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Naruto: Battle of the Franchises

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About ten years ago, Western culture got a big injection of anime mania in the form of Akira Toriyama’s gigantically popular Dragon Ball series.  Though several other Japan-native IPs, perhaps most notably Space Cruiser Yamato (a.k.a. Star Blazers) and the Robotech series, had secured sizable fan-bases in America, most pundits would agree it was DBZ that really cracked the glass ceiling for this vibrant visual art form.

Among the most popular themes of any literary fiction are tales about coming of age.  In case you’ve been under a rock for the last 5 years or so, the latest popular anime to follow this tradition (and gain a huge non-JP fan following) is Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto series.  Kishimoto’s work is actually manga, or a comic book; Naruto has been adapted to an animated feature by Studio Pierrot and Aniplex.  Due to its immense popularity, the story – which revolves around young people who are being trained as ninja warrior-mages – has spawned many games.  The latest pair in this trend, though unrelated, are worth taking a comparative look at simply because of their substantially different – though each worthwhile – takes on the intense action and visual style of the original artwork.

In one corner, we have Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm.  Latest in a line of excellent Naruto fighting games from Cyber Connect 2, UNS is as much a 3D action game as fighter.  Combatants move around each other in large, open arenas, exchanging projectile attacks or darting in close to deliver chains of melee strikes.  In motion, the game’s fighting mode looks somewhat similar to Zone of the Enders (different visual style, of course, but similar emphasis) in that positioning and timing are key to success.  It’s also worth noting – and you’ll hear this many times – that the visual impact of UNS almost can’t be overstated.  This is a truly beautiful game.  It might be unfair to say that it accurately captures the impressiveness and intensity of the original anime, because – sacriligious as this may be to the fan faithful – in many ways it thoroughly exceeds its source material.  CC2 has had several iterations to practice their hand at this art form, and it really shows.  Even if the game were poor – and it isn’t – UNS would be a worthwhile visual showpiece for Sony’s PS3.

In the other corner, Ubisoft’s Naruto:  The Broken Bond, an XBox 360 exclusive.  Sequel to last year’s successful Naruto: Rise of a Ninja, TBB (in fighting mode) is closer to a traditional stick-and-button fighter.  It deviates primarily in that executing any of a character’s powerful special abilities (ninjutsu) are performed by pressing and holding the left trigger, then quickly moving the two thumbsticks through a few positions before releasing the trigger.  This is designed to give a feel for the hand-sign gestures used to invoke ninja abilities in the anime, and it works pretty well.  Sadly, while each character’s gesture patterns were somewhat differentiated in RoaN, they have been more or less homogenized in TBB.  On one hand this makes the moves easier to remember and perform in the heat of battle; on the other, it strips the fighters of differentiation in control and “feel,” and since the moves aren’t hard to perform anyway that’s somewhat regrettable.  The actual battles of TBB look somewhat similar to a toned-down version of Marvel’s VS series, with tag-team battles of 4 in vs mode, or 6 in offline story mode only.  While not as visually impactful as UNS, it deserves to be pointed out that TBB is another very attractive game, and is only overshadowed because UNS really is that impressive.

Both games feature simgle-player story modes that will take a few hours to complete.  UNS essays a longer arc of plotlines and episodes, but also trims quite a bit out of the original narrative.  TBB also bowdlerizes the story, but more in the manner of removing some of its graphic violence and similar potentially objectionable content.  Relatively little of the broader plotline is omitted.  Both games also, perhaps inevitably, have some sins of commission as well as omission; this is simply done to pad out the story mode’s required time.  Unfortunately, it isn’t entirely welcome in either case, though it rarely becomes really annoying.

UNS’ story mode revolves around undertaking missions from its central hub, Konoha or the Village Hidden in Leaves; Naruto’s home town.  The player can explore Konoha fairly thoroughly, finding large amounts of “hidden” scrolls (usually they’re just hanging around, waiting to be hit with throwing stars) which can be exchanged for unlockable content.  Here again, though the village is sparsely populated and not terribly interesting, UNS scores points for its captivating visuals.  You’ll want to run and jump around just to watch Naruto, well, run and jump around.  The animation and character modeling is that affecting.  The missions themselves are usually simple storyline-driven fights, perhaps with a page or two of explanatory text beforehand.  Rarer, but always satisfying, are the boss fights – timing-based dodge-and-counter battles with gigantic enemies much larger than the screen.  They all play out pretty similarly, with defensive scurrying around punctuated by simple quicktime events, but once again the pure visual elan of UNS makes it all enjoyable.   The weakness of UNS’ story mode is that there isn’t, well, really a lot of story.  The expository text does the job of keeping the player halfway informed about what’s going on, but a background in the origin material really helps.  Too, in an animated series which focuses as much on character drama as on pure combat, almost totally leaving out any dramatic set-pieces feels like a loss.  There are some in-engine cutscenes, but they’re too few and far between.  The story mode also outstays its welcome somewhat, but is a mandatory component to getting the most out of the game, since many of the cast of characters can only be unlocked by completing it.

TBB’s story mode feels more robust and well-developed.  To be fair, this is clearly a second-effort, as RoaN’s story mode was more uneven and slow to start off; however, for the most part this is a quality effort.  Mission hub locales range from the ubiquitous Konoha to several other nearby points on the landscape, separated by tree-jumping minigames which are usually over quickly enough not to be boring.  (It should be mentioned than many of the minigames in UNS center around tree-jumping as well, due to its prevalence in the anime.)  There’s just more to do here – totally outside of missions, the player can undertake a gaggle of minigames like racing or delivering items, to bounty-hunting for escaped criminals, to hide-and-seek.  There are also carnival-style minigames to be found, mnostly in the town of Tanzaku but scattered elsewhere as well.  Some of these are moderately annoying, but the majority are surprisingly fun and well-done, if simple.  They’re not just window-dressing either, as success at the minigames earns you the upgrade points for your story characters (unlike UNS, you play as and upgrade several series regulars in TBB).  The story mode of TBB does get a little long in the tooth by the time you wrap it up, but still feels better fleshed-out and varied than that of UNS.  Like its competitor, TBB’s story is the vehicle to unlocking much of its character roster.  Where TBB fails is that it addresses literally no time at all to story setup prior to the arc it covers.  Nonfans of the original series are likely to be totally lost here, not knowing who any of the characters are or anything about their prior relationships.  TBB’s voice acting, either in English or (thankfully included) Japanese, is quite competent, but the story is replete with references you really need to catch to follow it, and for some reason Ubi gave no primer at all.  This results in TBB potentially leaving a lot of possible fans out in the cold, and that’s a real shame.

As fighting games and nothing else, UNS and TBB are quite different.  UNS gives a far deeper feeling of customization; players choose their fighter’s special ability from a list (expanded by unlocks), as well as choosing two support characters and up to four support or attack-effect items, some of which are unique to certain characters.  The support fighters don’t actually tag in and out, merely show up occasionally to make a distracting attack or set a combo, or perhaps reduce the damage of a heavy knockback hit.  Here too is a minor oddity, in that some fighters who are pretty integral to the original story aren’t in the game at all.  (It’s been recently annouced that they’ll be downloadable in February of 2009, but only as support characters.)  This won’t matter to nonfans or casual fans, but the geek elite will definitely be scratching their heads.  Melee attacks in UNS are all actuated by mashing repeatedly on the Circle button.  The effects can be varied by dashing, stick movement, and infusing the attack with Chakra (think of it as Ki from the Dragon Ball series, if you don’t know the term, or just magic energy), but the core of the hand-to-hand fighting is dead simple.  This is congruent with prior CC2 Naruto titles, in which movement and timing have always been more central than button combos or stick commands.  Despite the simplicity of the melee system, the many available combat modifiers make UNS’ fighting mode deeper than it looks.  Most dramatic and worthwhile, though, are each character’s ultimate finishing moves, or jutsus.  These graphical set-pieces are quite frankly the most jaw-dropping stuff you’ve ever seen in an anime-inspired game, and probably will be for some time to come.  There are amusing “ouch!” close-ups when a really powerful blow lands intermingled into the fights, but the ultimate jutsus are darned near worth the game’s sticker price by themselves.  No, I’m not exaggerating.  Pulling off a big jutsu in UNS involves a simple “Simon says” minigame of button taps to increase damage (or for the defender, reduce it).  Fortunately, the minigame stops as the sequences come to their climax – believe me, distracting the player from these would be a crime.

TBB’s fighting game definitely looks more blase, though still quite visually striking.  Jutsu commands are handled by stick gestures as previously described, and almost all the returning characters have had their super moves revamped and upgraded in creditable, good-looking ways.  The actual melee is surprisingly a little slower than that of RoaN; for people who haven’t played it, trust me that this is a good thing.  The action feels less spastic and more measured, more like a genuine fighting game than something badged with the anime characters to lend it false credibility.  Jutsus in TBB also involve minigames, though these are rather more varied than the straightforward “see/tap” action of UNS.  Players might have to reproduce a sequence of buttons at certain specific timing intervals in one game, but might just as easily be targeting (or dodging) and attacking in the next.  In another positive change from RoaN, the Jutsu minigames no longer heavily favor the aggressor, but are much better balanced.  Support abilities are much better varied and true to their respective characters as well, helping somewhat to add back the sense of distinctness lost by streamlining the command motions.  Jutsus can no longer just be used at will in TBB; an Overdrive gauge has to be filled first.  Interestingly, fulling this gauge to its limit also allows the character to enter Rage mode, making them invincible, faster and stronger for a brief time.  Triggering Rage can also interrupt an opponent who’s powering up a nasty Jutsu if you can’t run over and hit them in time – but you’ll give up your own ability to perform Jutsu if the opponent survives, and they can always trigger their own Rage if it’s ready.  Perhaps to make up for this premium on its use, Rage is more powerful than in RoaN.  Given the tag team mechanics, it should be clear that like UNS, if for very different reasons, TBB’s combat is deeper than it looks.

So which of these games is “better?”  I’d almost like to cop out and say it’s too close for a call, but – to my sincere regret – I can’t.  CC2 left out something their game decisively cries out for – an online battle mode.  TBB’s online mode allows not just 2, but 4 people to play in tag teams, or 2 players to use 2 fighters each.  It’s not the deepest or most balanced fighter out there, but it’s accessible, visually iconic, and plenty of fun.  UNS would hugely benefit from such a mode, but sadly there’s not even a stripped down 1-on-1 online option.  Further, though the incredible visuals are surely somewhat compensatory, UNS has irritatingly long load times – well in excess of 20 seconds, somewhat frequently.  This would be less remarkable if the game didn’t have a mandatory 10-minute install, but it does.

At the end of the day, it’s easy to call both of these games must-have purchases for any fan of the source material, if that fan is lucky enough to own both HD-capable systems.  I have to give TBB the nod as the more replayable and conceptually complete game, but I literally can’t say enough about the visual panache and excellence of UNS.  It wouldn’t surprise me to see some of CC2’s animation techniques forming the basis for animation classes in the future.  They’re that good.

For nonfans, UNS has the more comprehensible story mode, so as long as they can give up the online component it may be slightly easier to recommend.  Again, that is quite a shame, as there’s no real reason at least some disc space couldn’t have been devoted to catching up non-otaku on the storyline prior to TBB’s arc.  However, for people who want an enjoyable adventure game and a fighting game likely to have at least a good dollop of longevity due to its simple but enjoyable online component, TBB wins hands down.  Just rent RoaN and beat it in a weekend – not a difficult task for the most part.

Maybe the best news about this whole comparison is that both these development teams are obviously passionate devotees of the original anime and manga who are committed to making solid games based thereon.  Each title shows the developer’s maturation from prior efforts, and speaks very well of what’s to come as they move into the next big arc of the anime’s story.

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