Video Games Review: Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 (PS4, 2016)

When I was a teenager in the late Nineties and early 2000’s, I was into anime in a big,  bad way. I devoured every show and movie I could get my hands on and, towards the end of my fascination with it, I discovered Naruto. I ravenously followed the adventures of this boisterous ninja kid for seventy-something episodes before the story slowed to the point where it felt like it wasn’t moving. Having been through the same thing with Dragon Ball Z only years prior,  I couldn’t bring myself to go through it again. I hung Naruto up, but told myself that I’d come back one day to see how it all ended. 

From friends who have kept up with Naruto, and its sequel series Naruto Shippuden, I was aware that Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 was to encompass the end of the series as it happened in the manga last year. Maybe I waited too long to jump back in because good lord nothing about the story this game is telling made any sense to me.

In terms of story, NS: UNS4 actually does a great job of taking an anime that is hundreds of episodes in length and cutting the chuffa, getting straight to the fights it knows the fans have turned up for. The game starts (and spoilers for anyone who isn’t up to speed on the anime) in the middle of the Great Ninja War and barrels on from there, only stopping to ask, and then answer, the big questions: Where’d Kakashi actually get his Sharingan from? Who’s the dude behind that orange mask? Will Naruto ever actually get anyone to “believe it”?

Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4, like the games in the series that preceded it, are 3D fighting games that  behave a little differently to what most people think of when they picture the genre. NS: UNS4 has more in common with Dragon Ball Z:  Budokai Tenkaichi than it does Street Fighter IV. It features wide-open levels with gigantic, screen-clearing power moves that keeps everything very stylised and on-brand. It’s not going to end up headlining EVO 2016 but that isn’t the game’s aim.

The story mode itself switches from cutscene to gameplay and back roughly every ten minutes and it can feel like you’re spending more time not playing the game that an actually administering beat downs but it does mean you get through the overall plot rather quickly.

Combat seems to have gone unaltered since the series inception and definitely sits at the style-over-substance end of the fighting game spectrum. Every character has the same button combos to perform their moves, and even the heaviest character doesn’t feel like they control any differently from the lightest (not that there are many heavy characters, most of them are skinny teenagers who do so much cardio they must have a resting heart rate of three). The only variation appears to be in character speed. The point of this would seem to be making jumping between characters a non-issue, making sure the player is comfortable no matter who they choose.

Versus mode will let you choose up to three characters for a team match. You can jump between characters in the heat of battle but far more interesting to me was the fact that choosing characters that have a history with one-another would grant special combo moves that couldn’t be performed otherwise. Throw Naruto and Sasuke together, for instance, and you’ll get a special attack only those two can produce.

The fact that the combat mechanics are so simple actually works in the game’s favour in the long-term but initially I found it a bit confusing. There are the standard punch-kick combos all delivered via the circle button, but there are also super and ultra moves and finishes that require the addition of triggers or charging. The d-pad is used for items that buff or debuff stats on yourself and others rather than movement. After digging through the menus for a while I came across an in-depth and surprisingly lengthy tutorial, after which everything began to crystalise and make a bit more sense mechanically.

The ultras and specials are the real treat and are as much a spectacle as they immensely damaging. Its possible to spend a few hours going through the entire character roster just seeing all of their eye-popping special moves and basking in the ridiculousness of it all.

Visually, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is the kind of thing we were envisioning back when Dragon Ball Z Budokai first came out on the PS2. NS: UNS4 is often indistinguishable from the animated show it takes its cues from, especially during cutscenes. The opening cinematic is made up of the game’s 3D models but unless you’re looking for it, you could mistake it for a cartoon. It’s lovely to look at and the artists responsible are to be commended mightily for their work.

Fighting game enthusiasts who prefer deep and technical systems won’t find much to sink their teeth into here. Even returning fans may be disappointed to find that the series hasn’t really evolved much throughout its many iterations. But the thing is, it doesn’t really need to tick those boxes and it knows it. If the show’s premise of colourful ninja characters absolutely wrecking each other with magic shinobi powers was enough to rope you in, this game is going to give you what you want in spades. It will also satisfy fans of any stripe by coming with fully voiced dialogue from both the original Japanese cast and the cast of the English language dub.

And if you moved on from anime like me but held a lingering desire to find out how the Naruto story eventually came to an end, you can find out in a matter of hours and have a pretty good time doing it.

Review Score: 7.0 out of 10
Highlights: Gorgeous visuals; Simple, effective combat; Fan-service for days
Lowlights: Hasn’t really changed from previous versions; bit impenetrable for non-fans
Developer: CyberConnect2
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Released: February 5, 2016
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Reviewed on PlayStation 4