Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is a game that knows its audience. Picking up where its predecessor left off, it tells the ongoing tale of young ninja Naruto Uzumaki's struggles as the Nine-Tails' jinchuriki and his complex relationship with Sasuke Uchiha. It also covers the five kage summit and the outbreak of the fourth great ninja war.
If none of this means anything to you, Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 is not the game for you. It spends tremendous amounts of time on storytelling, and there are so many characters, factions, rivalries, chakras, jutsus, and other aspects of Naruto history and lore at play that unless you have a working familiarity with all this stuff ahead of time, you're going to be completely lost. The series hasn't lost its knack for eye-popping boss battles and amazing ninja powers. But even diehard Naruto fans will find that this latest entry fumbles the pacing in its single-player Ultimate Adventure mode by spending far too much time hitting you with conversations and cutscenes and not nearly enough time letting you meaningfully participate in the story.
Of course, you can always skip the story sequences and get right to the next gameplay section, but the story is such a focus here that if you don't have an interest in watching this game unfold its tale, then there's little point in playing the game at all. Well over half of the time it takes to get through the single-player campaign is taken up by cutscenes and chitchat. You often watch several minutes of cutscenes, take control of a character to move him or her through an environment, maybe stopping to talk to other characters now and then, and then watch several more minutes of cutscenes. Sometimes, those cutscenes are action-packed and entertaining, but there are also lots of long expository sequences in which characters just stand around calmly talking to each other. Yes, there are intense battles from time to time, but there aren't nearly enough of these to support the bloated narrative.
When you do have to fight, you find that you can easily pull off incredible-looking techniques regardless of which character you happen to be controlling at that moment. There are dozens of playable characters in Ultimate Ninja Storm 3, but they all do attacks, build up chakra, and perform combos with the same button presses and combinations. This is a pick-up-and-play game: all accessibility, little depth. It's more about spectacle than skill, though the speed at which it moves means it does reward rapid reflexes, and it's exhilarating for a while to perform massively powerful, terrific-looking jutsu attacks with a few quick and easy button presses.
But there aren't tricky combos and high-level techniques to master; once you've got a handle on the basics, you can get better at implementing those techniques, but you aren't going to experience the gratification that comes with mastering higher-level skills, because there aren't any. The result is an experience that's immediately enjoyable, but doesn't stay rewarding for long. You may have a particular interest in playing as Deidara or Orochimaru or some other character, but because they all play so similarly, the unlocked characters you're frequently showered with as you progress through the Ultimate Adventure mode don't give you access to new strategies and new ways to play.
During specific fights, the free-flowing combat gets replaced by visually spectacular quick-time events that fully capture the kinetic energy of the anime's over-the-top battles. Whether it's a scene in which Naruto and Sasuke fight it out on the surface of a lake as a previous encounter comes flooding back to them or a sequence in which the massive, fearsome beast Nine-Tails threatens to destroy Hidden Leaf Village, these sections make for incredible viewing. These encounters and others present you with a choice of taking the legend approach or the hero approach. Your choice has a typically minor effect on how the battle plays out, and no effect on how the rest of the story plays out. It also determines whether you earn more hero experience or more legend experience, each of which gives you access to different types of items to use in battle. This does provide an incentive to return to earlier battles and choose the alternate approach just to see what impact it has, but that impact is usually disappointingly minor.
Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 also introduces mob battles in which you take on numerous easy, incapable enemies at once. They're mechanically dull, but moves that let you leap instantly from one enemy to another give these battles a visual energy, at least on the PlayStation 3. On the Xbox 360, these battles are interrupted by severe hang-ups that not only break up the flow of battle but can also result in the game failing to recognize your button inputs. The PS3 version doesn't suffer from this problem, but on both consoles, load times are frequent and long.
Outside of the single-player campaign, Ultimate Ninja Storm 3 lets you mix it up with other players locally and online. The online play functions well and allows you to jump into ranked or unranked matches and to set up tournaments for up to eight players. As with story battles, the accessibility and the impressive visuals make fighting against other players enjoyable from the get-go, but the simplicity of the action prevents it from holding your interest for long. The fighting system doesn't allow for much of a nuanced, tactical approach, and so your online opponents tend to spam the same few powerful attacks over and over again. It becomes routine and predictable quickly, and the prospect of unlocking more titles and images for your ninja info card (a profile that is made visible to and traded with your opponents) isn't a compelling reason to soldier on. This game is only for those who care to see Naruto's story continue to play out, and though it has its moments, it doesn't deliver quite the level of excitement you'd hope for from a game bearing the Naruto Shippuden name.