There is a prevailing opinion among some fans of fighting games that only the most competitive ones, with deep and complex combat systems, are worth playing—and the rest can be left for scrubs. Street Fighter, The King of Fighters, and their ilk absolutely make for some of the tensest matches able to fill small arenas. The standouts, however, have built within them a simple behavior that dates back to their early iterations on arcades, where kids to adults could play without any tension.
Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 (UNS 4) has no pretense of one day making it to the stages of EVO, but should definitely make it to most living rooms. Once you peel back the layers (and there are several) of apropo Naruto lore, you have a brawler that reveals what is at the bottom of most great fighting games: beating your friends in a gratifying manner without taking the whole thing very seriously.
Look, there’s no way around this: if the Naruto anime and manga never made its way to the states, UNS 4 would sit on a shelf confusing anyone and everyone in just what the hell is going on in the game. It is inescapable and can’t be overstated that the Story mode, which serves as the main attraction, will likely have little to no emotional resonance to someone not already invested in these wonderful characters. It is not the same as with, let’s say, Tekken 6, where no matter how hard Namco tries, playing games 1-5 will only serve a historical purpose.
Here’s where I return to the whole not taking itself very seriously thing. The shame is UNS 4, much like CyberConnect2’s previous efforts in the series, is so easy to jump into and unleash devastating attacks, that those put off by the complex lore are really missing out.
Those returning should know that the final game in the Ninja Storm series sticks with what brought it to the dance and made it a staple for Naruto games. Thankfully, making the jump to current gen before saying farewell, UNS 4 is the best-looking anime-based title I have ever seen, and it retains the heaps of fan service that keeps players returning despite having already sat through volumes and volumes of manga or nearly 700 episodes of the anime.
This is the most enjoyable button mashing, QTE-driven game I can remember. Fighting purists may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. The game’s title itself means CyberConnect2 has captured something consistent with their fanbase and it’s due, I believe, to the sleight of hand in the fight system. There is so much positive re-enforcement with the Naruto franchise that it doesn’t matter that the same two button combination is used to unleash a multi-combo world-ending move and also a frying pan to the face. The trickery doesn’t diminish the fun because each character (and there are a lot of them) gets their due with character-specific special maneuvers faithful to the anime and manga.
The only downside is even the most novice Naruto players can press circle ad nauseam in order to complete the game, and retries guarantee you’ll never get docked for pressing Continue. You’ll end up with a garbage performance if you just spam circle, so the game at least does a well enough job encouraging you to step up the variety in techniques to earn an S- or A-grade rating. The campaign does this with clear objectives that award items, and versus battles hand out a rating to motivate players not to embarrass themselves in front of their friends.
UNS 4 adds a “change leader system” wherein players can take advantage of that massive character roster and select three-person teams that you can switch between during combat, provided the appropriate meter is full. Choosing a Naruto-faithful team or creating one full of strange bedfellows also mixes up the almost too repetitive set of special moves. What are you doing playing as only one character anyway? In Story mode, this leader change feature isn’t always available, but that’s a small price to pay for story accuracy. Oh, and you can now wall run—though, granted, I only used it once.
Surprise! UNS 4 also concludes the Naruto Shippuden storyline, and if that doesn’t excite you even a little, you’ll at the very least get to sit through some of the most wild battles ever to come out of the brain of a Japanese man. Really, don’t dwell on this if you haven’t followed the series so far, but if I can motivate you to spend the rest of the year catching up so you can play UNS 4, then great.
I mentioned QTE’s earlier, and this is the area where they are used the most. Most fights wrap up according to the canonical story sequence, requiring a sleek presentation and accuracy just not possible with the given control scheme. CyberConnect2 makes QTEs worth participating in, as the feedback you get from the result is made up of wonderfully choreographed action sequences. The reliance on QTEs is not bothersome, and makes a cartoon game feel proportionately epic, helping you forget that its source material limits UNS 4 graphically. That is, the game can only be stylized like anime and not present a photorealistic attempt such as Tekken or Soul Calibur.
The Story mode does do one weird thing, where some narrative portions are rendered with in-game graphics but then suddenly switch to a slideshow of the anime with voice-over, going so far as to even include a side quest that is literally just watching a slideshow. This wouldn’t bother me as much as it did if I didn’t already know the show was fully animated, and that presumably the publisher has the rights to the footage. In which case, why not just include the animated scenes? Ghost in the Shell did it on the PlayStation 1 in 1997. Thankfully, the most action-packed and poignant scenes are animated in-game.
Beyond the story are the same types of battles, only in free play and online mode. Each branch out into some variations, but all in all there are plenty of areas for fans to compete with little to no ties to the story. Chasing collectibles and higher scores does the license good, as the beautiful animations, authentic fan service, and great voice-over work are presented throughout.
The Adventure mode is perhaps the greatest anomaly in the game. It technically takes place after the events of the story, but hasn’t really been vetted by the quality of the source material. You chase errands and tasks in a world filled with characters and situations from the show, but they all end up in combat anyhow. The mode is not particularly bad, and doesn’t take anything away from the main attraction of UNS 4—it just seems out of place and too bare boned of a mode to revisit as often as the simpler battle modes.
Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 reminds me of WWF No Mercy on the N64, which I still have tucked away for a rainy day. This is a game that captures a segment of fandom and, in the future, may likely be a source of great nostalgia for many. The graphics are stylized in a way that won’t seem dated, while the combat is built on tried-and-true simplicity. Basically, this would be much easier to revisit down the line instead of reading or watching an entire season of Naruto on a whim.