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Naruto Shippuden: Ninja Council 4 (DS) artwork

Naruto Shippuden: Ninja Council 4 (DS) review

"Ninja Council 4 is a lean, focused story dressed in a new wardrobe. Unfortunately, the game has become too thin. Wi-fi multiplayer, prominent in the original Japanese version, has been dropped from the North American release. Fans forced to approach the game as a purely single-player experience will find some of its hottest new assets locked away."

The Ninja Council series seems to have taken a real-time Shippuden break. A couple of years have passed since its third installment debuted on the DS, and now the game has streamlined back into a straightforward action/platformer with multiplayer brawling on the side. Trimmed away are the superfluous mission modes and minigames present in previous iterations. What's left is a lean, focused story dressed in a new wardrobe.

Unfortunately, its training hasn't paid off.

In fact, the game has become too thin. Wi-fi multiplayer, prominent in the original Japanese version, has been dropped from the North American release. Fans forced to approach the game as a purely single-player experience will find some of its hottest new assets locked away.

Naruto Shippuden: Ninja Council 4 rejoins the title character and his friends after the story's 30-month timeskip. Our little ninja have grown up, changed costumes, and obtained some new powers. The game covers the first major Shippuden arc where Gaara, leader of the Hidden Village in the Sand, is kidnapped by the evil Akatsuki organization. These mysterious villains are simply planning to rip a demon out of him and then leave him for dead. Naturally, his friends in Konoha want to prevent that. At the beginning of each of the ten levels, you can choose to play as one of five Leaf ninja: Naruto, Sakura, Kakashi, Rock Lee, or Neji.

The new gimmick here is that your avatar leads a three-man cell. In other words, you choose two allies to serve as backup. Tap either of their portraits on the touch screen, and they'll jump out and perform their signature attack in whatever direction you're facing; it's certainly not guaranteed to hit anything but air. After that the person immediately retreats, unable to help again until a recharging period has passed.

The touch screen holds some powerful jutsu for your leader as well. Each character begins with only one option, but two more can be purchased with points earned by collecting bonus items and replaying cleared levels. For example, Sakura has acquired super strength, and can punch a crater into the ground. Later, she'll unlock her new medical jutsu, which will replenish her life meter and make her nigh immortal. On the other hand, Naruto doesn't really show anything fresh. He begins with his old standby, the Uzumaki Barrage, where he creates shadow clones and they gang up on the opponent. He can later unlock the powerful Rasengan, a concentrated vortex of wind that could rip a person apart. Use of these techniques is limited by your supply of chakra, but that steadily replenishes automatically, meaning they're usually available when needed.

Unleashing the techniques also requires the completion of a touch screen minigame. Some simply instruct you to furiously scrape the stylus back and forth or rotate it in a circle. Others provide you with a short string of kanji characters, then direct you to match each within a larger collection – sometimes they're spinning around. None of the tasks are too hard, but they absolutely require the stylus. Since you're playing the rest of the game with the d-pad and face buttons, keeping the tool someplace immediately accessible, yet secure, is inconvenient.

These mechanics are supposed to energize the basic formula, but Ninja Council 4's level design is still its strongest element. It presents a simple objective: travel from the start point to the goal, then defeat a boss at the end. However, the terrain usually includes alternate paths and multiple layers, so it's not just moving from left to right. Starting out in the village of Konoha and its surrounding forest, you can abandon the ground to run along rooftops and leap through the trees. Later in the desert, you can move through subterranean caves, where chakra helps you walk on water and avoid drowning in the bottomless abyss.

It's interesting because you never really know where to move next. You might run into an impassable stone roadblock that seems like the end of the stage. In reality, wall-jumping up to another level and heading back in the other direction continues the route. There are blind leaps into pits; if they're not the right move then it means death and swift trip back to the beginning of the stage. When you're standing on a spinning platform, there's no initial indication whether the next move is up or down. It could be both, and you'll want to explore every location for hidden items. In fact, there are some places that only a particular character can reach. Naruto, for instance, can summon a giant toad to jump incredible heights, while Kakashi can call upon his ninja dogs to flip inaccessible switches. It encourages and rewards you for replaying levels using different people.

Another reason the terrain stands out is because the enemies are so bland. The gas-mask wearing Rain Ninja are the only ordinary foes recognizable from the anime; they melt into puddles on the ground and then pop up and attack. The rest are a miscellaneous bunch of one-trick ponies who wear bright colors (not orange) and have no identifiable allegiance. Their most remarkable trait is a general willingness to stand by pits and find a way to knock you in, even by diving in themselves. Animals join in to perform the same function, including birds. (Can't have a ninja game without angry birds.) You'll hardly even have to break out any special jutsu to defeat these weaklings.

Instead, you'll use those attacks to spam the bosses to death. The midlevel and end boss is usually one of four Akatsuki members: Deidara with his clay bombs, Sasori encased in a puppet armor, Kisame wielding his huge sword, and Itachi using his mind games and fire attacks. Deidara stands out the most, since he first appears flying around on a huge clay bird and lobs his charges from on and off-screen. However, these battles feel like the weakest component of the game. None of them require unique strategy, just jumping around to dodge and using special moves and ally attacks to inflict the majority of the damage.

There is some good news for the Akatsuki. After clearing the game, they become available to unlock for use in the four-player mode. For Deidara and Sasori, this is one of their first appearances in a North American release. As a multiplayer bonus, Sasori exclusively exposes his 'red-haired' state, meaning he's not hidden away in his army of puppets. This may be the only time he's actually playable in a game like that. In total, there are seventeen characters available for wireless brawling. That includes the heroes directly active in this story arc, like Might Guy, Tenten, Gaara, Temari, and Kankuro. Shikamaru, Tsunade, and Jiraiya also see some action, but many other regular characters were left back in their home village.

That leads to the bad news about the multiplayer, though. It's multicard and local only, plus you can't even play by yourself against computer-controlled opponents. Naruto Shippuden: Ninja Council 4 is a passable action/platformer. However, only the five original fighters can be used in the main mission mode. Not even the Sand Siblings, who each see action in their own limited portion of the main game, ever receive the freedom to be utilized at will. Most of the motivation for replaying the story is to unlock characters for use in multiplayer. Knowing that's fruitless as a solitary pursuit, a lot of the appeal for this game just did a teleportation jutsu and disappeared forever. If you don't want to feel cheated, you better have a lot of Naruto-loving friends nearby.

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Freelance review by Benjamin Woodhouse (June 16, 2009)

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