Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 – review

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Even if you haven’t read or watched Naruto, you probably know the name; it’s the third best selling manga of all time (thanks Wikipedia). As far as the videogames go, it’s one of those series that has yet to enjoy chart-shattering success, but has built up a dedicated and hugely enthusiastic fanbase. Those are the people that will buy this regardless of what I or any other self-important internet critic might say; and they won’t be disappointed. But what of those new to the games, or perhaps even new to the whole franchise?

Despite being the fourth entry in the Ultimate Ninja Storm series, this is arguably the best place for Narutoobs (see what I did there?) to start. This is not, as you might reasonably expect, a cookie-cutter beat ’em up with liberal dollops of Naruto flavouring. It’s more helpful – and accurate – to consider it a Naruto experience. While the bulk of the game is certainly punching people in the face (usually with hilariously overblown and awesome looking moves), it bears little resemblance to Street Fighter, Tekken et al. Fights take place within a 3D arena that you’re free to move around in, and the control system will come as a shock to anybody expecting the norm.

There’s one button for standard attacks, one to jump, two to call in an ally for a support attack if playing a team match, one to throw a shuriken (yes!), and a button for your chakra. Winning or losing a match hinges on your chakra; this gauge is used to power your strongest attacks, your special super-fast ninja dash, and even counter-attacks. You can charge your chakra gauge at any time, but you’re left open to attack whenever you do. Against a human opponent this can lead to tense moments where you both take a breath to charge your chakra simultaneously, each eyeing the other nervously.

It does look this good while you’re playing, actually.

The combat system is actually very deep, the simplistic button setup (including character switching, item use, and the ability to escape a combo) being deceptively simple to understand. That makes the game accessible and inviting enough, but those graphics? Wow. It’s the sort of absolutely gorgeous living cartoon art, complete with expressive faces, that the Xbox One and PS4 have been promising but failed to deliver until now. The overblown super-duper moves are integrated into fights seamlessly, too.

Playing online has thus far been a fairly friendly experience for us, with a handful of pre-match lost connections – but silky smooth lag-free fighting for each lobby we managed to connect to. You have your standard ranked and unranked matches, as well as league and tournament setups (for which there were far too few pre-release players, sadly). You’re likely to get decimated without a lot of practice under your belt; but what fighter is that not true of?

Offline, there’s a surprising bounty of content, all clearly crafted with love. Aside from practice, survival, and standard versus modes, you get two stories. Story mode itself bravely takes on the task of trying to tell the entire 220 episode anime story from beginning to end. It does this via anime stills, animated scenes utilising the beautiful in-game graphics, and the original voice actors (English or Japanese – your call). It certainly helps if you have at least a basic understanding of the story but, even if you’re going in blind, it does a commendable job of tying everything together fairly sort of well.

Not sure why, but we really fancy some Starburst now.

Needless to say, Story mode incorporates a great many fights, including famous and important ones from the story. Sometimes this will be the standard fight format; sometimes it will be a ‘mob’ battle against dozens of minor opponents; sometimes it will be QTEs that somehow never stray into ‘annoying’; sometimes it will put you in the supernatural shoes of gigantic Beasts from the story; sometimes it will be a mixture of some or all of the preceding. Two nice touches are that you get an estimated play time for each sequence, and if you fall in battle you choose to go back in with either offence or defence boosted – and your opponent’s health the same as when you got knocked out.

Adventure mode follows straight on from the end of Story, but fills in more details via dialogue and flashbacks that turn into fights. The biggest difference here is that you stick with Naruto, and wander around environments from the series – talking to NPCs, completing simple side quests, and visiting shops – between fights. Oh, and if you lose a fight here, tough; you’ll have to start from scratch.

Playing offline will unlock more and more characters, which almost seem like they’re not going to stop coming. There are dozens and dozens and dozens of playable characters here and, while some are different versions of the same person, each and every one has unique and exclusive special attacks. There’s some tactical thinking to be had before you even begin a fight, as different characters have different benefits as support characters. If you find yourself struggling online, this could be something to look further into.

With a release at the beginning of February, and an anime license that has already been used for piles of games, the odds are against this being anything special. Yet it is, because the love the developers have for the franchise is shining through every sumptuously cel-shaded pore. If you love Naruto, buy this; if you love videogames, buy this; if you love Naruto and videogames, buy this – but be prepared to literally (yes literally) explode with delight.

critical score 9Critical Hit

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Written by Luke K

He plays lots of videogames, now and again stopping to write about them. He's the editor in chief at Critical Gamer, which fools him into thinking his life has some kind of value. He doesn't have a short temper. If you suggest otherwise, he will punch you in the face.

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