Anime games are always an interesting beast. They have to straddle the line between catering directly to the long-time fans of the series, while also simultaneously offering an entry point for newcomers. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is a fantastic game for fans of the anime and game series alike, but has trouble drawing in new players to the universe while also suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. It's easily one of the best Naruto games out there with tons of content to sink into, but what it has in breadth it ultimately lacks in depth.
Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 picks up right where Ninja Storm 2 left off with the start of the Fourth Great Ninja War, although the prologue covers the Nine-Tail's attack on The Hidden Leaf village. Narratively, CyberConnect2 have done an impressive job as you can tell there is quite a lot of work stuffed into this game. The presentation in terms of both graphics and voice acting mirrors the anime almost perfectly and is one of the impressive anime-to-game adaptations to date. The cel-shading is beautiful, especially in fights, and the overall plot is very well fleshed out for a game like this.
However, with that being said, it still fails to get to the "next-level" in terms of story-telling. For those that are unfamiliar with the franchise, one might say playing the 3rd game in a series is a bad idea, but newcomers like accessibility. There is a roughly 10-15 minute slideshow with walls of text (without narration) while you wait for the 4.6GB install (on PS3) along with tons of in-game cutscenes, but that's a lot to digest. Thankfully after the first couple hours it's far less cutscene and free-roam driven and instead much more action-focused, which is where it's strength lies.
When you're not pummeling foes or watching people talk about pummeling their foes, you're wandering around large (and mostly empty) environments like you're playing a JRPG. This is where the identity crisis sort of creeps up: why is my action game forcing me to walk around a wide open city with nothing to really do, talking to NPCs with little to say and shopping in stores for items of little true use? It feels out of place, even if the environments are very pretty. I couldn't help but feel like I was somehow playing a portion of a different and unfinished game when paired with the intensity of the bulk of the rest of the game.
Speaking of which, it's actually pretty well rounded. Outside of the main story mode are free battle modes allowing you to play against the CPU or a 2nd player in 1v1 or team battles with over 80 fighters to choose from after unlocking everybody. In team battles, you select two support characters. Each support character can fulfill either an attack, defense or balanced role which helps shake things up a bit. These support characters have abilities on cooldowns and even their own life gauges, so they can be killed during a single fight.
Combat is both a highlight and one of the biggest frustrations in the game. Battles are extremely fast-paced and intense affairs, but it lacks real depth that a lot of other fighters have these days. For example, all characters have the same overall control scheme, with the same inputs for special abilities and everything else, the only real differences occur insofar as which support characters you choose, which items you select and how you use certain skills. This could be said for most any fighting game, but the lack of an in-depth combo system leaves me wanting a bit more at the end of the day. All that being said, after spending some time with it and accepting it for what it is, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun to play most of the time and also very pretty to look at.
Other game modes include a very fleshed out tournament style mode, as well as online battles. While playing online you have customizable fighter cards that include a series of unlockable segments you can change like titles, subtitles and a fighter image. I went with "Pitiful Loser, Looking for Friend" along with an image of a crying woman. It suited my playstyle nicely.
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 takes around a dozen hours to complete the main storyline, with a host of other game modes and things to do after the fact. For fans of the franchise there is a lot to do and see, with some of the best cel-shaded graphics this side of Ni no Kuni. It resembles the anime, it plays like the anime and sounds like the anime, but the issue is that sometimes it is more boring than it is fun to play. The open and empty towns to roam around in grow tedious far too quickly, cutscenes feel long and unnecessary and the lore is too dense for a newcomer to jump right into; but if you're looking for a game to pop in with some friends and duke it out in a crazy, over-the-top 3D action-style anime fighting game, there are a lot worse out there.
This review was based on physical review copy of the game for the PlayStation 3 provided by Namco Bandai.