Naruto: Rise of a Ninja First Look

Ubisoft Montreal is crafting a nifty anime-based game that even regular people ought to keep on their radar. Find out why in our exclusive first impressions.

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Unless you're among the admittedly large group of fans devoted to Naruto, odds are you've happily ignored the dozens of games released so far based on this wacky martial arts-themed anime series. But Ubisoft is now working on a Naruto game for the Xbox 360 that it hopes won't be overlooked by anyone, even those who have never seen an episode of the TV series or picked up a copy of the manga. The company's famed Montreal studio is deep into production on Naruto: Rise of a Ninja, the first anime-licensed action game that's made us actually sit up and take notice in...well, ever, really. From the looks of things, this one is designed as much for fans of all great video games as it is for all those unflagging Naruto diehards.

It was the inventive presentation and visual panache evident in Rise of a Ninja that initially impressed us so much when we recently caught a hands-off demo of the game. The team in Montreal is putting a big priority on re-creating--and in some cases, improving on--the characteristic look of the TV show. To that end, the game will use a refined cel-shading effect, inventive camera moves, intelligent use of motion blur and shadowing, as well as a number of other visual tricks. The net result of all these whiz-bang graphical and stylistic touches is a game that looks surprisingly similar to the source medium on which it's based. It's also quite unlike the anime-licensed action games we've seen before.

The game's model of Konoha will be as close to the series as possible.
The game's model of Konoha will be as close to the series as possible.

But let's not get ahead of ourselves; the game isn't due out until October of this year, and we haven't even gotten to play it yet, so we can't say if the final product will live up to our initial impressions. Rise of a Ninja is set at the very beginning of the television series and will follow a storyline that arcs across the first 80 episodes, which is roughly up to Naruto's fight with Gaara. You'll naturally take control of Naruto, the rambunctious ninja-in-training in whom resides the spirit of a destructive nine-tailed fox-demon. In keeping with the series, Naruto will begin the game as a village outcast, a reject scorned for his association with the creature who once ravaged his village. Throughout the course of the game--and as the subtitle implies--you'll guide Naruto through his training to overcome his demonic stigma. You'll also go from shunned outsider to respected, full-fledged ninja.

In gameplay terms, you'll do this by roaming the village of Konoha, accepting various side missions from townsfolk to build up your chakra level, which will both raise public opinion of Naruto and allow you to train with the town's masters to increase your ninja skills. You can hit a button to reveal little faces that are either smiling or frowning over all nearby town residents to find out how each one feels about you. Many of the town resident who like you will also present you with optional quests. The one we saw involved the young student Konohamaru who snuck off and hid somewhere, so Naruto had to scour the town to eventually find him attempting to blend in with a particular wall.

This tree-running action sequence was one of the highlights of the demo.
This tree-running action sequence was one of the highlights of the demo.

The sleepy little ninja town of Konoha will act as your open-world hub for most of the game, and it's been modeled to mimic the one seen in the cartoon as closely as possible. So series fans should recognize plenty of landmarks, such as the town administration building and the four Hokage faces chiseled into the nearby cliffs. They should also find the layout of the buildings as they roam from one area to the next generally familiar. This may be a free-roaming game, but don't think you'll be jacking any rickshaws to facilitate fast travel. Ubi's designers have come up with the more inventive and appropriate solution of stringing taut ropes between Konoha's buildings, which you can grind on, skateboard-style, to zoom from one place to the next. (Naruto will also have a sprint ability that you can use to cover short distances more quickly.)

As mentioned, performing good deeds will raise your chakra, which will then let you train with Konoha's masters to learn new skills. These skills will also subsequently open up new areas and new missions to you. In the example we saw, Naruto was attempting to learn a tree-climbing skill. This skill, like all the others in the game, will require you to input a fighting gamelike button combo to activate it. You'll then have to time a series of leaps up the sheer trunk of the tree, failing several times before finally nailing the timing and adding the skill to your repertoire permanently. This sequence led into a third-person action minigame of sorts, where Naruto leapt rapidly from one tree to another, essentially skipping from branch to branch. The key here was simply to time the jump-button presses in accordance with each new branch, as well as follow the right path to reach each open branch, rather than slam face-first into a thick tree trunk. (This sequence can be seen in the new trailer linked at the top of this preview and was one of the more visually striking segments of the demo we saw.)

You can't have a Naruto game without over-the-top fisticuffs.
You can't have a Naruto game without over-the-top fisticuffs.

Of course, no good ninja game would be complete without hand-to-hand combat, and that will purportedly take up about 40 percent of your time in the final game. We got to see a brief fight scene with a boss character that was presented more or less like a 2D fighting game. You'll have access to basic attack combos, as well as more powerful special moves (known as ninjutsu, in the series' parlance) that fans will be familiar with. Interestingly, you'll have a chance to take on your opponents within their ninjutsu techniques by engaging one of several minigames. In Neji's minigame, for instance, the player was shown a first-person view of his opponent's body painted with chakra points. If you can guide your hand steadily enough to strike all of these points in a short amount of time, you'll be able to cancel the special move before it occurs. The one-on-one fighting engine will also be adapted for a two-player versus mode that's said to include all of the major characters from the series. Although we didn't get to see this mode in action, it will reportedly support online play in the final game.

If the development whizzes at Ubi Montreal can bring the fighting engine, quests, and free roaming to the same level of polish that was evident in the visual presentation during our first demo with Rise of a Ninja, they may well succeed in their goal of creating a Naruto game that will appeal to the fanatics, as well as the uninitiated masses. They've certainly caught our attention so far.

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