"Thereís a good game to be enjoyed underneath the underachieving direction that fails to cater for any audience the game may be aimed at. Youíll just have to employ a little bit of ninja guile to discover it."
Naruto: Rise of the Ninja is not without ambition. The title seeks to summarise the first eighty episodes of the never-ending anime, compress it into videogame form, then look largely smug at the fact its not spat out yet another licensed-based tourney fighter. Itís commendable, even enjoyable in many ways, but not without its share of problems.
It chronicles Naruto, a young ninja residing in the Village of the Hidden Leaf, and his ongoing ambition to become his clanís most respected warrior. What doesnít help him on his quest is the sadistic monster sealed away inside him at birth that was once responsible for teetering his home on the brink of annihilation. This is a fact concealed from Naruto for the majority of his life, and itís a fact heís blissfully unaware of at the start of the game. The people who live within the village know; they treat him with enough repressed loathing and fear to force the boy into mental isolation.
Things open with a stiffeningly potent interpretation of this. After failing the exam needed to qualify as a low-tier ninja, Naruto sits, alone and dejected, as the rest of his class celebrate their success with friends and family. Finally, hands stuffed deep in pockets and head bowed low, he shuffles through the amassed cheering crowds who pause in their jubilation only briefly enough to rub salt into Narutoís wounds. They mock his failure as he plods through the throngs dejectedly, draw away from his form in disgust or just laugh in his face. Naruto is utterly, utterly alone, draped in his infinite loneliness and drowning in a sea of isolation.
Perhaps Rise of the NinjaĎs most realised aspect is how the young outcast can slowly alter the villageís undisguised hatred and place himself on an elevated pedestal. Granted free reign in what can only be heralded as a fantastic virtual recreation of Leaf village, Naruto is able to explore every nook and cranny, leaping from roof-to-roof or surging down hidden back alleyways and discovering little known backyards and isolated storage spaces. Not only is this sense of exploration exhilarating and well-paced, keeping some areas inaccessible until Naruto can master advanced ninja techniques, such as sprinting up walls, but it gives him the chance to change how other perceive him. He can hunt down lost currency and use it to open stores which will then sell him anything from stat-boosting scrolls to health replenishing ramen, or he can start the slow process of interacting with a town that hates him. Anything he does slowly starts to chip away at their demeanour; any little task he does for the townsfolk will slowly start to gain him favour. He can play a game of simple hide and seek with the villageís children, race a bored ninja around some of the more famous landmarks or run various tasks for people in a pinch, like retrieve a lost purse or pursue thieving bandits. Itís a slow and gradual process, but soon the sea of stormy purple faces displayed above the residents still not accepting Naruto start to give way to smiley yellow ones.
The quickest way to worm his way into other peopleís hearts is to complete the main missions based directly from the first eighty episodes of the never-ending anime, stretching Rise of the Ninja all the way towards the conclusion of the Chunin exams, but itís when you undertake these that things start to sour. The retelling of this tale has been violently slashed and summarised to an exhaustive extent leaving it in a very odd position; people playing the game without prior Naruto knowledge will often find themselves confused and lost and the game zips past important bits of the plot in order to get to the next fight while those already in the know need suffer what can only be described as a bare-bones retelling of an already-familiar story.
In trying to appeal to both crowds, Ubisoft succeed only in alienating both.
Early on in the anime, Naruto creates a unique technique where he transforms himself in a naked ninja girl in order to confuse and dazzle. Itís looked down upon by many who dismiss it as a worthless parlour trick, but itís effective against the Hokage, the villageís head ninja, much to the surprise and admiration of his embittered young grandchild, Konohamaru, who immediately stalks Naruto into submission until the older pupil dutifully agrees to take the youngster as an apprentice of sorts. Itís the start of a deep bonded friendship that even has Konohamaru form his own Naruto squad along with nerdy Udon and girly Moegi, where they adopt a mimicry of their proclaimed leaderís attire.
In the game, Konohamaru just turns up randomly and demands to learn the previously unmentioned Ďsexy jitsuí to defeat an old geezer the player has yet to be introduced to in a manner they will never see. Then it plays some out-of-context stock footage of the anime and draws the curtain on the entire angle. No Naruto squad, no formed friendship, no explanation how Konohamaru knows about the technique or why he evens wants to learn it. Thereís not even any Udon; Moegi hangs around but seemingly only for the purpose of being kidnapped later in the game -- because you have to have a cute young girl around to rescue according to strict anime laws.
Now seems a good time to further disappoint some of you: the option to have the game or the straight-from-the-anime cut-scenes play in their original Japanese voice actors is only available via download.
Rise of the Ninja arbitrarily falls back on its strengths to overcome its shortcomings, and will often smugly offer perfect recreations of important settings and characters lifted straight from the screen. Painstaking detail is thrown in to the woodlands surrounding the Village of the Wave or the mammoth under-construction bridge they toil heavily to complete, or the lush forest surrounding the hidden ninja village leading to serene lakeside retreats, interlinking networks of caves and out-of-the-way training areas well-stocked with training dummies and targets. Their detailed realisations will soon go by the wayside, however, as you constantly revisit each location as Naruto is forced to forever retrace his steps, made to wander through the same stretches in order to reach new areas or asked to perform inane fetch quests in stages long since beat. Again and again and again. Itís noteworthy, certainly, that new paths open up for exploration as Naruto learns how to run up trees or skim across bodies of water as his training intensifies, but that doesnít stop you having to make the same series of jumps across a network of broken bridges three dozen times, or having to dodge the same spear-laden swinging tree trunk so often you can navigate the beaten track in your sleep.
Itís confusing that time would be sunk into helping random pallet-swapped villagers rather than use this as an excuse to properly flesh out the story or perhaps introduce some of the cast Rise of the Ninja inexcusably ignores. Naruto is asked to run around some woodlands to stock up on medical herbs, so why not have him collect insects for bug-obsessed ninja Shino? The secretive shinobiís only moment in the game is a brief anime clip showing a five-second summery of his initial duel during the last stages of the Chunin exams. Shikamaru, the villageís most lazy but intelligent ninja, is available as a downloadable character, but he gets just as little in-game time as Shino. Download him if you like; all heís available for one-on-one tourney-style battles online. Even Narutoís closest partners, Sakura and Sasuke are skimmed over in the rush to recycle old locations for new inanities. No mention of Narutoís clumsy affection for the pink-haired Sakura, and the fierce rivalry between him and brooding Sasuke is instead made to appear to be little more than blind hatred.
Strangely, the best way to enjoy Rise of the Ninja is to all but ignore the interaction with familiar faces and just explore the settings. You can get lost in even the relatively small village of the Leaf as you leap from rooftop to rooftop looking for hidden tokens or race around the town trying to deliver ramen to hungry customers before the steaming noodles cool. Thereís a good game to be enjoyed underneath the underachieving direction that fails to cater for any audience the game may be aimed at. Youíll just have to employ a little bit of ninja guile to discover it.
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