"Believe what?" is the most common of replies uttered by unknowing bystanders when pale, pasty-skinned youths scream the above catch phrase at the top of their lungs. To the uninitiated, "Believe it" (or Dattebayo, to the internet savvy) is an expression made famous by a young ninja by the name of Uzumaki Naruto, star of the immensely popular "Naruto" manga and anime series. The franchise has garnered a huge following on both sides of the pacific, spawning endless merchandising in the vein of toys, clothing, video entertainment, and video games, among many other goods. The quality of Naruto products is as varied as that of the animated series itself, simply meaning that there are both ups and downs, especially when it comes to Naruto’s video game exploits, whose accounts have been many.
When it comes to exploiting a franchise, for good or ill, Bandai has always been in an enviable position. As the primary producer of Naruto video games, the recently married Bandai-Namco understands the practice of milking a property for all its worth (I’m looking at you, Dragon Ball Z). Though Bandai (and Tomy Entertainment) has produced many great games based on anime and manga properties, they haven’t quite gotten Naruto quite right. Mind you, they have had lots of chances to do so with titles such as Naruto: Ultimate Ninja and Naruto: Uzumaki Chronicles, but most times out the oven came results that varied between merely decent to mediocre. It’s about time another party stepped in to take the reins from Bandai and Tomy. That other party, surprisingly enough, would be Ubisoft.
As a venerable video game production/development house, Ubisoft has an illustrious history of very successful original properties. Many of their game franchises, Splinter Cell, Rayman, and Prince of Persia being some of the crown jewels among them, have been critically and financially acclaimed. While Ubisoft has had tremendous success with decidedly western roots, they are relatively inexperienced with games of eastern influences, particularly: anime. Not to say the least, this humble gamer (and many others I presume) was surprised when Ubisoft announced development on Naruto. Snippets of game play footage were seen in the months after the initial announcement, but it wasn’t until May that Ubisoft officially unveiled their pet project, and at the oddest sort of place, FanimeCon 2007. (For descriptions and coverage of FanimeCon 2007, please refer to the other articles in our Con Reports).
Masao Kobayashi, Lead Localizations director at Ubisoft Montreal, was on hand to unveil Naruto: Rise of Ninja at a special panel exclusive to Fanime 2007. He began with an in-depth description of how this new Naruto game would differ from previous attempts by Bandai-Namco and Tomy entertainment. Aside from the obvious graphical improvements, Naruto: Rise of Ninja (which will now be termed Rise for the remainder of this article) will usher in vast changes to the Naruto game formula in the form of an entirely new game play experience. Gone are the formulaic RPG and Fighting conventions of previous Naruto games, whose game mechanics have become increasingly archaic with every successive release. Rise will introduce jaded Naruto video game fans into a fully open, free form world for the spunky young ninja to roam in.
A number of sprawling villages will be available for you to explore, although only Konoha, The hidden village of the leaf, will be playable at the offset. Also, Konoha was the only village shown at the Fanime 2007 panel, but Kobayashi informs us that more footage of other villages will be revealed as the game nears the end of its two year development cycle.
Right from the kickoff the player will take control of Naruto. Though you will be able to interact with a myriad of well known characters, Naruto will be the only controllable character. The rest of the cast will be relegated to NPCs, at least that is what we know at this time and with the information given us. This is completely understandable seeing as Naruto is the main focus of the anime and manga series; Masao Kobayashi said it best: "Why would you want to play as anyone else but Naruto in a Naruto adventure?" Do not fret, the supporting cast will be presented exactly as they were in the anime and manga. What’s even better is that the character NPC’s will have different routines for day/night cycles, meaning they are constantly out and about - with a purpose and activity - throughout the village. This is not unlike previous free roaming games such as Shenmue or Grand Theft Auto, where friendly non player characters offer clues, advice, and sometimes, missions. Rise will include all of these free roaming conventions, but with a gameplay mechanic that neither Shenmue nor GTA offers: ninjutsu!
Seeing as Rise is an action RPG, the average gamer can expect the usual punch-kick-punch-kick gameplay found in similar games in this genre. However, seeing as this is a Naruto game, the average Naruto fan can expect to utilize cool ninja techniques, or ninjutsu, to overwhelm opponents. While the trailer played for the audience at the Naruto 360 panel didn’t do much in the way of demonstrating which ninjutsu will be included in the game or how they will be implemented in battle, Kobayashi promised that the ninjutsu presented in the game will be taken directly from the first 80 episodes of the television series. If by hearing 80 episodes makes you think of how paltry that amount is in comparison with the 220 episodes comprising the TV series (220 excluding the more recent Naruto Shippuden continuum). Sadly enough, the story arch of the game will cover only the aforementioned 80 episodes. Do not stew over that disappointing tidbit, fellow Naruto fanatics; the inevitable sequel will almost assuredly continue the story line. I don’t know if anyone wants to tell me if Naruto used his kyuubi form within the first 80 episodes, but being able to use kyuubi form in the game would definitely butter my bread.
Now that we’ve got the meat and potatoes of the game detailed and covered, let us get to the desserts; by that I mean the graphics. Naruto: Rise of Ninja won’t sear your retinas with photo realistic textures, normal mapping, or any of those fancy polygonal appliques seen in visual powerhouses such as Gears of War or MGS4 but frankly, it’s not supposed to. Using an enhanced version of the graphics engine that powered the visuals behind Prince of Persia, Rise resembles its animated counterpart remarkably well. This is due to cell-shading, a special technique that gives characters and environments a hand drawn, comic book appearance. Cell-shading is nothing new but when implemented right, the results can be stunning. Rise of Ninja is stunning. Even in a crowded pool of cell-shaded beauties (Jet Grind Radio, Okami, Wind Waker, to name a few), Rise of Ninja is a standout effort by Ubisoft. Both animated sequences and in-game cinematics will be utilized to progress the story.
A treat to the ears, Rise of Ninja will feature an original score and voice acting from the English voice cast of the Naruto U.S. TV series. For the hardcore Naruto fans, Xbox.com has recently confirmed that the game will include a Japanese language track. There you go, Purists.
Naruto: Rise of Ninja will feature a single player story mode, a versus mode, and Xbox Live functionality in a not yet disclosed form. Xbox 360 Achievements will also be present, for all of those who enjoy showing off to their friends.
Naruto: Rise of Ninja will be bringing Naruto and crew to the Xbox 360 this October at the suggested retail price of $59.99. Believe it.