Friday, November 21, 2008

Naruto Ultimate Ninja 3: Ultimate Jutsu

Recently, I rented a copy of Naruto Ultimate Ninja 3, which I have been curious about for a while now. It is a pretty fun game, though it doesn't really break a lot of new ground (it is very similar to the DBZ Budokai series, after all). The core combat system of the game is very good, and they do a lot of interesting things to keep things interesting and stay true to the series. I particularly like the variety of thrown weapons (especially the character specific ones) and the fact that even a character's basic attack combos make use of far more than just basic punches and kicks (like Naruto's long-range Shadow Clone attacks and Tayuya's wide-area flute attacks). This does a lot to give the game far more variety than the typical anime tie-in fighting game and keeps true to the wide variety of fighting styles seen in the manga and anime (one of the manga's strengths). There are a wide variety of more powerful and cinematic "jutsu" attacks that you can give to the characters with the customization system, but you can can only equip three to a character at once, so the variety in basic combat ability is really important.

I would touch on the existence of a system to customize jutsu for each character, but it is fairly simplistic in this game, if refreshingly flexible, so I think I will instead write about the more powerful "Ultimate Jutsu" attacks that each character possesses. Most characters have several of these moves, of which they can only equip one at a time. They are hard to hit with, and once you actually hit with one you go into a button-pressing contest against your opponent while watching the attack animation, which affects the effectiveness of the attack. Also, after the attack hits, many ultimate jutsu cause the user to either transform or enter into a temporary state of heightened ability, or causes the target to enter into a weakened state. This set-up is fairly good, but there are a fairly large number of flaws.

One of the first flaws is due to an eternal source of frustration for me: poor documentation. In the customization screen where you equip Ultimate Jutsu you can see how much damage the jutsu will inflict and how many bars of the Chakra Gauge it will consume, but you can't see whether it enters the character into a powered-up state, what that state would be, and what the effects of that state are. This gets particularly frustrating when a character has at least three different powered-up states, six to eight different Ultimate Jutsu, and not all of his jutsu trigger powered-up states, like Sasuke Uchiha. I know "Curse Mark Activated" and "Curse Mark Chidori" activate "Curse Mark Mode" (and I have a general grasp on what that mode does), and I have memorized that "Ominous Chidori" activates the "Curse Mark Mode 2" transformation (which is completely different than the Curse Mark Mode in every possible way), but while I know that "Sharingan Activated" activates the "Sharingan Mode" (which copies the enemy's move-set), there is no easy way for me to remember whether it is "Lion's Barrage" or "Chidori" that also activates "Sharingan Mode". This gets even harder with something like Temari's "Cyclone Scythe" attack causing her to enter into something called "Heaven Dance Mode", which isn't even directly related to something from the manga or anime (and I have no clue what it actually does). I don't even want to mention my confusion regarding Kiba's "Two-Headed Wolf" attack and transformation... Needless to say, more documentation and possibly some cleaner design could have helped this mess quite a bit.

Another complaint concerns the button-hitting contest that occurs when an Ultimate Jutsu is triggered. This feature is pretty useful, since it lets the person being hit by an Ultimate Jutsu do something to defend himself even after the blow connects, and I like the way the contest is balanced towards either hitting at normal power (in most situations) or being slightly weakened (if the defender is slightly successful), with the more extreme situations (critical damage or attack interrupt) only occurring if one side dominates the contest completely, making it far more fair than the "either it hits or it doesn't" mentality that made similar competitions in some of the DBZ Budokai games so frustrating. The real complaint is that this essential competition takes place while the attack animation is in progress, forcing the player to pay attention to a small corner of the screen and miss parts of the attack. A small complaint, but it seems like a waste to have such detailed animations and then punish the player for paying attention to it. Even putting the contest cues at the center of the screen rather than the corner would have helped.

One thing that seems strange to me about the Ultimate Jutsu/Transformation system of the game is that it often feels unnatural to transform into a form after launching that form's ultimate attack. "Ominous Chidori" is Sasuke's Curse Mark Mode 2 form's ultimate attack from the manga and anime, but you use it before entering that form and you can't ever use it after transforming (since transforming disables Ultimate Jutsu). It just doesn't seem to go in the order it should. Certainly, this order works well for the "Sharingan Activated" and "Nine-Tailed Power" attacks that portray a character transforming, as well as moves that inflict a penalty like Itachi's "Tsukiyomi" attacks, but not for the true ultimate attacks.

One final problem is that it seems too limiting to only be able to equip one Ultimate Jutsu for each fight. There are around 140 Ultimate Jutsu spread unevenly amongst the 40 or so characters, often resulting in some characters having far more Ultimate Jutsu than they can actually use across any reasonable number of battles. More importantly, the limitation of only being able to use a single kind of Ultimate Jutsu in any given battles means there is no opportunity for the player to make important strategic decisions in the middle of battle. The only choice is whether to use the Ultimate Jutsu you equipped or not. This seems particularly limiting since several characters have whole chains of Ultimate Jutsu that would logically be chained together. For example, Rock Lee has his "Primary Lotus" attack, followed by three increasingly powerful "Hidden Lotus" attacks that follow the "8 Inner Gates" progression from the manga. The Hidden Lotus attacks portray a series of moves in which Lee is increasing his power one stage at a time, each move following the last, but you can only equip and use one in any given battle. Naruto's three "Rasengan" attacks work in a similar manner, with each being the strongest attack of one of Naruto's three main states. If the game actually had a system that let the characters iteratively improve their power and change their currently equipped Ultimate Jutsu accordingly, which would work well with many of the Ultimate Jutsu attacks and reflect the way battles are fought in the source material, then the last two problems I complained about would go away.

Still, problems aside, I have to say that the designers behind the Ultimate Ninja games know how to create really impressive attack animations. The music and art style of this game is great.

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