It was with a hint of apprehension that I sat down to play Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 this week. I’m far from a fighting game connoisseur, for one thing, but there was also the fact that this is the final game in the series, featuring the final story arcs from a hugely popular and long running manga and anime series which I had never seen. It’s not so much being afraid of spoilers, but more that I had no grounding in the actual story.
That point is fairly important when you consider that people unfamiliar with a series are going to be more reticent to jump on board when there’s a built up story and lore, and yet the game’s 3D arena-based combat is more than accessible, even to those who are wary of the challenges of fighting games.
For one thing, it boils down the controls and the combos you need to learn to their bare minimum. Circle is attack, and the only real combos are centred around landing six hits in a row, possibly with a flick of the left analogue stick halfway through – though admittedly, I could never get this to work! Blocking is done with the right trigger, while a throw combines that with the circle button.
That’s not far off being all that you need to know in order to get playing, though you do also have a throwable weapon, and you can build up to Ultimate Jutsus and Awakenings, or have multiple characters in your team to switch between and make combo attacks. I got the hang of it over the course of an hour, so that while I’d almost certainly lose to someone who knows what their doing, I could at least hold my own against the AI.
Playing through the story will give you that grounding in the combat, while weaving the narrative around each encounter. The Boys’ Battlefield, for example, sees Obito going to try and rescue Rin from a hostage situation, first fighting one enemy before Kakishi appears and fights alongside him as more bad guys stack up against them. In some ways it’s all one long battle, but as each enemy or pair of enemies is defeated, a little more of the story is told.
Much more ambitious is a titanic fight against the Ten-Tails, first hitting it in its weak spots in Naruto’s Tailed Beast form, before trying to outrun it in a classic dash towards the camera, and eventually turning the tables in a QTE. It mixes several forms of action together, outside of straight up combat, but Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 also sees CyberConnect2 integrate more and longer story cutscenes between fights. The 10 minute section of story that concluded the chapter was pretty impenetrable for an outsider, but will be on point for fans who want to relive the anime.
With so much source material to draw upon, and after so many games, scrolling through the versus mode’s character list is simply staggering. There are several distinct and separate version of Naruto himself, but to my untrained eye, it seems as though it’s been stuffed with practically every character from the anime.
Head to head battles let you pick up to three characters for each player, allowing you to switch between them freely during battle. The simplicity of the fighting comes to the fore, allowing for the battle to be more about timing and positioning instead of memorising combos. Even so, it took me several attempts to best an AI opponent, and I was often on the receiving end of some pretty spectacular and explosive combo attacks.
Winning a round doesn’t reset the victor’s health bar, which I find a fascinating way of assisting the losing player and helping the fight reach a third and decisive round. Getting that advantage is still important, but it helps keep people from being dominated, and it was something that helped me to become a bit more competitive. In the end, it was just being able to move a little bit beyond simple button bashing, and making sure to power up and make use of my trio’s Linked Secret Technique to deal the final blows.
Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 really isn’t going to be a good stepping on point for people, as the last game in the series and with the final throes of the anime’s story in progress, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an accessible and fun fighter, and that’s what I encountered as I played.
Oh, and don’t worry, when it comes time to review the game at the start of February, it’ll be someone who knows a bit more about Naruto and fighting games than me.