Like other game series which have clearly locked into their identity, (I’m looking at you Warriors titles) the Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm franchise rarely attempts to reinvent the wheel of its own success. It’s found something that works and consistently pleases an audience who lovingly support it.
Understanding this the designers know they only tempt failure if they stray too far from the formula and carefully navigate the series’ development within those expectations.
For the most part this is a smart and stable way to run any franchise, especially when it largely consists of numerically branded entries. However, this loophole in entertainment evolution is not entirely free of scrutiny. Simply giving us more of a good thing is great, but it also inevitably leads to stagnancy. Innovation has always maintained itself as a highly important, if not the most important, element of any game, whether it be a sequel or otherwise.
So, in regards to Ultimate Ninja Storm 4, how do these perspectives pan out? Does it rise above the limitations of its own legacy, or is it just a fresh serving of an old recipe?
Let’s start with the story. Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 shares its narrative presence along with the anime it’s based on. That is to say it neither precedes nor succeeds the show, but rather exists beside it, telling a more embellished variation of the same events in order to expand its interactive opportunities.
In addition to this formula, each entry in the game series is developed and released in conjunction with the segment of the show that’s currently running, ending with a teaser of what is to come.
For example, Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 began and recounted the events leading up to and including the Fourth Great Ninja War, which was the story arc the anime was currently airing at the time and had largely completed. Its ending involved the battle between Naruto and the enslaved tailed beasts, a part of the story yet to be shown in the anime proper in most parts of the world, making it a bit of a teaser for fans.
Therefore, if you weren’t a reader of the manga and were only watching the show, Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 (and the even more expanded Full Burst Edition) was your best bet to get more of the story largely as it was meant to be told. (Assuming you were into games.)
Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 predictably shares this unique symbiosis with its parental content. It begins largely were the previous entry ended, but is mostly engaging the anime’s current narrative arc. Its storytelling moves backwards, forwards, and sideways across the Naruto Shippuden timeline to fill you in a bit on the character’s motivations, but largely assumes you already know them and is presenting them for dramatic effect.
However, unlike the previous entries in the Ultimate Ninja Storm series, the fourth is the first time the source of the content (namely, the manga) has run its course. The final, 700th, chapter of the manga was printed in late 2014, bringing an end to its 15 year run. The anime, which typically progressed a few months behind the manga’s story, has been stretching out its tenure by animating and broadcasting filler episodes until the creator gets the sequel series, Baruto, more off the ground.
So why does this matter for the video game?
Speaking objectively, Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 does a relatively poor job immersing you into its plot on its own. It’s like the majority of anime based games, which are created as a novelty for fans more so than standalone projects.
But in this case Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 doubles down on what should normally be its weakest point. The end of this entry’s story is also the end of the anime-to-be, meaning that for the first time in the franchise’s history, the game is ahead of the narrative curve. Since the anime is not expected to conclude its run until early 2017 (rumored for various reasons), this video game is fans’ best option for seeing an animated conclusion to one of their favorite shows nearly a year ahead of the curve.
Getting into the mechanics and gameplay elements, Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is almost exactly like its predecessors with a few noteworthy additions.
This entry offers players the ability to tag-in and out with some of their support characters, giving you the opportunity to change your combat tactics in the midst of a battle. A close range character who finds themselves up against the ropes can swap out with a long range partner, totally throwing off your opponent’s timing and tactics. It also allows a player to be adaptable in ways their selected characters may not be, gifting them with unexpected victories.
The next big addition that I noted was the ability to cling and fight off of walls. While only available on certain levels, this addition of a new combat dimension does wonders for the series. Not only does it let the game further emulate the Shinobi world that Naruto takes places in, but it adds a battle component you never knew you missed until to use it.
Wall clinging allows you to escape cheesy juggles, throw off ranged targeting, and change camera perspectives in ways that can give you an edge. It also increases that epic feeling the Naruto games have always strove to match with their anime and manga counterparts. Now you can jump against a wall and rain fire down upon your enemy as a regular skill, not only as the glamourous ending to a particular Jutsu.
Of course the opposite is true as well. Playing fast and loose with camera angles and lines of sight doesn’t win you friends in every genre, and the granddaddy of competitive games is far from an exception. There are going to be players out there that hate this new component, but in all fairness it’s not like it’s everywhere, and it helps make the solo story mode feel even more adventurous.
Speaking of feeling more adventurous, Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 does one of the best jobs yet getting right into the action and slicing off the borderline pointlessness of the previous entries faux open world portions. Here you select your challenges, pick your difficulty, see your optional goals and jump in. No more running through map after map of barren terrain in hopes of flipping over a lonely bucket or kicking an idle pile of leaves to discover one health potion you’re never going to use.
Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 lets its story panels (skippable panels if you’re so inclined) do all the immersion for it, and since the majority of fighting games can’t even be bothered to do that much, it’s really more than you need.
The negatives with this title are a little hard to judge since they’re almost identical to when I reviewed Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 Full Burst a couple years ago. The characters can feel kind of samey between one another, the fights can easily feel unbalanced, and since your attacks have no one-to-one ratio it’s difficult to feel great at the game as opposed to great with a character.
But these days this design scheme seems more like a stylistic choice than a flaw, and thusly a matter of taste more than quality. Also, since Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 has such a plethora of game modes these irritations get lost in the wake. There is so much to do and ways to do them, the how of it seems a bit less important.
This brings us to the cast, and in Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 it’s the largest it’s ever been. Counted at over 100 playable characters the image you might draw from this number may not feel exactly accurate in play. A large portion of this assortment includes variations of the same heroes and villains as the previous games, exactly as they were in those games. Title character Naruto Uzumaki has nine different versions himself, with his rival Sasuke coming in just behind him at eight.
I understand what the series is trying to do here and it makes sense in light of the anime it’s based on. In one game you have all the characters in their various stages of maturity and experience, sort of like an interactive magic ninja yearbook. But even though these are different avatars and in effect technically different characters, you might still wind up feeling a bit duped. Especially if you know how deep the Naruto Shippuden’s creative well actually runs. (I have to admit, I was kind of curious to see a Guren appearance, just to shake it up. Damn manga purists…)
Music and sound effect quality mostly filters into the background of your attention, doing their jobs and then breaking early for lunch. Since they draw almost entirely from the anime and then loop certain portions to match the rhythms of the game’s various battles, you won’t hear much you haven’t heard before. They are good for setting the stage but don’t stand out unless the cinematic events of the battles make them do so, not the other way around.
Then unique thing about Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 4, the thing that is both good and bad and grand about it, is that it’s the best of what it can be; at least in this form and with this formula. There are more things the series could have done, more developmental avenues it could have toyed with and tested, but all of those changes would’ve morphed its DNA into something it never intended to be.
You can see in its pages of characters, the way it tells its story, and how it approaches the anime series it not only emulates but shadowed, that this series long ago believed it found the best formula to transport fans into the story they loved, and then just chased the dragon of perfecting that design.
Although Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is the conclusion of a story, it’s hard to say if it will be the last of its series. We may be in for more Ultimate Full Burst editions in the years to come, DLC packs are already on their way, and who knows what else. But right now the series, especially when taken all together, has truly succeeded in becoming the best version of itself. It’s well executed, it’s well proportioned, and it shines with the love its makers.
If you’re a fan a Naruto Shippuden, and a proud owner of any entry in this series, there just isn’t any reason why you shouldn’t purchase this game. It is hands down the best of the series, and a perfect conclusion to a decade’s long journey.