Asura’s Wrath owes much of its praise to a particular spiky-haired ninja. From the arena combat to the ridiculous quick-time events, CyberConnect2’s Ultimate Ninja Storm franchise influenced much of the insanity unleashed by Asura’s rage. Gamers are unlikely to see a sequel to the demigod’s tragic story, yet the Naruto Shippuden brand persists with more than 300 television episodes, 400 chapters of manga, and six films. Given the wealth of source material, another Ultimate Ninja Storm seemed inevitable, and this third arc combines the best brawler elements from CC2’s prior works to produce the most visually euphoric anime title available.
Do not take that statement lightly. The earthy tones of the Hidden Leaf Village, the miserable grays of the Land of Iron, and the brilliant blues of Naruto’s Rasengan flood every ounce of the ninja world with color. Aside from distinct hand-drawn art, you will not see a better method for replicating the show’s look than cel-shading, which makes the screen-filling Ultimate Jutsus and cinematic boss sequences all the more impressive. Mountains crumble and forests quake as characters obliterate their opponents and the environments with animal summons, particle disintegration justus, and Tailed-Beast Bombs, deforming the terrain in seconds where it took mother nature years to carve out her mark.
To avoid spoiling UNS3's quick-time events, enjoy every cinematic moment from Ultimate Ninja Storm 2.
Better yet, the quick-time set-pieces communicate the can-do attitudes of Naruto and his comrades. You’ll watch Choji transform from a reluctant recluse into a social butterfly to defeat his old sensei, witness Naruto conquering the Nine-Tails with the aid of his deceased mother, and look on as Sakura vows to eliminate Sasuke to free her friends of the burden. The faithful sentimentality seems sappy, but when you grow up tuning into the show each week, aging along with the cast, forming some attachment to the characters is natural.
That said, the visuals and story unquestionably set Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 apart from the genre. Whereas Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and Marvel vs. Capcom are heavily predicated on a string of constant nonsense battles, Naruto’s fights receive plot justification, with cutscenes 10 to 20 minutes long. In fact, the single-round skirmishes only compose several hours of the 12-hour story, but Naruto enthusiasts are no strangers to frequent filler arcs/episodes.
While players occasionally control other characters, Naruto and Sasuke's battles are the most prominent.
So what about other players? Although the developers keep the gameplay accessible enough for late adopters, Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 relies on its fan service. The campaign (Adventure Mode) does not acquaint newcomers with Naruto, Sasuke, the Nine-Tails, the Akatsuki, or any bonds the heroes defend. All that knowledge should be common to launch-window buyers, whom CC2 caters to by not repeating oft-reiterated information. Instead, Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 rapidly moves forward with the narrative, the story picking up after Pain’s defeat and the destruction of the Hidden Leaf Village. As Naruto and his friends rebuild their home, the other village leaders hold a summit to deal with Sasuke’s crimes as a rogue ninja. The meeting, of course, takes a dramatic turn when Sasuke attacks the Hokage liable for his clan’s eradication, while the leader of the Akatsuki declares the Fourth Great Ninja War to draw out and capture the Nine-Tailed Fox sealed inside Naruto.
From there, CyberConnect2 touches on the major arcs that occur between the Five Kage Summit ‒ Sasuke and Danzo’s grudge match, Naruto gaining control of the Nine-Tails’ chakra, etc. ‒ and Tobi unveiling his true identity during the war’s climax. But because the conflict has yet to cease in the manga/anime, the developers drafted their own mock ending to bring the events to a close for now. Still, Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 glosses over several facts and battles to save these key moments for the sequel, like Itachi reversing Kabuto’s jutsu that reanimates the dead, or the likely fatal, titanic confrontation battle between Madara Uchiha and the five Kages.
Namco did get one piece of information wrong. Madara did not found the Uchiha clan (he united them).
The narrative does no wrong by the series, then, though the gameplay represents the main reason anyone should care about Ultimate Ninja Storm 3. The developers build the combat around a four-button system, with initiating attacks, throwing shuriken, jumping and dashing, and building chakra each designated as separate actions. As with the rest of the Ultimate Ninja franchise, chakra holds the key to victory. This energy meter enhances damage dealt by physical attacks and projectiles; depletes when fighters use ninjutsu to create fireballs, summon shadow clones, and so on; and lets you evade attacks or close the distance to your opponent with a swift ninja dash. However, the game flits between the two extremes of repetitive button mashing and unexpected depth. Players may hammer on the B button to produce multi-hit combos, but ignoring substitutions or the ability to block leads to disaster when facing someone that expends their chakra wisely.
Less important but still present, characters also carry ninja tools on the battlefield. These items range from offensive paper bombs to defensive health potions, yet you are limited to what you may equip based on your “Hero” and “Legend” ranks. Normal fights provide you experience in both areas, and as you level, you can buy more potent items from merchants. Except, several battles allow you to greatly increase the amount of Hero or Legend experience earned. Called “Ultimate Decisions,” these choices let you select the difficulty of the following boss fight, with the Hero path being the easier of the two.
One of my favorite moments from the show.
You never feel conflicted about choosing Hero or Legend, because you can replay cutscenes and missions through the Ninja World Timeline. The Timeline also includes battles from earlier arcs with no narrative context, and finding pages that unlock these encounters spurs players to explore lands beyond the Hidden Leaf Village after finishing the story mode ‒ a task that proves staggeringly difficult by the end. The penultimate fight between Naruto and the colossal Tailed Beasts leads to worse camera problems than those of Metal Gear Rising. The Tailed Beasts dwarf Naruto while the camera pans around the playing field, so losing the minuscule ninja becomes the norm rather than a rarity. This sequence cripples the frame rate on the Xbox 360 too, dropping the action into the lower teens.
With a smaller sense of scale, the multiplayer does not suffer the same frame rate hindrances. Players can host tournaments or test their prowess in endless battles both locally and online, and the fights become quite heated when the matchmaking pairs competitors of similar skill (the usual case). Featuring 80 playable fighters, you will assuredly find someone that suits your style. The cost of so many combatants does come at the price of potential balance concerns, but with at least 20 matches and several hours of livestreams under my belt, I have yet to notice a particular favorite among the community.
Last year’s Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations introduced new mechanics like Awakenings, though Generations was more or less meant as a placeholder to keep fans complacent until the developers had enough material to fill a 12-hour story. Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 chronicles the last two years of episodes while shortening some events, but enthusiasts have no cause for complaints. From Naruto’s Rasenshuriken to Kakashi’s Lightning Blade, the Ultimate Jutsus are the cherry on top of the cel-shading sundae, as are the cinematic button prompts that ignore reason. With a sizable campaign, roster of 80 fighters, accurate storytelling, and smooth online functionality, Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 ensures fans will want to buy this anime adaptation immediately.
Publisher: Namco Bandai Games
Release Date: March 5, 2013
Number of Players: 1 (Campaign), 2 (Multiplayer)
Platforms: Xbox 360 (Reviewed), PlayStation 3