the overpowered characters in due time. No fighter restrictions in multiplayer battles predict an abundance of rage quitting. Top-tier fighters will absolutely work low tiers no matter the player’s talent controlling them, but with over 70 specialized ninjas, the largest in any brawler to date (and that’s no exaggeration), gamers are sure to find a character with moves to fit their needs.
There is nothing inherently wrong with UNSG’s formula, besides the lengthy title. The staggering amount of fighters, faithful anime art style, and simple yet rewarding combo system distinguish this Naruto incarnation from the multitude of fighters littering the gaming market. But Generations is for a niche set of gamers and Naruto fans, and makes no effort to familiarize newcomers. Therein lies the issue. The story mode lacks replay value compared to prior Ninja Storm titles, and balance concerns ensure online battles will be populated by the same handful of ninjas. With minimal improvements to last year’s formula, Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations falls more along the lines of a quick brand cash-in instead of a genre rebirthing.
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Release Date: March 13, 2012
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3