Exactly how many Naruto games have been released in Japan? It seems every few months we receive a port of some kind in America. That's both a good and a bad thing. On one hand fans on this side of the pond have something to sink their teeth into without having to pay hefty import prices. On the other hand, there's a certain level of over saturation that comes from minimally improved games that don't necessarily move the meter.
Namco Bandai has been the publisher releasing the majority of these games, and the franchise has found itself on every console and handheld. There are different iterations for each separate game franchise; however, and in the case of the PSP, the latest incarnation has been Ultimate Ninja Heroes. The third installment was recently released, and we've had quite a bit of time with the game. How does it stack up to its predecessors? For that matter, how does it fare as a fighting game in general? Let's have a look.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 3 quite obviously features trappings from the long-running sequel anime. If you're coming to this review, then we'll just assume you already know what Naruto is all about. Why bother recapping an already well-established franchise when a game is marketed directly towards the fanbase anyway? All one really needs to know is that Shippuden is the evolution of the franchise. It's a step forward in terms of years and focus from the original, and introduces a whole new cast of characters.
In Ultimate Ninja Heroes 3 the game follows a storyline that's presented through the Master Road mode. This mode basically mashes together some of the arcs from the series and features a new side story as well. Neither is really handled effectively, and if players haven't seen Shippuden they'll most likely be lost in some instances. The original storyline included in this game is appreciated, but feels like a tacked-on and pointless diversion. It's not quite up to the quality of filler episodes from the series, and really feels kind of sloppy, but I digress. This is a fighting game at its core, and in that sense I suppose a story isn't necessarily the main focus.
Players returning from other CyberConnect2 Naruto games will already know what to expect. The same basic formula is here, but with a twist; there are four-player battles this time around (available through ad-hoc)! This brings the level of action up to insane proportions and really makes things downright crazy at times. The ninja here have always been fast, and the action has always been speedy, but when you multiply the amount of fighters by two it's even crazier. Think of Smash Brothers on speed and you might have some idea what I'm talking about.
Newcomers to this franchise may not know what to expect, however. The gameplay is relatively straightforward in terms of fighting games. Characters move side to side, jump, and have an array of regular and special attacks they can perform. The ninja motif is strong here and substitution magic, trickery, and projectiles are all used with great frequency. Put in motion, the game is a blast to play though in terms of improvements over previous Ultimate Ninja Heroes installments, the game feels rather stagnant. CyberConnect2 made a formula that works and they don't necessarily deviate from it here. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does leave the series feeling archaic in some respects.
The flow of battles here often boils down to who can mash buttons the fastest. There's not much skill involved, and even after quite a lot of time with the game, getting to know characters, it's still possible to lose to a new player hell-bent on smashing their PSP. This is par for the course I suppose, but a more balanced combat system would have gone a long way. In addition to the traditional fights, there are also some side-scrolling beat 'em up stages to explore. These utilize the same fighting mechanics, so prepare for lots of repetition and frustration. By completing these missions, and other parts of the game, rewards players with points that can be spent on unlocking extra features. It's a familiar component that will keep some players busy, but won't necessarily hold value for everyone.
Ultimately the gameplay is just simply too dated for its own good. The mechanics feel stiff in some respects, and loose in others. The multiplayer component is appreciated, but it often leads to frustration due in part to the core gameplay and some implementation of the ad-hoc. The bottom line is there are better fighting games available for the PSP, and this Naruto title isn't much of an improvement over the others. It's worth it for fans to check out, but anyone else might be better off with just a rental.
As far as the graphics are concerned, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 3 isn't the best looking PSP title on the market, but it's certainly not a bad looking one either. The backgrounds are richly detailed and the characters models faithfully represent their animated counterparts. Cel-shading is utilized well in this title, and animations have nice fluidity to them. The game is also quite colorful and really captures the spirit of the show.
The sound quality is just as good with some iconic tunes pulled from the series and sound effects fans will instantly recognize. The real treat with this title is the inclusion of both English and Japanese voice tracks. Fans of the series are able to choose whatever track they prefer, though really the original Japanese is the way to go. The English cast isn't necessarily bad, but a few voices grate on the nerves after a while.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 3 is a solid enough title that will appease fans of the franchise looking for some Naruto action to take along with them. The game isn't necessarily a step up from the previous iteration, but the inclusion of four-player multiplayer will undoubtedly hold appeal for some. The whole package just doesn't quite push the envelope in terms of the fighting game genre, however. It's a very middle of the road experience that gets by on its style and slightly dated gameplay. This series is due for some more innovation for its next installment, but until then Naruto fans can consider this one a recommendation.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 3 is rated T (Teen) by the ESRB for Cartoon Violence and Mild Language.