This might come as a shock to you all, dear readers of this blog, but I love Naruto! I'm not your typical otaku who is completely obsessed by everything anime/manga related, but I do enjoy a few select series, like Evangelion, Trigun or Hellsing. As you can see I favour short series with just 10/20/30 episodes, so it took me a while to get interested in such a long anime as Naruto, but I eventually decided to give it a go and immediately got hooked to it. The setting and the story are so original and compelling that one can't help but love it. As any videogame fan, I immediately started looking for games to fuel up my passion, but what I've found left me somewhat disappointed. The portable games are just mediocre and barely entertaining and the PS2 ones are not that much better. Ultimate Ninja is pretty good as a fighter, but lacks in the story and adventure department (the anime is not just about fighting scenes), and Uzumaki Chronicles is just average.
But don't worry, for I've just discovered a great Naruto game, and the story surrounding it is rather interesting! I'm talking of Naruto: Rise of a Ninja, a game developed exclusively for the Xbox 360 (!) by an European software house (!!), and that despite the odds is easily the best Naruto game so far (!!!). Un-fucking-believable, isn't it? I mean, the best game based on an anime (and there are really a lot based on Naruto, just check the wikipedia entry) is neither developed by a Japanese company nor it is released in Japan, and is available only for a console despised by the Japanese. Irony at its best, isn't it?
About the game, unlike the other games that try to follow the series as a whole, Rise of a Ninja, like the name implies, is about Naruto Uzumaki and only him. In story mode he's the only controllable character and the parts of the story where he has little to no involvement were largely left out. This means that, although the game shows the story from the beginning and there are a lot of cut-scenes taken directly from the anime, the game alone won't show you the real picture, and you'll miss out the parts of the plot involving characters other than Naruto if you're not following either the manga or the anime. Still, this is a good way to get started, so this game is not exclusively aimed at Naruto fans.
The gameplay is divided into two main genres: exploration and fighting. The fighting part is pretty obvious, but, considering that it's not the main component of the game, it's surprisingly deep and enjoyable. You take part in one-on-one battles where everything goes, including a variety of hand-to-hand combos, throwing weapons and, of course, jutsus (for those not familiar with the Naruto universe, a jutsu is basically a special attack). The way you activate the jutsus is very interesting. Instead of just doing some sort of combo, you have to press the left trigger and input a series of commands with both analog sticks, convincingly emulating the hand signs the characters use in the series.
But throughout the game you'll probably spend more time exploring than fighting, and this is due to the absolutely amazing depiction of Konoha village. Forget levels or stages, here you have a fully 3D rendered version of the Village Hidden in the Leaves, waiting for you to explore it GTA-style! For fans of the series it's just an incredible feeling to be able to freely explore the mythical Konoha Village, home of our heroes, by running through its streets or jumping unto its roofs. The best part, there are no loadings while in the village, which is yet another amazing feat regarding programming for the 360.
The game has its problems too, of course. After a while some missions get a little repetitive, the "wild" areas outside the village are filled with annoying random encounters and, for me the worst part about the game, it ends (or so I hear, haven't finished it yet) with the final rounds of the Chuunin Exam, which corresponds to somewhere around episode 60 (80 if we count the attack on Konoha). For those unfamiliar with the series, part 1 of the anime has 220 episodes (it's currently on part 2, episode 30 or so), so you can guess that there are lots of things left out from the game, specially abilities that Naruto only learns later in the series, like the Rasengan (Naruto's ultimate jutsu).
Still, what we have here is the best Naruto game currently available for any platform (this might change with the upcoming Ultimate Ninja Storm for the PS3) and it's absolutely a must-have for Naruto fans, not to mention one of the best anime-licensed games ever, proving that apparently European game developers know more about what anime fans want in their games more than the Japanese themselves. If only there was an Evangelion game with this quality...