Naruto's a perfect match for multiplayer. The series may be named for just one character, but Naruto himself rarely travels alone in the anime or manga -- he's always with others. Usually two younger ninja of his same age, then one older mentor character. A four-man cell. And it's that common dynamic that suggests that a game adaptation of the series would be a perfect match for four-person multiplayer.
But though there have been more Naruto games than anyone can count released through the past half-decade, Naruto Shippuden: Kizuna Drive for the PSP is, I believe, one of the first to try this idea. You can play by yourself in this game. If you do, it's a fairly straightforward Naruto brawler not unlike others you've probably tried before. But Kizuna Drive's main appeal lies in its emphasis on teamwork -- and the fact that, with the right amount of PSP systems, copies of the game, and other Naruto fans in the same room with you, you can have human intelligence in command of the extra characters supporting, healing, and attacking right alongside the No. 1 Knucklehead Ninja.
Kizuna Drive's storyline is unique to the game, though it's standard Naruto filler. A remote village is destroyed, Naruto and his allies are blamed for the tragedy, and lots of battles break out between rival factions because no one in the Naruto universe seems to know how to settle a disagreement without violence. Your missions take you on a journey to uncover the truth of who really was behind the destruction to begin with, to clear Naruto's name and bring the real guilty party to justice.
Those missions, then, are mostly linear brawling sequences. You drop into a small arena, beat up all the baddies that show up there, move forward past a few checkpoints, and lather, rinse, and repeat. It can become tedious, and it's certainly repetitive -- the same trap that many past Naruto games, even promising ones, have fallen into. But Kizuna Drive tries its best to keep things feeling fresh throughout.
Its first tedium-breaking strategy is to constantly mix up your playable characters. You don't even have to use Naruto himself, if you don't want to -- you'll get his teammates Sakura and Kakashi from the start, and a steady rotation of other familiar faces in each new mission you unlock. Shikamaru, Sasuke, Choji... If they're anyone even kind of important in the show or comic, they're probably in here. And each of the different characters plays differently, too -- they're not drastically diverse, but there are clear front-line guys, sideline support-types, and healers all represented.
Secondly, Kizuna tries its best to make its brawling mechanics feel varied and dynamic. It only sort of succeeds here -- most of the action ends up breaking down into hammering on the attack button over and over again, with more flashy jutsu attacks thrown in as combo finishing moves. The finishers are hard to time properly, though, and even harder to get lined up right -- you'll sometimes miss the enemy entirely. The previous Naruto brawler for the PSP, Naruto Shippuden Legends: Akatsuki Rising
, was annoying with its quirky, hard-to-handle lock-on system. Kizuna Drive might have over corrected for that issue too much, though, because there's absolutely no lock-on system featured here -- and you'll sometimes wish there were.
Finally, the multiplayer component. If Kizuna Drive was to really stand apart from all the other Naruto options out there, it would have to be in this feature -- and again, here, it sort of succeeds.
If you actually have all the games, systems, and people you need to get a four-player session going, this feature shines -- the dynamic of having you as Naruto, your brother as Rock Lee, your cousin as Neji, and your college roommate as Captain Yamato is absolutely enjoyable. You can actually fight and work together, and there's even a built-in four-player mini-game that further highlights the teamwork in action: when an enemy is stunned, you can activate a kind of "hot potato" finishing sequence where the bad guy is bounced back and forth between all four heroes before everybody brutalizes him with their strongest jutsu. That mini-game also builds up "Kizuna" points, which serve to increase your mission ranking and can be spent to revive fallen allies in battle.
Then, beyond that, there are boss battles that demand one ninja sneaks up from behind while the others run distractions out front, magical seals that can only be broken when all four characters attack in unison, and more. It's a game that was clearly designed with four in mind. Which is great.
Unless you're alone. While the four-player focus is certainly a strength of Kizuna Drive, it leaves the single-player experience feeling shallow by comparison. You still get all four characters in battle together, but playing by yourself means you must issue commands to your three A.I.-controlled allies -- and those commands frequently fail. You can be getting torn about by a foe, call for help from your teammate, and watch as that teammate appears and...strikes the air 20 feet behind the foe instead of landing a hit. When that happens, and it's pretty frequent, you're just left thinking that Naruto might have been better off traveling alone after all.
©2011-03-24, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved