Naruto: Uzumaki Chronicles
Naruto is yet another in the ever growing line of manga characters who've gone on to have success with their own anime show before making the natural sidestep into games. He's not hung around either, with over thirty games to his name since his first, Naruto: Konoha Ninpouchou, in 2003. While the majority of those titles have been available only in Japan, Naruto is now making a bid for international gaming glory with a batch of new European releases set for this year including the upcoming Xbox 360 RPG Naruto Rise Of A Ninja as well as an imminent sequel to the game I really should be talking about right now instead of waffling. So, without further a do, we're going to concentrate on this, the first Naruto: Uzumaki Chronicles game.
The game opens up in Leaf Village where ninja in training Naruto has just found out he's to be given the chance to try his hand at some of the more dangerous of the village's missions while the other more advanced ninjas are busy off fighting invaders, assuming of course he proves himself worthy. What follows is essentially a kind of action RPG lite aimed squarely at the more youthful audience the Naruto brand is pitched at. Complex it ain't, but that's not to say it's not fun in its own way too. From the safety of his home village Naruto is able to pick and choose missions to complete, each with their own little back story and quirky characters, in a kind of faux sandbox approach that attempts to mask your really fairly linier progression through the game with an illusion of choice. Despite the apparent variety of mission setups almost every one essentially boils down to 'go somewhere and kill everything, killing everything else you meet on the way' which isn't exactly inspired design especially when you consider the masses of back story that must be available for such a well established franchise.
Once a mission has been picked and embarked upon you travel from point to point towards your chosen destination following the fixed paths of the static world map screen in a style that will be instantly familiar to anyone who's played a Japanese RPG before. Along the way you'll encounter battles at both random and mission orientated points and it's these battles that are both the crowning glory and frustrating heart of the whole experience. To start with the positive, combat on the whole is surprisingly well rounded with a nice range of special moves and combos available including abilities recognisable from the anime such as the shadow clones, power strikes and the slightly surreal 'sexy' jutsu which transforms you into a bikini clad girl (honestly). As you fight you fill up a special bar that when full allows you to unleash the power of the nine-tailed demon fox which does a lovely job of making Naruto super powerful for a limited time. On some specific missions you'll also be able to call other character into battle for a set time in a kind of tag-team system; these characters can be fun to use as they offer, visually at least, different abilities to Naruto despite an almost identical control scheme. The addition of ranged weapons like shuriken and fire bombs flesh things out nicely and while it's not exactly going to have God of War quaking in its sandals it offers far more depth than you may expect from a 'kids' game. Adding to this is the refreshingly novel skill plate system which seeks to put a unique twist on the standard character upgrades you see in other games. By collecting the glowing orbs dropped by fallen enemies you're able to buy different skill chips which offer all sorts of upgrades, from increased stamina and resistance to improving the number of shadow clones you can call on. The clever bit is that each chip is a different size and shape and to equip them you have to arrange them on screen to fit within the boundaries of your size limited skill plate or else they won't work. This element of strategic jigsaw building adds an unexpected degree of sophistication to things and is all the more welcome because of it.
Unfortunately, as mentioned earlier, for all the positives in the combat engine things are decidedly less impressive when we start talking about your enemies. It may well be a kids game but the general level of AI on show is sub standard however you look at things. While Naruto may be regularly surrounded by enemies promising an exciting fight all too often they instead choose to attack only one at a time or even, as is often the case in the early portions of the game, not at all instead deciding to simply stand around waiting to be taken down with barely a whimper. Such a lack of challenge renders the care and attention put into the mechanics of combat next to useless as battles become quickly far more repetitive and forgettable than they should.
Chronicles marks a departure from the cell-shaded graphics of earlier Naruto titles into more traditional 3D but despite such a shift in style this is never a title that's going to cause your trusty PS2 to break out into a sweat. Characters are well animated and are instantly recognisable for fans but the battle arenas they inhabit tend to be bland and uninspired, lacking in any features that may have added some variety or excitement to proceedings. The vocal work for the characters is well done, however, with the cast of the English language version of the anime doing the duties with gusto despite the often dire script.
When judging a game clearly targeted at the younger gamer its often hard to find a balance between recognising that such games need to be accessible to their intended audience, and deciding when they've crossed the line into bad design. For the most part it's a line that Naruto manages to steer well clear of with characters and story that remain true to the style and spirit of the original source material and combat that offers an impressive degree of depth for a children's game. Unfortunately the package is let down by the genuinely poor enemy AI and missions that never really offer any variety beyond repetitive killing. How much these flaws would ruin the experience for a child who's itching for another Naruto game is debateable and probably depends on the sprog in question, but for more seasoned gamers they're enough to turn what could have been an enjoyable if somewhat limited piece of fluff-gaming into something of a missed opportunity.