There's some surprisingly good combat at its core, but the game is completely unwilling to teach it to me.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm GenerationsPublishers: Namco Bandai
Platforms: Xbox 360 (reviewed), PS3
Release Date: 2012-03-13
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations plays like a cross between a beat 'em up and a fighting game. It features a combat system that is hard to understand at first, and the game makes no attempt to teach you anything. However, when it finally clicks, it’s surprisingly fun.
Battles take place in a 3D environment, and your attacks are based around a few simple combos. When you get close to your opponent, the camera pans around to mimic the 2D view of a fighting game. It’s a neat trick, and since the environments are always wide open and sparse, the automatic camera never gets stuck behind something to block your view.
The combat itself manages to be both complex and simple at the same time: The actual button combos are extremely basic, but the complexity stems from the many meters that you have to manage and the lack of any proper tutorial (the Training mode lets you control how your opponent fights but doesn’t teach you how to fight).
The game throws out terms like “chakra” and “jutsu” without much explanation, making it hard to parse the limited instructions. For the uninitiated: chakra is essentially mana and jutsu are essentially magic attacks. Chakra is fuel for the jutsu…usually.
You have two types of jutsu, attack and substitution, and each one is managed by its own meter. The substitution jutsu is a kind of defensive counter: It’s only available when you’re being attacked, and it allows you to teleport behind your opponent. You can do this four times before the meter runs out, then you have to wait for it recharge.
The attack jutsu is what actually uses up the chakra meter. You have to “load” the chakra before you can use it in an attack, and this forms the backbone of the combat. Basic actions like dodging, throwing, and attacking are pretty weak, but loading up your chakra first allows you to perform an enhanced version of each action. This quickly drains your chakra meter, but you can recharge it by holding down a button while standing still. Of course, this leaves you exposed.
Since everything runs on meters, there’s a complex layer of resource management on top of the simple button combos. You’re constantly managing your substitution and chakra meters while trying to force your opponent to use up his. It’s a clever system that encourages speed and strategic thinking, while not demanding that you memorize countless button combinations. The 3D environment is surprisingly vital to this kind of combat: Since you’ll spend a lot of time recharging your chakra, the wide open space lets you put a lot of distance between you and the enemy; confining this combat system on a 2D plane would make things too cramped.
The combat is genuinely fun, but the Story Mode is not the best place to experience it. The story is split up by character: You can play through “The Tale of Naruto Uzamaki” or “The Tale of Sauske Uchicha” etc, and each tale is essentially a quick recap of the anime series from that character’s point of view. On the surface it looks like a crash course in all things Naruto, but as someone with only a passing knowledge of the show, even I recognize that there some climatic fights missing. The result is a Story Mode that feels painfully slight.
Also, nearly every fight in Story Mode is as frustrating as the worst boss in a fighting game. Your opponent always gets an attack boost, even in the very beginning, and it only gets bigger as the story goes on. Fights eventually become so one-sided that you can’t even block because your opponent’s attack boost is so high that they can break through your guard, which means you’ll spend most of the fight running. Thank goodness for those wide open spaces.
Even worse, you can’t choose a difficulty. If you die three times in one fight, you get the option of lowering the difficulty, but it jumps back up to “normal” for the next fight, which is naturally harder so you’ll probably fail another three times. It’s absurd that I can’t just choose the difficulty from the menu. Losing a fight that feels unfair is frustrating enough on its own, having to do it three times is just bad design.
Thankfully, there are a lot of other modes: Free Play against the computer or people, Tournaments, and, of course, there’s online play. There are also a ton of characters, and it’s impressive how different they feel from each other. They all use the same button combos, so once you understand how to fight with one, you understand how to fight with them all. However, the combos result in different jutsu. Some characters have a long range jutsu, others are effective at close range, and some use an area of effect jutsu. These simple differences go a long way in making each character feel unique. Unfortunately, the vast majority are locked away at first, forcing you to play through Story Mode to unlock them. The game uses its many characters as a major selling point, so why lock most of them behind a wall?
The online play has some interesting systems in place. It’s linked to a real world collectible card game, and each card has a code that lets you get the card in-game. Attaching the in-game card to your profile gives you some stat boosts for certain online matches. You can also buy the in-game cards with in-game money, or you can earn them online by winning fights. It’s an interesting system; one that tries to encourages real world spending but doesn’t demand it. However, the codes aren’t unique, meaning that the code for the “Naruto” card will always be the same. A quick search online gave me all of the codes I could ever need -- never underestimate the Internet’s power to undermine your business plans. Still, since the cards don’t guarantee victory in online matches, it’s not like the game is broken. Nevertheless, the meta-game is totally busted.
Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations has some surprisingly good combat at its core, a fighting system that’s more about resource management than combo skills, which is a nice shift from most fighting games. But the game suffers from all the usual flaws that plague this genre: forced unlocks and a complete unwillingness to teach me how to fight. In fact, there’s still a lot to the combat that I still don’t understand: Support characters, elements, and special transformations. When it clicks, even just a basic understanding, it’s awesome, but it takes a lot of unnecessary effort and frustration to get there.