IGN Review of Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes
Oh Naruto, what would we do without you? We'd certainly have far less ninja antics, that's for sure. Fortunately for us, the end of the month will usher in another ninja game for our enjoyment, in the form of CyberConnect2's Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes, for the PSP. A "3D" fighter with combat on two separate planes, this title should certainly catch the interest of any Naruto fan (and a handful of fighting game fans), assuming that they haven't already played
Naruto: Ultimate Ninja 2, which is essentially the same game for the PS2. Let's find out just what kind of ninja wonder lies waiting on this UMD.
First off, we should clarify that although this is, in every way, a Naruto game, knowledge of the anime series will not significantly influence your experience. Having an intimate familiarity with everyone's favorite ninja youth may accentuate your time with Ultimate Ninja Heroes, but that's about it. There's no story mode or real dialogue to speak of, and besides a few one-liners that are spoken before battle, Ultimate Ninja Heroes has no narrative or plot whatsoever. So, if you don't know anything about the series, you can put your concerns aside. This game is extremely accessible to general fighting game fans, and the only real disadvantage such gamers may experience is not knowing the names (or fighting styles) of the characters included. But that information can be gained from an hour or two of play time, so it's nothing to worry about.
At the start of the game, you're prompted to choose one of several different modes. Your choices include: Heroes Mode, VS. CPU, Promotion Test, Wireless Mode, Naruto's House, Parameter Power-Up and, of course, Options. Heroes Mode is technically the meat of the game, which puts you through a series of team battles of increasing difficulty. VS. CPU is just a one-on-one match with an AI opponent, Promotion Test is a list of specialized challenges to improve your rank, Wireless Mode is for multiplayer, and Parameter Power-Up is for distributing awarded points to improve your characters' stats. Lastly, Naruto's House is just a place for viewing unlocked materials. That's all there is to this title, and there's no immensely complex game types to be found. It's all straight forward and ready to go, without feeling shallow, and that's a nice way to organize a portable game. So how does this game play? Good question.
Ultimate Ninja Heroes is almost a 2D fighter, since combat takes place on a two-dimensional plane, and you can only move up, down, left and right on that plane. One feature to note, though, is that each stage has two planes to fight on: one in the foreground of the level, and one in the background. There is no "in-between" for these two planes of combat, since holding up/down and pressing the X button will teleport you from one to the other. You can't physically interact with your opponent if they're residing on the opposite plane, though you can throw projectile items at them, which generally doesn't work (they're too far away for it to be accurate). So for the most part, you'll be fighting on one 2D arena, just with 3D character models and background environments to swoon over.
For the most part, this setup works well. If you don't mind being restricted to 2D combat (we fancy 2D fighters, actually), the movement in this game is fun and definitely suggests a ninja-esque mood. For example, you can quickly run up walls at the edges of a stage, you can jump extremely high (especially with upgraded jump abilities), and if you start exchanging blows in midair, you stay suspended in the air as you fight. Which is rad. Having this stylized, movement-focused gameplay makes for some pretty exciting battles, since staying in one place usually leads to a negative outcome - unless you have your opponent backed into a corner.
One element of the gameplay mechanics that will be extremely problematic for some is the button layout. While there's certainly more depth to Ultimate Ninja Heroes than the average brawler, all your attacks are mapped to one button. Just pressing circle along with a direction on the D-pad will execute the majority of your moves, and double-tapping up or down, followed by circle, will activate either special move of every character in the game. You also use the circle button for countering aerial "Extra Hits," which are like slow-motion follow-up techniques. As you can see, you'll be pressing the circle button a lot. In fact, you could very well say you'll be mashing the circle button. But wouldn't... wouldn't that be... button mashing? Yes, yes it would. And it is.
Ultimate Ninja Heroes has a lot of button mashing in it, but luckily the experience doesn't suffer too much, because timing is also an important factor. You need to put at least some thought into your button presses, and you also have to balance out item usage, Jutsu attacks, blocking (or Substitution Jutsu), and Secret Techniques. So while you'll be pressing the same few buttons over and over again, you'll have to be thinking on your feet the whole time, which is definitely good for the title.
When you're not keeping track of your little ninja warrior though, you may notice that the game's graphics look pretty good for a PSP title. Character animations are smooth, yet sharp, and the backgrounds are vibrant and true to the tone of the anime. There is very little slowdown during combat, only rearing its ugly heard during extremely intense moments, and for the most part Ultimate Ninja Heroes is pleasing to the eyes.
So, diving right into the game itself, you'll likely find yourself playing Heroes Mode first, since that awards you points for character upgrades as well as scrolls for unlocking challenges in the Promotion Test mode. The only option you have initially is to play through the Easy difficulty level, which is a continuous series of five, team-based battles, pitting three characters of your choice (whether they belong to a pre-made team or you select them individually) against five sets of enemy teams (of varying sizes). The incredible challenge comes from the fact that your characters only get minor health supplements after every battle, and often times your opponents have some wicked buffers working to their advantage. These include things like incredible attack and defense boosts, as well as increased speed. Granted, you can also activate stat boosts for your own team, but such techniques have a very limited number of uses, so they'll barely last you a few fights.
While this may not be too troublesome on the Easy difficulty level (we think Greg just had a hard time, since he's not an official ninja), Normal and Hard were super frustrating. And while I personally was able to get through them after repeated efforts, we didn't even try Insane mode. We think the name speaks for itself. A certain level of challenge is expected in a fighting game, but having such ridiculously unbalanced fights is an entirely different matter. By the time you reach the last team battle, after six painful fights (on the Hard setting), your characters will be so ravaged that they'll barely last a second. Increased AI is perfectly fine for boss fights, but when every one of the bosses' stats are boosted, and you're starting with half your health, well, there's only so much you can take.
The Promotion Test challenges, on the other hand, were very enjoyable, since they offer rewarding, bite-sized tasks. These tasks range in difficulty, and as you progress in rank, the requirements for victory become far more vigorous. For example, one of the first tasks may just be "win the battle," while a later task will demand that you beat a buffered opponent and finish with a full chakra gauge. The benefit of playing the Promotion Test mode, however, is being able to use upgraded characters that you've developed over time, which you can't do in Heroes Mode.
Ultimate Ninja Heroes also has multiplayer features, including a standard team battle setup that you can try with a friend, and there's also a Game Sharing battle where you can engage in one-on-one fights with a buddy who doesn't own the game. When the match actually begins, combat runs smoothly and there are no noticeable problems that may hinder your experience, except you can only fight in one particular stage with Game Sharing. The main, extremely problematic issue with multiplayer, and with the game as a whole, are the load times. They're terrible. Getting a multiplayer game going takes forever, and restarting a Heroes Mode match can be utterly painful and exhausting because of the long wait. Perhaps we're just more impatient than your average gamer, but in all seriousness, a game of this scale should not take so long to load. Especially not during a single-player match.
Other less dramatic issues are also present. Getting a feel for the controls takes time, since dashing (though it's more like a burst of speed) can only be accomplished by double-tapping the jump button. Why not double-tap a direction like any other fighting game? This control mechanic took us a while to understand, but once you grow comfortable with it, it won't be too bothersome. One final issue we should mention is the voice acting. Being somewhat of an anime purist myself, I just don't particularly enjoy anime when it's dubbed, including anime-based video games. Now, an extremely good dub may cause me to look the other way, but not this one. Trust me; Naruto's voice will make your ears bleed. They shall pour forth crimson hate and drown your relatives in a sea of agony and utter despair. Actually, no, it's just bad. But not that bad (our apologies to the voice actor/actress who voices Naruto; we're sure you're talented, but you've been clearly miscast).
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