Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 is the newest entry into the staggeringly long-running Naruto Ultimate Ninja fighting game series. With the anime finally coming to a close, Ninja Storm 4 sets out to wrap up the Naruto storyline while also building upon its last instalment. This means another game with a truckload of ninjas to play as and a fast and flashy fighting system.
For better or worse, Ninja Storm 4 is a game that assumes you’re already pretty invested in the source material. There’s a casual attempt to introduce you to the lore and backstory of the shinobi world, but it’s pretty clear from the presentation that unless you know what genjutsu, jinchūriki and sharingan are, then the game isn’t going to spend much time spelling it out. However, if you’re someone who’s ever owned a ninja forehead protector (be honest) then boy is this game going to appeal to you.
In every aspect of the game Ninja Storm 4 is a love letter to Naruto and a playground for fans. The music, the art style and even the voice acting, which is offered in both Japanese or English, is all up to an impressively faithful quality. Most notable is how the game looks, with colourful cel-shaded characters and inky black lines, it’s a perfect translation of the 2D anime visuals into a 3D environment. Of course all of this would be meaningless if the gameplay didn’t live up to that same level of quality.
As Naruto is an anime all about people stylishly beating each other to a pulp, the game’s fighting system is suitably slick. Every single character in the game’s ridiculously extensive roster has had their signature moves brought to life with grandiose presentation. Special moves range from simply pummelling your opponent in rapid succession to various energy ball attacks that engulf the entire scenery in a blinding explosion. Mechanically these techniques are all activated with the same surprisingly straightforward input, meaning the resulting spectate is more about paying tribute to the character than creating a truly unique way of playing.
Due to the similarity in how every character plays, it would be easy to dismiss the game’s roster as simple re-skins. Although sometimes the changes are only subtle between similar selections, there are enough differences in speed and style to feel like you are playing a character with their own attributes every time.
However as there are very few combos to choose from, and therefore very few ways to play, it’s easy to feel like any depth the game has is just smoke and mirrors. Yet as the hours tick by it becomes clear that the Ninja Storm 4 is actually very tricky to master. Knowing when to block, dodge or use your preciously limited teleport substitution jutsu becomes part of the challenge of adapting to the action. It’s certainly not as deep as hardcore fighting fans will want, but it’s also not a game that you can win by brainlessly bashing the buttons either.
Although it’s not too tough to blag your way through the story mode, you’re not going to last long in the online versus mode unless you sit down and really learn how to play. The more you master the game’s little strategies, such as swapping in your support character mid-combo or countering at just the right time, the more you’re rewarded with showy effects to match your success.
The game’s main selling point is arguably its aforementioned story mode, which uses a combination of anime screenshots, in-game cutscenes and quick-time events to wrap the plot around the one-on-one fighting gameplay. Although this presentation sounds a bit messy, and it definitely isn’t as smooth as it could be at times, it mostly gets the job done.
Unlike some fighting game adaptations, which phone-in their story mode, Ninja Storm 4 does its best to not only follow the anime, but ensure it packs in all the important moments of Naruto’s conclusion. What this means in practice is a rather uneven experience in terms of the gameplay/cutscene balance, some scenes go so long without gameplay they’d make a Metal Gear Solid entry jealous. For instance, levels are handled in a sequential manner as you go point-to-point along an occasionally branching path, before you reach the end of the chapter. Each level contains a surprisingly accurate estimation of how long it’ll take to play. Yet I was left amazed that one 7-minute level turned out to simply be a 7-minute cutscene with no gameplay to speak of. This issue originates from the fact that the game is so determined to deliver a faithful adaption that it includes a lot of slow-paced exposition present in the source material.
Originally it was jarring spending so much of the story mode simply watching the game play itself, but eventually I started to simply enjoy following the plot. It’s perhaps best then to see the story mode as more of an interactive anime, something helped by the inclusion of mini-game style levels that break up the traditional gameplay. These bonus levels, where you’re tasked with controlling giant summoned creatures or even pitted against dozens of enemies at once, are where the game really goes to town with its fan service. By embracing the absurdly over-the-top nature of Naruto and forgoing the attempt to cram these scenes into one-on-one fights, Ninja Storm 4 cements its objective as a game that’s mostly concerned with letting fans relive memorable moments, which is by no means a negative thing. Without these extra scenes the story mode would still be an enjoyable romp, but it’s better for the inclusion of these left-field extras.
Outside of the main story mode there is an entirely separate open-world plotline called Adventure mode. The story here is much more relaxed in tone and leaves room for you to visit the game’s various locations with open-world gameplay; completing side-quests, collecting items and interacting with Naruto’s giant cast. Despite the freedom to wander from place to place, these levels are incredibly linear and offer little in terms of exploration, but Adventure mode is still a pleasant juxtaposition to the deadly serious tone of the main plotline. The freedom to take things at your own pace also helps it serve as a break between the brawls.
Despite the packed cast of Ninja Storm 4, with over 100 playable characters on offer, the story mode has you play as the same handful of heroes and villains due the obvious limitations from the source material. Meanwhile in Adventure mode, the battles often offer you the chance to play as whoever you like, even if plot-wise you’re still running around as Naruto and friends.
The included characters are plucked from practically every major event in Naruto’s lifespan, with multiple versions of the same character to represent their more significant changes in costume and fighting style. Furthermore characters can be customised from a selection of pre-set techniques, letting you even tweak what abilities you bring into battle. It means if you have a favourite Naruto character, they’re likely in here somewhere. Although there are a few missing here and there, it’s hard to complain with such a staggering amount of choice.
Also in Adventure mode is a set of over 50 memory crystals, where interacting with one has you play out an iconic past event from Naruto’s 600+ episode run. This means you could find yourself playing as Rock Lee against Gaara in the Chuunin exam or even Naruto vs. Haku, events from right back at the start of the series. It’s a refreshing addition when so much of the main story mode is set in the final days of the plot.
I hate to use such a cliché but if you enjoy Naruto and fighting games, then this game is essentially made just for you. Initially I suspected the seemingly shallow fighting system would turn me off once I’d seen the story through. Yet even now with it long finished I find myself returning for more. Playing a few quick matches against the AI is a blast thanks to the overwhelming choice and highly polished presentation. Meanwhile I see story mode nagging at me with the option of chasing a better rank in each of its missions, while unfinished side-quests in Adventure mode demand my attention. On top of that there are endless unlockable titles to add to your online profile, as well as online matchups themselves of course, which can be played in a one-on-one manner or even as a tournament mode. If you can embrace the fighting system and love it for what it is, Ninja Storm 4 will keep you busy for a very long time.
Those who don’t have an interest in Naruto will likely struggle to see the appeal however. Although the gameplay is solid enough to support its goals, without the context for the characters and all that lovably geeky fan service, it’s just not enough to reach universal appeal. For everyone else though, Ninja Storm 4 is probably the best Naruto fighting game we’ve had yet.
Review based on the PS4 version.