Naruto: Rise of a Ninja (Xbox 360)
The easiest thing to say about Naruto: Rise of a Ninja is that it's a decent anime-licensed game in world where such things are rare. This alone sets it apart from the multitudes of by-the-numbers genre games that have been based on seemingly every Japanese cartoon that can command a modicum of crossover appeal in North America. They're bad enough to be all but written off completely by jaded critics, but somehow good enough to warrant their continual propagation. That said, Rise of a Ninja is leagues ahead of these sorts of games in scope and execution, but it isn't quite good enough to stand on its own were it stripped of the Naruto license.
You're probably going to appreciate Rise of a Ninja a whole lot more if you're familiar with the ?Naruto? cartoon. The game follows the first season of the series and heavily employs scenes from the cartoon to punctuate key sequences in its progression. To someone who isn't terribly familiar with ?Naruto? (I've seen a couple of episodes of the show with my younger cousins), these can seem a little out of context. It's not because the visual transition from game to cartoon is in any way jarring; the game actually evokes the look of the show with astounding clarity. Rather, there's a bit of dramatic buildup that invariably gets lost between these segues, and I suspect that if I were more familiar with what actually happened in the show, they would make more sense. Ultimately, though, this isn't going to keep the uninitiated from enjoying Naruto's cool story. It'll eventually come through, albeit sometimes in bits and pieces, and unless you've long since smothered your inner child, it will be hard not to enjoy this exuberant-yet-downtrodden little ninja's tale of self-actualization and redemption.
Of course, that is only if you can deal with the game's repetitious structure long enough to get to these scenes. For much of the time, you'll be able to trick yourself into believing that you're playing a Naruto-licensed cross between Grand Theft Auto and Zelda. The world can be very convincing -- Naruto's home village of Konoha has been lavishly modeled, and while there's never much to do apart from a few mini-game variants that get old really quickly, its broad scale and attractive scenery will keep you interested for a good couple of hours. Once you step outside of town, though, you get the feeling that the designers exhausted the majority of their efforts in modeling Konoha.
All of the game's missions -- both the ones pertinent to the story, and the side-quests you can perform to curry favor with the townsfolk -- take place in a few repeated environments that weren't anywhere nearly as thoughtfully conceived as Konoha. They feel like those obstacle courses you'd see in an old Nickelodeon children's game show, replete with rhythmically protruding spikes, swinging sharpened logs, and ledges connected by tightropes (minus the ball pits beneath them -- you're a ninja, after all). They also feel incredibly vacant; you seldom meet another soul while traveling through them, until they pop into your field of view, 16-bit RPG-style, and initiate a combat sequence.
Combat is where Rise of a Ninja hints at the sort of game it would have been had its designers not come into the game with greater intentions. It essentially becomes a fighting game, one of roughly the same caliber as the multitudes of anime-inspired titles, but ultimately serviceable enough due the fact that it's simply one aspect of an entire game that's altogether decent. (To its credit, once you're done with Rise of a Ninja, you can play it as a fighting game with a roster of characters comprised of every one you've encountered in the story.)
Through the course of the game, you'll do battle with what I'm assuming is virtually all of the pertinent characters from the first season of the cartoon. More often than not, though, you'll be fighting generic bandits and ninjas that populate the game's ludicrously barren exterior environments. These guys are essentially the green slimes and giant rats of Rise of the Ninja; they pop up more than you'd like them to, and you get the distinct the feeling that the only reason they're there is to prolong the most pedestrian moments of your journey.
As for the fighting itself, it isn't bad. Pulling off gratifying attack combinations is pretty easy, and since you can unlock new combos by means of a rudimentary RPG-style experience system, there's actually some incentive to complete the tedious side-quests you'll be offered. The marquee battles in the game are actually pretty challenging, but most of the time, it's only because the notable boss characters are incredibly overpowered -- you'll burn through a few of Rise of a Ninja's equivalent of lives to complete the toughest ones.
It would be easy to dismiss Rise of a Ninja's shortcomings by writing the game off as "kids' stuff," but that would be to ignore the fact that younger gamers probably enjoy the same kinds of games that we do -- and unless you're talking really young, they probably aren't any less discerning than we are. Be that as it may, a great many youngsters (as well many who are young at heart) are way into Naruto. I don't doubt that these people will get a lot more out of Rise of a Ninja than I did.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.