The allure of the fighting genre has always been in its organic simplicity, that which gives the illusion that anyone can pick up a control pad and play. And with Tekken and Street Fighter, the genre’s established stalwarts, clinging to their overtly conscious back-to-basics approaches, there are very few developers that would even consider pushing the envelope in what is a relatively stagnant field in video games. CyberConnect2 is one of those very few, and the developer’s exclusive license to the Naruto franchise—a shonen anime series with a bottomless pool of ninjas and numinous warriors, perhaps Japan’s biggest export since Dragon Ball Z—allows them to infuse the fighting game with interactive video sequences and a sizeable free-roam mode. This, of course, is only the icing on the cake, but with a gargantuan tally of ninjutsu and dizzying combos to master, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is a pretty enjoyable cake in itself.
The game’s battle mechanic is easy to pick up, with all of your character’s actions to the right buttons (jumping, physical attacks, throwing shuriken, and recharging chakra) and the shoulder buttons used to either call in a support character or enhance your other moves. Though there is indeed a wealth of visually spectacular moves to learn, things rarely get more complex than three-button combos or frantic mashing of one particular button.
The game’s adventure mode is a play-by-play replica of the television series, which means those who are new to the Naruto brand will get an engrossing story while fans of the show will at least be treated to generous measures of nostalgia. Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 picks up roughly where its predecessor left off, with the highly strung Naruto Uzumaki returning to the Hidden Leaf after three years of rigorous training. He hopes to hunt down his erstwhile comrade Sasuke Uchiha, who strayed to the dark side toward the tail end of the previous game, and is prepared to tackle any man or multi-tailed beast who gets in his way. Essentially, the story is an excuse (albeit a fairly absorbing one) for our protagonist to lock horns with a variety of foes who gradually become more powerful as Naruto gets closer to the finish line.
Aesthetically, Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is a truly stunning game. The characters’ likenesses and the vivacious surroundings are captured through cel-shading, and barring some slight aliasing around the outlines these scenes feel just as fluid as the hyper-stylised anime. Each screen incorporates a bright and bold colour scheme, while the battle sequences are bursting with roaring balls of fire, dizzying cyclones, and monstrous tidal waves that are an unfailing joy to behold. The most memorable instances are the game’s epic boss battles, where the fisticuffs are brought to a standstill for stretches of QTE in which each button sequence prompts a breathtaking visual set piece. Here, Naruto will leap from tree to tree dodging some all-engulfing plasma stream before unleashing his own signature move: It’s a feverish wet dream for the senses, indisputably one of the game’s utmost highlights.
Unfortunately, the adventure mode is also plagued its fair share of tedium. Where the first Ultimate Ninja Storm had the player find their way from villain to villain through a number of mini-games, the latest introduces, to its detriment, a world map for us to explore. For regardless of how sumptuous each locale may be, they begin to lose their charm as you dash through them for the umpteenth time. Clearly this was intended to add depth to the adventure mode, but it only robs the game of any momentum it gathers in its more inspired moments.
Of course, we should be thankful there are any inspired moments at all. When so many television or movie tie-ins are so nauseatingly underwhelming, Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 is a reassuringly competent title. For fans of the anime series, and even for anime fans in general, this should be regarded as an essential purchase. Ever wondered who would come out on top between Sasuke and Jiraiya? How about Kakashi versus Gaara? Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 lets you find those answers with some blisteringly handsome action sequences. Even if you don’t quite know your Hokages from your Akatsuki, there’s a great deal of fun here if you don’t mind laboriously trudging through a forest or two from time to time.