You don’t have to be an anime-obsessed otaku to recognize the orange jumpsuited orphan turned ninja Naruto, as his TV show is currently among the most popular animated series in both the United States and Japan. But take it from Goku, fame can be a double-edged sword. It wasn’t too long ago that Naruto seemed destined follow in the footsteps of Dragon Ball Z, with the anime and manga enjoying absurd popularity in inverse proportion to the abysmal mediocrity of their videogame counterparts. Though not terrible, they were all far from terrific, relying mostly on fan loyalty to move copies. But then last year Ubisoft released Naruto: Rise of a Ninja, the first game to break from the beat ’em up formula, blending both fighting and adventure elements to appeal to the millions-strong fanbase and the Naruto-newcomer alike, a formula that resulted in both critical and commercial success. It also paved the way for the recently released sequel, Naruto: The Broken Bond, but is this new Naruto-road one you will want to travel?
First let’s go ahead and assume you’ve watched the show or have at least played Rise of a Ninja. The Broken Bond sure does, plunging players directly into a story mode that spans episodes 81 to 135 of the anime. Even for fans, let alone newcomers to the Naruto universe, a little recap would be have been nice, especially since the series now spans more than 200 twisty and turny episodes. There are no flashbacks, no cut scenes, no dialogue to provide any backstory. Why Ubisoft didn’t include an optional summary of the first game, a crash course for the first 80 episodes, is baffling, especially considering what a great job they did in the first game of approaching the material in a way that would be accessible to fans and non-fans alike.
Though the story starts strong with a dramatic battle between the classic archetypes of “wise sensei” and “evil pupil”, and ends strong with a moving showdown that tests the bonds of friendship, there are many moments between when the constantly revolving characters, seemingly disconnected storylines, and endlessly excruciating fetch quests really slow things down. At least they let you choose between Japanese and English voice actors from the start, an option belatedly added to the previous game – both tracks are very well done, though the English-voiced villains come off as silly at times.
The story mode plays out as a third-person action adventure in which you mostly control Naruto, who must venture beyond the gates of Hidden Leaf Village to complete various missions, a good chunk of which devolve into boring fetch quests. Though racing over rooftops, leaping through trees and running across water is exhilarating and entertaining, you’ll be surprised by how much of a ninja-in-training’s time is spent collecting water balloons, planks of wood, bags of potato chips and flowers to make shampoo, tasks not helped by excessive backtracking and generic-looking, navigation-difficult outdoor environments.
The village environments are absolutely stunning. You’ll find yourselves scaling the walls just to take in the view, which lovingly recreates the world of the anime with highly detailed cel-shaded graphics. That same attentiveness has been lavished on the character designs, with the 2D cast faithfully and exactingly recreated in 3D. The Broken Bond uses its own gorgeous graphics engine for all the cut scenes, which of course look great. If only the same could be said of the outdoor environments. You’ll quickly notice that all the forest areas look the same, but not quite the same enough to keep you from getting lost. The area map is pretty much useless as it doesn’t clearly define barriers preventing you from reaching the next checkpoint, making your time spent inevitably wandering aimlessly though the woods incredibly frustrating. Many times you’ll fight your way through an obstacle course of deadly traps only to have to turn right back around, an annoyance compounded by the fact that a lot of the missions require backtracking anyway. At least you’re not suffering alone, as Naruto is often accompanied by one or two of his friends, whom you can switch between at any time.
Our noisy ninja hero is still the main focus, but getting to play as different characters really broadens the gameplay and expands the storyline. It also proves integral to completing missions, as additional party members will inevitably possess a special ability needed to overcome environmental obstacles. If your spidey sense starts tingling, you’ll need to use Kiba’s danger revealing jutsu. If you can’t reach a switch, Shikamaru can get to it with his shadow hand jutsu. Come across a broken bridge, and Naruto can cross the gap with his shadow clone jutsu. This kind of teamwork approach to completing missions adds a rather rudimentary but welcome puzzle element, and though it might eventually feel more than a little predictable, it certainly reinforces the theme of the importance of friends so central to The Broken Bond.
But your pals will be good for more than helping you flip switches and press buttons, adding their unique moves to your ass-kicking arsenal when it comes to combat, undeniably the best part of the game. The fighting system is simple, with each character having only about 12 combos each, but surprisingly deep. Not only can you string together combos to create some particularly powerful attacks, unleashing a killer combo will allow you to perform a tag team move, which besides being incredibly devastating is just plain cool looking. The story mode features 3-on-3 combat, allowing you to switch between characters at any time during the fight, though you need to be careful to time it correctly as the slight delay means you could place your tagged teammate directly in path of an incoming fist. The versus mode supports 2-on-2 tag team battles, both online and offline, though you will have to complete the story mode to unlock all 30 playable characters.
For all the faults of the story mode, it’s worth completing just to try out all the different unlockable characters’ fighting styles, not to mention their unique jutsus which will quickly become your primary method of bringing the pain in both the fight and story mode. Pulling off these tricky moves will take more than blind button mashing, requiring you to stun your enemy long enough to allow you to hold down the left trigger and perform a series of simple hand gestures with the thumbsticks. If you can fill up your jutsu gauge, which has up to three levels, before taking an elbow to the face, you’ll initiate a minigame that will determine the amount of damage delivered, pitting attacker against defender in a competition to either maximize or minimize the effectiveness of the attack. Sometimes you are given a series of buttons to memorize for a quick-time event. Sometimes you have to target your constantly moving enemy in your crosshairs. Sometimes you have to time your attacks perfectly to hit key chakra points. And sometimes you just pound away on the same button. The variety of jutsus and their importance in battles, especially later in the game when the AI suddenly and dramatically leaps in difficulty, add a strategic element to the combat.
While it may be shallow compared to pure fighting games like Tekken, Soul Calibur or Mortal Kombat, when the game cuts away to straight up combat it proves just as entertaining for newcomers as it is rewarding for fans, who will get to experience their favorite characters looking, speaking and playing authentically in settings straight from the anime. And the main story arc, which explores the lengths to which Nauruto and his teammates will go to save a friend, has all the emotional gravitas of a classic samurai story. It’s a shame the experience is marred by some poor design choices, dangling plot points and derivative fetch quests.
- Looks gorgeous, with all the cut scenes delivered using the game’s beautiful graphics engine rather than recycled clips from the anime
- Fight mode more than doubles the cast of playable characters from the previous game
- Combat system is simple yet incredibly enjoyable, especially when successfully executing a powerful Jutsu move
- Plunges newcomers directly into the middle of the story, with no recaps, flackbacks or dialogue explaining events, introducing characters or providing backstory
- Derivative and repetitive outdoor environments, combined with an absolutely useless area map, makes missions feel recycled and tedious
- Seemingly endless barrage of boring fetch quests