Licensed games have a dangerous tightrope to walk. How faithful should you be to the source material? How much "game" should you include? There is no single right answer to all of these, but every now and then you get a licensed game that hits all the right notes (I shouldn't even mention the ones that don't, but... hey, whatever).
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 originally landed in March for PS3 and 360, continuing the Ultimate Ninja Storm series' tradition of fast-paced, faithful-to-the-series combat and insanely cinematic finishers, courtesy of CyberConnect2. Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 - Full Burst is an upgrade akin to Super Street Fighter IV or Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3, adding a new story mode chapter, a new character in Sage Kabuto, 100 new challenge missions, and just over three dozen DLC costumes spread among the cast, and brings the Ultimate Ninja Storm series to Steam. The game's story starts at the very beginning--the night the Nine-Tails attacks the Leaf Village--then jumps ahead sixteen years and covers everything from the Five Kages Summit up to the start of the Fourth Great Ninja War.
Talking with Namco Bandai way back in January, it was made pretty clear to me that the original NSUNS3 was less of a straight-up fighting game and more of a Naruto Shippuden simulator, letting you relive your favorite moments of the series and put yourself in Naruto's shoes. CyberConnect2 definitely got that part right--the game is gorgeous, and the Full Burst upgrade features cleaner cinematics than the original. This game is actually a great way to experience the story in an abbreviated format--no filler, short fights, and all the important dialogue intact--but the cutscenes can run a little long. My endgame timer read at about 11 hours, but I know I spent at least double that actually playing the game--admittedly, the action choreography in the cutscenes often surpassed the show.
It's actually pretty difficult not to compare Storm 3 to Asura's Wrath--I didn't get very much hands-on time with the original release, but Storm 3 Full Burst follows pretty much the same formula as CyberConnect2's Hindu/Buddhist mythological beat-em-up. Watch a cutscene to set up the next confrontation, go through a series of one-on-one battles, and then end each chapter with an insane QTE showdown. The real difference is that Full Burst focuses more strongly on the combat segments, with a simple system that encourages aggressive play and accurate defense. Every character shares the same movelist, more or less, so getting better at the game has more to do with understanding each fighter's individual quirks--for instance, Naruto always has to close distance to land his Ultimate Jutsu, while Shikamaru and Bee have to be a set distance away, and Sasuke needs his target to stand still for a moment. In some fights, you're also given one or two assist characters, with different actions based on type (Attack, Defense, and Support), so you can change your gameplan accordingly.
Ultimate Adventure--the story mode--has a ton of unlockable content and side quests. One of the more involved side quests has you filling out your "Ninja Timeline" with events from the Naruto story, letting you fight in battles that aren't part of Storm 3's story or just letting you replay previous missions to try for a better rating. One of the cooler parts of Ultimate Adventure is the "Ultimate Decision" forks, where you get the chance to either follow the story or divert from it, with different options in difficulty and rewards. Sometimes, it makes a big difference in the cutscenes you see (did you make Minato fight with the Masked Man, or go fight the rampaging Nine Tails in the village?), but other times, it just jacks up the difficulty for a particular area, like whether or not you'll receive help fighting a boss. It's unfortunately not as common as the one-on-one fights, but you're given the chance to take on groups of enemies, chaining together strings of powerful finishers. You're also encouraged to freely explore several ninja villages, scouring them for hidden treasure, items, and blueprints that can unlock better items in the shops.
While early Ultimate Ninja games (and the GameCube's Clash of Ninja titles) made for pretty exciting fighting games, Full Burst is kind of a broken mess. Some characters completely crush the rest of the roster through severe imbalances--Kisame has insane range, Guy can lock you into combos and builds meter at a ridiculous rate, and god-tier characters like Minato and Madara are practically untouchable in the hands of a skilled player. Just about every fighting game has some form of imbalance, but it's rarely this pronounced. It makes the Versus modes feel secondary and kinda tacked on, with Full Burst's real focus being placed on the in-depth story mode.
Just looking on the surface, it doesn't seem like Full Burst offers a lot--there's Ultimate Adventure Mode, a Battle Mode that has team and 1-on-1 versus matches, and an Online Mode which gives you a customizable "Ninja Card," with different portraits and titles. However, Ultimate Adventure Mode is really lengthy, and while the versus mode was noticeably broken, it was still a lot of fun to play, especially with characters who don't get the screentime they deserve, like Lee and Shino. CyberConnect2's sense of scale and style get to shine in the game, with costumes that range from awesome (school uniforms and samurai armor) to disappointingly bland (Akatsuki members and village Kages get... hats).
Despite its glaring failures as a fighting game, Full Burst succeeds where it counts in this case: as a Naruto game. If you missed out on Ultimate Ninja Storm 3, you'll get a pretty worthwhile value with Full Burst... for those of you new to the series, just be aware of what kind of game you're picking up.
+ Stunning cel-shaded visuals faithfully recreate the Naruto world
+ Huge-scale boss battles and exciting, fast-paced combat in a lengthy story mode
+ Even with lots of in-game content right from the start, there's tons to unlock and find through exploration
+/- The cutscenes often blow away the original scenes in the anime, but can run kinda long... like Metal Gear long
+/- Massive roster of characters from various points in the series, but costume variety is uneven and kind of lacking
+/- Full Burst is a worthwhile purchase for Naruto fans who haven't picked up Storm 3, but NSUNS3 owners aren't getting that much new
- Severely unbalanced multiplayer can make versus play a chore instead of a challenge