Review: Naruto Shippuden: Ninja Council 4 (Nintendo DS)

narutocoverfNaruto Shippuden: Ninja Council 4
Developer: Aspect Digital
Publisher: Tomy
Genre: Platformer/Action
Release Date: 06/02/2009

There are more Naruto games out there than I can count. Literally. I tried, and I missed four of five of them while still hitting well over double digits. While most of them are fighting games, there are a few series that break the trend. This includes the Ninja Council series, which started on the GBA and has is now celebrating its second entry on the NDS.

The Ninja Council series has generally focused on traversing through a number of heavy platforming levels followed by a boss fight. The exception was Ninja Council 3, which followed a mission based format with a series of one on X amount of character encounters. Ninja Council 4 brings the series back to its platforming roots and is also the first game in the series to take place in the Shippuden time line.

With one of the few stories not told to death by Naruto games in the states, can the game overcome the stigma of Naruto games on the DS, which have been less than stellar. (See my review of Naruto: Path of the Ninja 2 to see what I mean.)

Story/Modes

Ninja Council 4 covers the plot of the first season of Shippuden. Basically, it concerns the return of Naruto to Konoha after two and half year’s absence, and the retrieval of Gaara from the clutches of the group known as Akatsuki. For the most part, the game simply offers a cliff notes version of the story. However, there are a few glaring omissions that severely detract from the game. For one, they never really explain who Granny Chiyo is and her substantial role in the anime is cut to no more than a few appearances in a few story sequences. More to the point, her role after the defeat of Sasori (I don’t want to spoil it.) is completely left out as the game ends with Sasori’s last words.

Also suspicious is the level where you play as Temari going after Gaara by herself before the Leaf ninjas arrive. The thing is; not only did Temari travel to the Sand village with Team Kakashi in the anime, she was also not allowed to go with them! She has no earthly right being where she is. Finally, Team Guy’s battle with their dopplegangers is completely absent. These battles were the sole reason they couldn’t help Team Kakashi out against Akatsuki. It just seems weird to leave it out completely.

So when the story isn’t cutting things out, all it does is present the same kind of lame form of story telling you see in almost every licensed game: character portraits and text with no speech. That alone usually doesn’t guarantee a boring story, but with much of the plot removed and characterization mitigated to a few or even no lines of dialogue, the whole story feels non existent.

Besides the story, the game also offers a wireless mode. The key word here is wireless and not Wi-Fi. If you want to play the game against other people, they’ll need to have a DS and a copy of the game, as well as be nearby. Once you have that covered, you’ll be able to battle with 2-4 players. The game keeps a record of your wins and losses. That’s about it. You won’t be able to play any level co-op or anything, but nearly all of the game’s roster is only playable in multiplayer. If you want to use someone besides Naruto, Sakura, Kakashi, Neji, or Lee, you’re going to need to find someone with the game and play against them.

Graphics

I really dig the graphics in this game.

While most of the environments are simple landscapes with minute detail and little variety, the character sprites are vivid. The characters really feel alive thanks to bright colors, fantastic shading, and some nifty animations. Of course, the number of animations is limited by the power of the DS, but nonetheless, the characters look great.

naruto1Of particular note, the effects in the game are easily the best of any Naruto game on the DS, and can compete with some of the graphical powerhouses of the system such as Mario or Henry Hatsworth. The swirling chakra of the Rasengan or the sparks of the lightning blade are extremely well done. One you’ve used Neji as a support character and he comes in with his rotation jutsu, you’ll see just how impressive these effects are.

That being said, a lot of the enemies have only one or two animations and can look choppy. Most of them have great models, but they never seem to do anything with them. The look of the environments also detracts from the detail of the game. Almost every obstacle is either a square or a rectangle. As such, even with different textures and colors, a lot of the levels end up looking similar.

Still, thanks to the strength of the character models and effects, the graphics for Ninja Council 4 are a definite hit.

Audio

The music of the game is pretty standard fare for a Naruto game. Basically, its full of high tempo music with a distinctive Japanese flare. The tunes are fun background music, though none of it is catchy enough to get you humming it in the shower or anything. Still, the quality is good and there is enough variety that you won’t need to play this game with the sound off at any point.

There is a few scattered voice samples in the game. This is getting pretty par for the course for Naruto games on the DS. These feature the American voice actors with no option to switch to the Japanese track. However, the number of clips are few enough and short enough that those voices don’t annoy nearly as much as they do in some other games. Most of the time, they merely shout out the names of their jutus as they cast them.

As far as effects go, there aren’t too many for the most part, but the jutsus all have a corresponding audio component that actually adds to the visual flare of these moves. For instance, when you use the eight inner gates jutsu with Lee, each of his strikes rings true and the sound conveys the strength and speed you’d expect. On the whole, it makes these scenes in particular better, which is the best thing about an audio track.

Basically, there’s nothing spectacular with the game’s audio, but the overall package is solid. At no point will the game make you want to turn off the sound. The last time I played a Naruto game on the DS, this was not the case. This is definitely an improvement.

Gameplay

Ninja Council 4 can best be described as an action platformer. The basic level design generally follows the same layout: make your way through a semi-linear level and then fight a boss. There are plenty of tricky jumps, enemies to defeat, and obstacles to overcome. From the start, you’ll have access to five characters to chose from for each level. As mentioned, these are Naruto, Sakura, Kakashi, Neji, and Lee. While each character has the same control layout, there are plenty of differences. Each character, excepting Lee, has a special ability that only he or she can use in regards to making it through the level. Naruto can summon a toad to allow him to jump to otherwise inaccessible areas. Sakura can use her monstrous strength to break through rocks the others can’t. Kakashi can summon the dog Pakkun in order to open doorways. Finally, Neji can use his special eye powers called Byakugan in order to reveal the location of enemies and items on the map. Lee isn’t without his own merits though. He has much greater speed and jumping power than the others. Also, each character has three different jutsu attacks that use various amounts of energy called chakra. In order to call out these attacks, the player must activate them on the touch screen and then perform a small mini game with the stylus in order to ensure success. These include rubbing the stylus back and forth, spinning a wheel, picking out correct symbols, and drawing a line from one symbol to the next in the correct order. These events are timed, though you’ll be given plenty.

In addition to these playable characters, there are several more characters who, in addition to whatever playable characters you did not select for a mission, can be used as support characters. You can use two support characters for each mission. While you can’t control them directly, each support character can be summoned in order to perform one of their trademark special abilities. Sakura heals you, Shikamaru uses his shadow paralysis to stop the enemy, Tenten attacks with a vicious looking weapon, and even Jiraiya summons a toad in order to launch a deadly cooperation jutsu. While all of these support characters can be useful in certain situations, there are a few standouts that are just better. Lee, Neji, and Sakura are easily the most useful of the bunch, especially against bosses.

The controls for the game are pretty simple. You control your character with the d-pad, use the l button to dash forward instantly (at the expense of some chakra), and the face buttons allow to run, jump, attack, and use ranged weapons. While some of the jumping and attacking mechanics can feel sluggish at first, you will get used to it pretty quickly. They aren’t as precise as the best platformers, and the action isn’t as deep as the best action games, but it handles pretty well.

naruto2There are notable additions to gameplay that are worth mentioning. For one, ranged attacks come in the form of shurikens that you must find in each level. This in and of itself is a bother, seeing how other games in the series give you shuriken from the start and you have an unlimited supply. Considering no ninja in the show would be caught dead anywhere without their ninja tools, it makes no sense why you wouldn’t have some at the beginning of each level. Also, the shuriken you collect only last for a certain number of throws. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t let you know how many throws that is and it is different for each type of shuriken. Also, if you take a hit, you will mostly likely lose whatever shuriken you are carrying. That is just mind numbingly stupid. They carry the weapons in a closed pouch at their waist. Why on earth would one strike knock them out? In the show and manga, this kind of thing only happens once or twice in the over 300 episodes/450 chapters. There’s no precedent for it.

A good touch in the game is the fact that you can climb certain walls and walk across water at the expense of slowly draining your chakra. This fits right in line with the Naruto universe, as it takes chakra concentration in order to do these things. Yet, it doesn’t require any to wall jump from wall to wall in order to reach new heights which is also fitting. So apart from the shurikens, a lot of material in the game is spot on.

I mentioned before that each playable character has three jutsu and that there are several support characters to use. Apart from your first jutsu and and smattering of support characters, all of these will need to be unlocked at the expense of experience. You gain experience with a character by using him for a level, or by replaying sections with special rules. Determined by how much life and chakra you have left at the end of each level, as well as how many Konoha symbols you collect, you’ll be given a rank ranging from lowly Gennin to all mighty Hokage. This gives you added incentive for playing smart and conservatively instead of recklessly. Also, there are certain characters that can’t be used in the main story as even support characters and can only be played in wireless mode. These too will need to be unlocked. Unless you really grind, you won’t be able to unlock everything in the first go around. Subsequent replays of levels you’ve already beaten won’t yield nearly as much experience. Thankfully, you can start a new game plus mode that allows you to keep everything you’ve unlocked as well as your experience. You’ll be able to play through the game’s missions again from the start to get the most out of each run through.

When it comes to boss fights, I’m afraid the game doesn’t deliver the experience you’d expect. Since you’ll only be able to use one or a few special attacks before you need to wait for your chakra to restore, most battles quickly fall to nothing more than running around and trying to land a hit. All of the bosses have grace periods after successful hits, meaning its hard to land combos and therefore almost impossible to do substantial damage without the use of jutsus and support characters. Also, because you need to collect shuriken and they can be lost so easily, you’ll almost never have any ranged attacks to use against bosses, while they have plenty to use against you. I find the whole thing to be a bit silly myself.

One last thing that bugs me is the limited strike capability each ninja has. They have one attack button that can be used in a three hit combo as well as an upward strike. This means there is almost no depth to combat whatsoever. For a game with so much action, this hurts the game my making it feel monotonous way too fast. Thankfully, there is still a strong focus on platforming that can detract from this.

Overall, the gameplay does some nice things while never really excelling at anything in particular. The controls could be better and combat could be deeper, but overall it is better than the average hand held 2D action game.

Replayability

As previously mentioned, you have the ability to replay any level you’ve completed in one of three ways. You can just replay the level as it is when you first play it, sans the boss fight, or you can play a selected section in one of two modes in order to earn experience. One mode allows you to play it without restrictions for a small amount of experience, while the other imposes a rule. The rules you’ll see are usually something like no healing items, no chakra regeneration, no attacks, or no support characters.

I also mentioned the new game plus option as well. This is essential, as the first play through of the game only took me between thee and four hours, shorter than most DS games out there. If you take the time to unlock everything, it might take you about ten hours. After that, all you’ll have left in the wireless mode.

Considering there are far superior multiplayer games that either have single cart play such as New Super Mario Brothers, or Wi-Fi play such as MarioKart DS, there really isn’t much reason to dabble in wireless mode for Naruto. Also, each character can only use one jutsu and with the combat system being so shallow, matches will undoubtedly bore you quite quickly. If you have a friend with a copy of a game and both of you are really big Naruto fans, you might get a couple of hours out of this. After that, you’ll realize you’re better off playing one of the many fighting games for the series. They’re much better equipped for this kind of thing.

naruto3Basically, this game won’t last you longer than 12 hours. In that 12 hours, you’ll have played the game to death and never have any reason to come back. While this is no surprise for the Ninja Council series, it still doesn’t make up for it. At thirty dollars, the game is hardly worth the money spent on it.

Balance

On the whole, this game is pretty easy. There are a few moments where it will seem a level is cruelly designed or a jump impossible, but that won’t hold you back for long. You get three lives. If you die, you start back at the beginning of whatever section or boss fight you were on. If you run out of lives, you’ll have to start the chapter back from the beginning. There isn’t much of a difference between these two options.

Not having a ranged attack makes a few sections much more dangerous than they should be. There are countless moments were you need to make a jump and an enemy is right on the edge of a cliff. A ranged attack would help remove them, but you’ll have to rely on jump attacks and hope they land before you get hit. Also, there are several sections where you’ll need to wall jump and an enemy will be right there. Combine that with some low ceilings, and you’ll have a hell of a time trying to get past that enemy. I took more than my fair share of damage at these sections.

Still, most enemies are pretty mindless and will give you plenty of chances to attack. There are enough health restoration items and you can always use Sakura to that effect as well. Most of your deaths will come from bad jumps, and even these are relatively few for a platformer, thanks to a lot of vertical scaling levels with plenty of places to land and no falling damage.

Originality

While the game isn’t particularly derivative, it doesn’t really add much to the action or platforming genre. Truth be told, most of the stuff it does has been featured in other Naruto games already. For instance, even the Naruto RPG series had you complete stylus minigames in order to use a jutsu. The Ninja Council series has always featured the ability to run up certain walls as well.

Like I said, there isn’t a feeling that you’ve done this all before when you play it, but if you were hoping for some big changes in the Naruto game formula, you’re going to be disappointed.

Addictiveness

Unless you’re really into unlocking all of the support/wireless mode characters, there really isn’t any push to move along in this game. The story isn’t compelling enough and the gameplay isn’t good enough.

That’s not to say the game is boring or anything. In fact, there are several moments were moving along in a level can be really fun thanks to some well placed obstacles or crazy jumps. Unfortunately, this kind of fun isn’t spread evenly throughout levels at all, and certain sections are going to drag. The most fun in the game is when you’re trying to complete a level as fast as possible using Lee. His high jumping and speed make him easily the most fun character to use in the game. Still, this won’t last you more than a few levels. The game is so short that even if you get really into it, you’re not going to have that feeling long before the credits start rolling.

Appeal Factor

I don’t think there is much of a clamor for many non fighting Naruto games. While titles like Rise of a Ninja on the 360 have done well, the best games for the franchise usually tend to be fighting games. On that note, a Naruto Shippuden fighter for the DS is scheduled to come out later this year, so Naruto fans with a DS might just wait until that comes out.

naruto4I’m sure there are a few people who thought a platformer would be the perfect place for a group of ninjas to shine. Think about Ninja Gaiden for a second and try telling me that this idea can’t work. Sadly, this game is no Ninja Gaiden, so the kind of people who would rush out and buy that game are going to be disappointed by this.

Still, apart from a PS2 fighter, this is the only Naruto Shippuden game currently available, so if you’re looking to relive the moments of the first season of that show, you’re options are limited and you might pick this up simply because of that.

Basically, this game is meant for hardcore Naruto fans who are looking for a non-fighting game experience with the number one knuckled headed ninja.

Miscellaneous

As someone who can’t get enough of the Naruto storyline, I can’t help but feel saddened that the plot in these games are so streamlined and missing important parts of the story. I don’t necessarily want to watch the episodes or read the manga again on my DS, but something more than the absolute least amount of plot possible would be nice for once.

I really don’t understand why the other 12 characters in the game aren’t playable in the main storyline. If they can be played in multiplayer, albeit with fewer powers, it stands to reason it should be possible to run through some missions with them. One of my favorite characters in the franchise is Shikimaru, yet I can only play as him in the wireless mode? That just isn’t cool.

Naruto: Path of the Ninja 2 for the DS was able to use Wi-Fi. Why can’t this game? If playing against other players via Wi-Fi was a possibility, then the amount of playtime you could get out of the game would increase greatly. I’d actually care about unlocking everyone because I’d be able to use them in battle against other people. With the mode currently available, you’re going to need some diehard Naruto fans with a DS and thirty bucks to spare in order to ever get anything out of the wireless mode.

On the whole, this game just doesn’t impress.

The Scores
Story/Modes: Poor
Graphics: Good
Audio: Above Average
Gameplay: Above Average
Replayability: Decent
Balance: Mediocre
Originality: Very Poor
Appeal Factor: Very Poor
Addictiveness: Very Poor
Miscellaneous: Very Poor
Final Score: Below Average Game!

Short Attention Span Summary

diehardjackThere’s nothing overtly bad about Naruto Shippuden: Ninja Council 4. The presentation and gameplay are solid, its just that nothing is good enough to help the game stand out. There are noticeable elements missing from the game that would have made it better, such as Wi-Fi compatibility or a more complete story. Without these, the game simply fails to impress. If you can find a copy for cheap and you are a big Naruto fan, you might as well pick it up because honestly, this is one of the best Naruto games on the DS. Granted, being the best of this bunch is nothing to be proud of.

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