aruto Uzumaki is a fictional, child ninja and a popular one: a manga, two television series, four movies and three dozen video games have been made in his name. Ubisoft, on the authority of a 2006 licensing agreement, tasked its Montreal office to further the patrimony with a release for the Xbox 360, Naruto: Rise of a Ninja. Promoted as "a game exclusively developed from the ground up," in which "for the first time ever, gamers will experience Naruto from the series' beginning," Rise of a Ninja fairly manages as both an independent and lineal title, sustained by Ubisoft's craftsmanship and the story of Naruto itself.
Naruto, orphaned, boorish and invested with the spirit of a hated demon fox, is a lonely and ostracized graduate of the Ninja Academy in the small city of Konohagakure. Discovering his preternatural gift, the destiny it promises and the aegis over him by the elder of his order, Naruto joins with a squadron of martial fellows and — skylarks, righteously. Rise engages the player in a rough parallel, building both Naruto's martial abilities and his prestige.
Stunning to look at. Enchanting
to be in.Who called Rise a roleplaying game? It isn't one, but a platformer ornamented with head-to-head fighting that is also a standalone multiplayer option. The main objective, reached through a series of "ninja missions," runs in strict order. Naruto's moving around Konoha constitutes a geographical menu, allowing non-linear access to item dealers; character upgrades; or subgames consisting of, in direct proportion to the rest of the game, platform-traversing, competitive racing or sparring. Quests are consistent with the series' themes; while in the subgames players may have Naruto helpfully deliver ramen, play hide-and-seek with the city's children, or challenge his own sensei to a practice match. To and from missions, players must navigate cleverly arranged obstacle courses or, in a strange arboreal tradition, sail from branch to branch. Gameplay is fun, though narrowly defined.
Selected by developers for more buoyant titles, perhaps reserved for games decocted from cartoons, the combination of locally colored characters and illustrated backgrounds — mimicking celluloid animation — rests on nearly two decades of practice. The Adventures of Willy Beamish, released in 1993 by Dynamix, Inc., with Sierra Entertainment, was, with its fixed backdrops and simple animations, a good first attempt. Developers have since applied the technique to the industry's standard, navigable three dimensions. Ubisoft, recreating Rise of a Ninja's namesake manga and anime, elevates the style to a culmination.
Konoha and its surroundings are rendered so carefully and faithfully that they look as if a background from the cartoon were substantiated and placed on the ground. No photorealism; and yet city streets are attractive and lively, the wilderness lush. Characters, if lacking detail, follow movements of their television counterparts. Naruto doesn't run — he scampers. Menus are in bright primaries and fluorescents, limned with thick outlines of a faintly Westernized comic style. Ubisoft's team has masterfully devised the game to be painterly and lapidary where it ought.
Rise of a Ninja suffers from shortcomings. Some of the early platforming missions involve nothing more than gathering in constricted areas, a tedium that could turn players off right away. Race waypoints are counted in order and players can't skip any, even if one is directly behind the other. Controls are responsive but overpowered — speed and broad actions are easy, finesse not so much. The fighting component is a streamlined compromise, notable with its theatrical "jutsu" moves and rejuvenescent memories. Those fit for tournaments may yet find it jejune. The first hard opponent, on the other hand, will startle casual players and the inevitable rematch for every bad guy after him, however apropos to the genre, could result in flung controllers.
Can a good story be told
too many times?To narrate, Ubisoft turned to the anime itself. Why? Several reasons come to mind — time, budget, expectations of fans, difficulty in imitating the expressiveness of animation. But on account of the resulting awkward marriage, none of them persuade. The first transition from a cartoon reel to game graphics after the prologue, a pleasing and gentle sharpening of the image, is the last. Abruptly switching to the animé's rougher picture for a cutscene once, then again, then again and again is artistic recidivism — wasn't the whole point to experience Naruto anew? Worse, shortening clips required significant editing, obvious even to those new to the series. Though Ubisoft faced a dilemma — a few simple scenes or a lot of borrowed ones? — its solution looks like cutting to stock footage.
That which makes Rise of a Ninja significant endangers it with the contempt of familiarity, so much of what Naruto can do now having been done in one of thirty-odd games prior. Or, literarily and mechanically, what has passed into cliché. Is cult esteem enough to justify one more Naruto, and at that a major Western release? Ubisoft Montreal deserves applause — awards — for creative accomplishment. Good work or not, the typicality underlying this game's sparkle beg whether those efforts belonged elsewhere.