Reviewed: September 14, 2008
Released: June 24, 2008
I cannot claim to be even the least bit knowledgeable regarding the Naruto manga brand, but I do know that the ninja-flavored animation series on Cartoon Network is one of the more highly regarded of its genre. Much like the American-drawn Avatar: The Last Air Bender series, the Naruto series provides an exciting and accessible anime experience for American audiences, with a lot less of the confusing plot structure of the standard Japanese fare like Pokémon and Dragonball Z.
As any cartoon series worth its weight soon finds itself wading into the sea of video gaming, the Naruto franchise already has nearly a half-dozen game iterations either in production or already released since its North American introduction in 2003.
The game we are looking at this time around is Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2: The Phantom Fortress (yeah, that’s quite a title) for the PSP. A sequel to last-year’s Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes, this version follows the Japanese development trend of taking a successful franchise, making only a few incremental changes, and then shipping the title to market. We have seen it with Dynasty Warriors, Gundam, and now Naruto. But unlike the other titles, Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 is actually kind of fun, so we’ll let it slide…this time.
Developed with a focus audience in mind, Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 is one of the most basic fighting games you will find on the market. A button masher through and through – Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 puts more of an emphasis on the timing of button presses rather than on requiring demandingly complex button combos. This definitely makes Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 more accessible to the everyday gamer, and balances the difficulties that come as a result of the PSP’s rounded design and tight button configuration, which might otherwise cause gamers to fumble about.
The crux of the game is the dungeon crawling Mugenjo mode, in which Naruto and cast traverse a series of interconnected drama rooms, treasure rooms, healing rooms, and “unstable spaces” within the Phantom Fortress to find out why the fortress has parked itself over their fair city.
Drama rooms are areas intended to progress the storyline either through a series of storyboard scenes, or by introducing new characters through party-building battle scenes. Treasure rooms dole out various items, including various weapons, healing items, and power-ups. Healing rooms serve as party management sites; allowing gamers to not only heal existing party members, but also to swap out characters to better fit the action at hand.
It is in the “unstable spaces” where Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 really takes on a life of its own (if briefly). In these rooms, the gamer has the ability to decide on the gameplay based on the four gameplay “scrolls” held in inventory. Scrolls come in one of six flavors, each corresponding to a different minigame that ties Naruto characters in to basic variations of three-card monte, casino-style slot machines, and Simon says, and even throws in Naruto-based trivia and an exciting on-rails tree climbing activity.
None of the minigames are all that difficult – even into the 20th and 30th stages of the game, most of the minigames can be mastered to achieve a full allotment of earned “ninja points,’ which can be used to purchase game unlockables and Easter eggs in the fan-service Ninja Road mode.
Gamers get to choose which scrolls to use from their inventory for each unstable space, but used scroll slots are filled randomly by the game, so it is easy for gamers to get bunched up with an inventory of undesirable scrolls – like Amusement room scroll, which result in a slot-machine minigame that is rigged to either win huge or more often go bankrupt. This forces gamers to use all of the available minigames to open slots for possibly more appealing minigames like the exciting Tree Climbing room or the intense tag-team Battle room.
Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 sticks to the two-dimensional source material and comes across nice and sharp on the PSP. The in-battle animations are fairly detailed – especially during the special move breakaways, which are filled with great background special effects.
The battle arenas are built upon multiple 2D layers, and the game nicely pans and zooms to keep all characters onscreen regardless of their location.
But don’t expect too much from the storyline cutscenes – most of which are played out via paper-doll character cutouts superimposed over an unchanging background photo. The effect is very Japanese in style, but will probably not be all that exciting for fans of the cartoon.
While the cutscenes lack animation, they do feature a full library of voiceovers – which was a bit unexpected in a Japanese-born title like Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 – especially on a handheld release. Admittedly, the voiceovers are a bit overly dramatic, and tend to drag the cutscenes on much longer than needed – most gamers will find themselves button mashing their way through the text-heavy cutscenes – but the fact that the voices are included is appreciated.
Like most fighting games, the remaining sound comes from heavily recycled grunts, groans, battlecries, and other pugilistic soundbites. Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 is no different – I would be happy if I never hear the words “chakra recovered” again in my life after hearing it thousands of times in the week or so I spent with the game. Still, it is not like we don’t expect this kind of stuff – and the voiceovers definitely make up for any of the game’s other audio shortcomings.
With Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2, I’m a bit torn in the value department.
On one hand, the game delivers a very lengthy storyline in the Mugenjo mode that will keep fans plodding along for many hours of gameplay. But on the other hand, it does not take long before the gameplay begins to feel repetitive and hackneyed.
Then there is the issue of multiplayer. Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2 gets kudos for a great implementation of the often-underused Game Sharing feature, which allows two PSP owners to battle locally using a single UMD and an ad-hoc wireless connection. But the game gets a knock for not including some form of online play. After learning the ins-and-outs of the CPU opponents, it is always enjoyable to face off against a human opponent – which is not possible over the Internet.
Naruto Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2: The Phantom Fortress is a great diversion for everyday games – but the lengthy storyline and unlockables are ultimately only going to appeal to die-hard fans of the series.