Naruto is a fascinating character. He can be obnoxious at times, but he just puts so much effort into everything that it's hard not to end up rooting for him. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the new Wii action adventure he stars in, Naruto Shippuden: Dragon Blade Chronicles. It tries to win you over with its vivid, detailed characters and an original Naruto story, and at first glance it seems as if these elements might serve to make its shallow combat and bland exploration tolerable. But although the character of Naruto is as likable as ever here, a laundry list of unending frustrations and some crippling technical issues try your patience in ways that make this a game even Naruto's winning attitude can't save.
While many games featuring Naruto recycle storylines from the anime, Dragon Blade Chronicles tells a new tale. Hidden Leaf Village is devastated by the attack of a dragon, and a mysterious girl named Akari presents Naruto with a weapon called the dragon blade, which he uses to defeat the fearsome beast. Akari tells Naruto that her brother is planning to awaken the light dragon and use its power to destroy the world, and soon Naruto and a few comrades set off for Mount Koryu to confront this threat. Meanwhile, Naruto's longtime rival Sasuke journeys to Mount Koryu for reasons of his own. It's nice to experience an original Naruto story for a change, and the familiar and reliable voice actors give solid performances, but at times the cutscenes drag on for frustratingly long stretches, and you don't have the option to just click through the text at your own pace. You need to either listen to each line being said aloud or skip the story sequence entirely.
The action jumps back and forth between Naruto and Sasuke, both of whom control identically. The story establishes that Mount Koryu interferes with a ninja's chakra, providing a convenient excuse as to why neither playable character can perform the tremendously powerful attacks they can usually pull off without breaking a sweat. Instead, they must resort to mostly just slicing away at enemies, which is pretty dull. All attacks, including longer combos, are performed with the same button. Naruto and Sasuke do have some meager ninjutsu attacks available, despite the chakra interference, and as you progress, you find scrolls in treasure chests that give you new abilities. But these don't do much to enliven the combat. Your enemies are dumb as posts, so whether you defeat them with quick swings of a blade or with one ninjutsu attack or another, there's no satisfaction to be gained from victory.
That's not to say that the battles are always a piece of cake, though. At times, the sheer number of enemies that swarm you can make things challenging. A single swipe from an enemy might send you flying through the air and off a cliff to your doom. Because your own swings move you forward, you also have to worry about attacking your way right off the edge of a platform. Since there's no way to lock on to enemies, many of your swings will probably just pierce the empty air. And if enemies manage to crowd around you, their hits can juggle you for a while, doing significant damage, while you have no means of escape. There's not even anything remotely interesting about these enemies, called mugonhei, whom you encounter every step of the way. Some of them look like featureless figures hastily crafted out of clay, while others look like evil flying potatoes.
Seeing the same very few utterly bland enemy designs over and over adds to the tedium of the combat. And when bow-wielding mugonhei show up, the addition of a new enemy type only sprinkles additional frustration into the monotonous mix. The camera often doesn't show you incoming arrows until it's too late to react, and each impact from these projectiles knocks you down momentarily. When these arrows start coming at you in rapid succession, getting knocked off your feet again and again can become infuriating. The combat is so bad that it's best avoided whenever possible. Since you don't earn experience or any other meaningful reward for fighting enemies, there's no reason to not just run past groups of them when you're free to do so, though you often need to defeat a few waves of mugonhei to open blocked doors.
Unfortunately, there's no joy to be found in exploring the environments to make up for the frustrations of the combat. One passageway of Mount Koryu looks so much like the next that it's very easy at times to run in circles, trying to figure out which way you haven't been and where to go next. (It doesn't help that the in-game map is completely useless.) And although the environmental puzzles you encounter on occasion sometimes provide a welcome alternative to the repetitive monster-hacking, they bring with them their own frustrations. These puzzles often require you to use a specific power on something in the environment; however, at times you might use the correct power, but because you're not standing in precisely the right spot when you do it, it doesn't work.
Making all of these individually irritating elements far more maddening is that the game is frequently plagued with crippling slowdown issues. This is not merely an occasional nuisance. This is slowdown of insufferable proportions. Entire long stretches of the game chug along at what feels like half speed. The thrill of running down a hallway that's collapsing behind you is wiped out when you have to make the entire long run in slow motion, and when other characters advise Naruto or Sasuke to take a break at least once an hour, it's hard not to reflect that some hours you spend playing contain only about half an hour's worth of actual play.
Dragon Blade Chronicles does have the occasional moment when it rises above the dreariness of its many issues. Avoiding torrential waves that flood a passage as you make your way toward a water dragon is dramatic and memorable, for instance. But these moments are far too rare to be worth the struggle to reach them. And while the characters from the anime are richly detailed and make a strong first impression for the game's visuals, waves of featureless mugonhei and long stretches of drab environments soon become the order of the day and only compound the tedium of the gameplay. The music at least manages to drum up a mood of excitement at times, which is more than the action deserves.
There's a meager Versus mode in which you and a friend can duke it out as Naruto and Sasuke using the same simple attacks as in the Story mode, but with only two characters and no compelling combat techniques, it's not the least bit interesting. Depending on how much time you spend wandering around in circles, it may take you six or ten hours to complete the adventure, and when you consider that a significant amount of that time is spent in slow motion, it becomes clear that there isn't much game here. But that actually doesn't matter, since any time spent with Dragon Blade Chronicles is too much. Even the most diehard Naruto fans are better off pretending that this particular side story to the Naruto lore never happened.