Even though it feels like Ultimate Ninja Storm games have been coming out in droves, it's been seven years since the last proper one. In that time, the torch has been passed from Boruto's dad to Boruto himself, with the anime and manga carrying that legacy. Folks have been gradually warming up to Boruto as the anime has ramped up, but Boruto is also about ushering in a new generation of fans. That's where Naruto X Boruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm Connections comes in, picking up right where the 3D arena fighting series left off.
This new entry is a sort of "greatest hits" for the Ultimate Ninja Storm games that coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Naruto anime. It features an expansive roster of over 130 characters throughout Naruto's history and the two story modes that fuse what's old and new in the franchise. As I got hands on with this latest entry at Summer Game Fest, it brought a strong sense of familiarity while channeling that same energy I'd expect from a fast and flashy pick-up-and-play arena-style fighter--now, for a new era.
Mechanically, Naruto X Boruto plays similarly to the previous games in the series with two players facing off in a 3D arena using basic attacks, combos, substitute dodges, and a variety of wild Jutsus. It's also a tag-fighter, with each player having a team of three characters who they can swap to during the fight. While this system lets you mix and match your favorite characters for different team compositions, what you really want to do is set yourself up for Combination Ultimate Jutsus. These were in Ultimate Ninja Storm 4, but now with a roster of characters from Boruto, we can execute a whole new variety of them. For example, I had Boruto and Kawaki attack in unison, with Kawaki helping power up Boruto's Rasengan, for a ton of damage.
With full Chakra meter and your health bar in red, you can once again enter Awakening mode, working as both a comeback mechanic and also a neat spectacle. Naruto's new Nine-tailed Fox transformation in particular is one that looks sick as hell. Pulling off solo Ultimate Jutsus are a staple of the series, and it's pretty rad doing so with new characters--with the new villain Jigen in the mix, seeing him use the Otsotsuki power to summon a Disruption Cube and crush his opponents brings that over-the-top flair these games do so well.
Outside of the bombastic, anime-inspired spectacle, a new simplified control scheme lets newcomers jump in without having to get technical to do the cool stuff. I mostly used the simplified controls during my demo time to get a feel for it, and I can see how it makes the game more welcoming, especially for those who may not be attuned to fighters or action games. The series was never really known for complexity to begin with, but it makes sense to have an option like this to reach a broader audience, which was one of the bigger development goals according to producer Masaya Yoshizawa.
Beyond new characters and gameplay tweaks, Boruto X Naruto features two story modes--one called History Mode, for old heads like me, and one called Special Story Mode that puts Boruto front-and-center. History Mode is posited as a playable campaign that captures the key moments in the original run of Naruto--fights you have experienced in previous games in the series, which can also work as a glimpse into the series' past for those who may come into this game as a purely Boruto fan. On the flipside, Special Story Mode takes you through the pivotal battles seen in the Boruto anime and highlights the events so far. And as someone who's been on the sidelines for this new generation of the franchise, it's an enticing entry point.
On that topic, I also asked Yoshizawa about the perception of Boruto as a series, its steady rise and living in the shadow of Naruto. He said one of the goals of the Special Story Mode is to let players become "aware of Boruto and then maybe get interested in watching the anime or reading the manga." Yoshizawa also mentioned, "The team thinks that [Boruto's story] is gradually becoming popular. Of course, if you compare it to Naruto, maybe it's not as much. But we think that it's become popular [enough], so that's the reason why we have Special Story Mode [in addition to] History Mode."
Regardless of how you feel about the 3D arena fighter subgenre, it's been a reliable platform for adaptations for some of the most renowned shonen anime, which has certainly led to some success though with varying degrees of quality. My Hero Academia, Demon Slayer, Kill la Kill, and the Shonen Jump all-stars roundup in Jump Force have all adopted that similar foundation set by the Dragon Ball Z: Tenkaichi games and evolved by the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm series. They may not be groundbreaking or adding much to the canon of whichever anime you know and love, but they've made for some fun rounds of action with characters playing true to the source material.
Based on my hands-on experience, that seems to be the case with Boruto X Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm Connections, which launches sometime later this year for PlayStation platforms, Xbox consoles, PC, and Nintendo Switch.