The first thing that hits you when playing Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is just how staggeringly good it looks. Essentially a playable anime in motion, it’s clear that much like the instalments before it developer CyberConnect2 has a deep love for the property and really knows how to make a Naruto game look just like the show that it’s based on.
With this being the fourth and final entry in the long running Ultimate Ninja Storm series that originally kicked off on PS3 back in 2008 (itself a continuation of the Naruto Ultimate Ninja series that existed on the PS2), it comes as little surprise that broadly speaking very little has changed in this latest effort. Although technically classified as beat em’ ups, the Ultimate Ninja Storm games could never be confused with the likes of Street Fighter or BlazBlue when it comes to the potential for high-level tournament play. Certainly, Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is no different in that regard; a 3D arena style fighter with a simplistic control scheme that maps melee strikes to a single button and secondary functions to a button each a piece, it’s goal is seemingly to make the game accessible to as many folks as possible while still providing enough depth to keep people hooked in the long-term.
Even though the game isn’t in the same ballpark as some genre luminaries, that shouldn’t suggest that it is devoid of any sort of tactical depth. Indeed, harder battles require a much more practiced hand and strategic mind in order to be overcome. Regular combos for example, can be activated by mashing the circle button and while they aren’t so great for damaging your opponent, they are good for creating distance in order to provide some breathing room as you to unleash a powerful jutsu to really inflict some huge damage on your foe.
The problem with these regular combos however is that they can be easily escaped from through use of the substitution Jutsu, a rather neat and easily executable technique that allows the user to instantly whisk themselves away from harm by teleporting behind the enemy. The kicker though, is that these get out of jail free cards aren’t so free, as they can only be used a number of times before they end up having to recharge on a cooldown style timer, thus impressing upon a player learning the ropes the need to employ them frugally unless they end up with no substitutions left when they need them the most. It’s also worth bearing in mind the environment that you’re fighting in too, since the effects of some techniques will also be magnified depending on where your fighter and their opponent is standing – lightning based jutsu causing more damage to an opponent who is standing in a body of water, for example.
Elsewhere, Chakra, which is essentially the Naruto universe’s equivalent of mana, plays a key role in unleashing the sort of ridiculously powerful and spectacular techniques that both the show and the games have come to be known for. While these powerful ninjutsu take up large chunks of your Chakra meter, they also require an opening to land successfully too, since the elaborate ‘winding up’ of the technique can be spotted a mile off and can be easily evaded or blocked by an experienced player as a result. The way to get around this however is to leave your opponent vulnerable by hitting them with the start of a striking combination but then seguing straight into a powerful ninjutsu technique, thereby inflicting the most amount of damage possible while making it almost impossible for them to escape in the process.
Of course like any resource Chakra has to be managed and while it regenerates slowly over a period of time, it can be sped up by collecting dropped blue orbs from fallen enemies or by simply standing still and holding the triangle button to channel your Chakra and replenish it much faster. The drawback to doing this though, is that it leaves you open to attack as you are unable to block or evade and so must be used during times of low threat, such as when your opponent is far away or has been knocked down, for example.
Chakra also has another surprising effect on the gameplay too, in that when channelled in a low-health state it can trigger an ‘awakening’ transformation that has the potential turn the tide of any given fight. Naruto, for instance, when awakened in one of his later character incarnations, takes on the physical form of a titanic, nine-tailed fox and then proceeds to dish out absolutely stupendous amounts of damage upon his hapless foe. While the awakenings might seem potentially game-breaking initially, they can be stopped in their tracks by an experienced player who is able to successfully interrupt the channelling process. Equally, a truly skilled can even defeat a player in a fully awakened form should they know how to stick and move with their offence and defence respectively; picking their shots as they evade the incoming attacks.
Further layering the surprising depth of the combat system are the supporting characters and ninja tools that you have at your disposal. In the case of the latter, players can switch control between characters with a flick of the right analogue stick, or, by pressing the shoulder buttons they can be brought into the fight for a limited time, distracting or damaging the enemy with a number of support-based abilities.
By far though, one of the best things about having supporting characters in Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 are the linked techniques that can be unleashed on your foe. With dozens upon dozens of unique cinematic style attacks that can be unleashed depending on your team, fans of the series will be delighted to see some truly brilliant collaborative ninjutsu come alive on their screen. The ninja tools on the other hand, feel somewhat trite comparatively rather than a true game-changer, with the various mines, grenades and temporary power-ups all fading in relevance next to the screen-shaking bombast of Ultimate Ninja Storm 4’s ninjutsu techniques and deadly awakenings.
Fans of the show will be delighted to see that the roster of fighters in the game is both reassuringly large and also wonderfully adherent to the events of the lore. While the story is set towards the tail end of the Naruto saga, there are actually multiple versions of many characters, each with their own unique abilities and ninjutsu that span the length and breadth of the series. More importantly, when employed in combat, each character absolutely looks and behaves the part too with all the trademark attacks gloriously rendered by the impossibly skilled artists at CyberConnect2. Whether it’s the wholesale destruction of Naruto’s Tailed Beast Powered Rasengan or the grim majesty of Sasuke’s perfect Susanoo transformation, it all looks absolutely belting and further cements the fact that this is closest a videogame has ever gotten to visually imitating an anime television show yet.
For fans of both the original manga and the show then, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is a veritable embarrassment of riches, yet it isn’t without some shortcomings. Chiefly, the most severe of these can be found in the game’s story mode. Essentially a set of matches that run the course of the final part of the Naruto story, it’s pretty uninspired stuff as you simply trundle from one match to another with a strange and often exhausting mixture of in-game cutscenes, dialogue and low-res stills from the show to link it all together in a haphazard fashion. It begs the question; why not just show proper clips from the anime? Why not just animate the whole thing in-engine? Simply baffling.
The other problem is that while skippable, the sheer amount of cut scenes has to be seen to be believed and regularly lasts far longer than the actual matches themselves, which in a fighting game, even a story driven one, shouldn’t really happen at all. As far as the matches go though, they follow the similar pattern of previous years, mixing in cinematically-driven fights with a generous smattering of Quick Time Events (QTE) all the while providing a huge amount of anime-flavoured spectacle in the process.
One thing remains abundantly clear though; nobody does QTEs quite like CyberConnect2 and here they’re showcased brilliantly. As well as being hugely enjoyable to participate in, the total lack of any fail-state and the ability to replay them at a moment’s notice also robs them of the frustration that so often plagues QTEs in other games. Whether you’re charging through masses of enemies as a giant, knife wielding toad or decapitating mountains with gigantic, epic jutsu attacks, this is absolute proof that the Japanese developer still has a flair for anime spectacle porn quite unlike any other.
Away from the rigid linearity of the Ultimate Ninja Storm 4’s campaign is an adventure mode that takes place sometime after the events of the main game, so quite obviously, if you’re not in the mood for spoilers, you’ll want to clear the campaign first before tackling it. An RPG-lite style affair, adventure mode has players travelling about the world, visiting all the different ninja villages while undertaking a variety of different missions, side-quests and collecting memory fragments to replay classic battles from Naruto’s past. It’s not especially deep RPG type stuff but it will certainly lengthen the appeal of the game for fans of the series while providing a decent enough reason to keep on playing long past the point where the allure of the story mode has faded.
Beyond the story and adventure modes, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 also permits players to take part in a bit of online scrapping. Intriguingly enough, money and treasures which have been accrued for achieving high rankings in single-player battles can then be traded in for a wide variety of cosmetic upgrades for your fighters, allowing players to deck out their favourite combatants with a number of unique fashions. As for the quality of online multiplayer, the experience was generally a very good one, with precious little in the way of latency or lag and certainly nothing in the way of disconnections. In short, much like Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 before it, the online component is both robust and potentially long-lasting.
Like Naruto himself then, the final entry in the Ultimate Ninja Storm series isn’t stupendously clever nor especially deep but what it lacks in guile and nuance it more than makes up for in CyberConnect2’s trademark thunderous raw spectacle and a wealth of content. One of the best anime fighters available right now? Believe it.