Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 begins with the hint of something ambitious: an anime-licensed game that’s more RPG than fighting game (the vast majority of anime-licensed games are the latter). However, it quickly loses sight of that ambition, and you can feel the developer’s own apathy sink in almost immediately.
Unlike Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations, which was the last Naruto game that I played, Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 has actual 3D environments that you can explore. It’s not just a series of fights broken up by cut scenes (like most fighting games) and that ambition to do something more is respectable. You begin in the Hidden Leaf Village, a fairly big place filled with shops and people. The game gives you an objective, but also tells you about sidequests and hidden items, the kinds of things that have been encouraging players to explore digital environments for decades. So naturally I wanted to explore, but the moment that I tried to go left instead of right, the game stopped me. I was forced to follow the objective arrows. When I did get a brief chance to explore, I found all of one sidequest: an item hunt that can never really be completed. With nothing else to do, I left the Hidden Leaf Village.
This is the extent of your interaction with the environments: you run through them.
Levels only get worse later on: At least the developers tried to make the village feel big, most areas are just straight paths. I understand that these sections of the game are probably meant to break up the cut scenes, which can stretch on for a very long time, but this raises a question. Would you rather watch a fun cut scene or play a dull game? I’d rather watch the wonderfully ridiculous cut scenes that solidify Naruto as a ninja-based soap opera.
The story works best when it barrels through the plot like a runaway boulder, and you don’t have time to think what with all the melodramatic chaos. The relentless pace is effective at heightening the drama while lessening our critical thinking. It’s dumb, it’s clichéd, it’s cheesy, but… but Sakura just said she loves Naruto and I know that can’t be true, what is she playing at? It’s all so addictive. It’s the very definition of a guilty pleasure, so it’s unfortunate that every time the game drops you into one of its empty environments it just slows the pace and gives the guilt time to set in right next to that pleasure.
Thankfully, there’s more to the gameplay than just running forwards. This is still a fighting game, and the fights are quite fun. The combat system remains unchanged from the previous Naruto games. Everything revolves around chakra, a limited resource you can recharge that gets used up with every attack. Rather than force players to memorize multiple button combos for multiple attacks, the game forces players to think about resource management while fighting. It’s smart design. The challenge of each fight isn’t in how fast you can push the buttons but in how fast you can think. It helps that each fight is bookended by tons of exposition, thus ensuring I get my fix of ninja melodrama before the fisticuffs begin.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 has a wonderfully cheesy story, with genuinely bad environments, and genuinely good combat. The environments shoot this otherwise good game in the foot. It’s not enough to ruin the experience, but it’s just enough to break you out of the soap opera induced trance.