So back at Christmas 2007, I snagged a copy of my studio's Naruto game - Naruto: Rise of a Ninja (not our more recent sequel Naruto: The Broken Bond, which by all accounts is even better). I finally got around to playing it a bit, and honestly, I'm really enjoying it.
Consider first that, as I have said many times in the past, I am actually really bad at videogames. Due to this, fighters are my bane. I honestly do not believe that I have ever in my entire life won a single match in Street Fighter (sorry Sirlin). Fighters are just too demanding of twitch reflexes and an understanding of how to enter combos, and read an opponent's moves. I am literally unable to decypher the language of a fighter.
Consider also that I know nothing at all about Japanese Anime. I don't know Naruto from (some other famous anime character that I can't even name to complete the phrase).
So with those major strikes against the game right out of the gate, I'm happy to report that it's a really tight, well realized experience. I strongly suspect that if you are interested in Naruto, you'll really like this game a lot. As for whether or not you'll like it more or less than I do if you like fighting games, I can't answer that at all because I have no idea if it is a good fighting game or a bad one.
The most impressive thing about it is the design of the city itself. Anyone designing an open world should take a good look at this game to see how it is structured. It is possibly the most smartly designed open world city I have ever seen in a game.
Here's the Cole's Notes of why it's great:
First - it's not too big just for the sake of being big. Full stop.
Second, it has a credible population of ordinary townsfolk who go about their business believably. All of the townsfolk dislike you at the start, but one of your rewards as you progress is the admiration of the people. As you do missions and side quests and help people, you get them to switch from disliking you to liking you one villager at a time. Unfriendly villagers say mean things as you pass by, but if you interact with a friendly villager, he will give you directions to your current objective in the form of a little arrow on screen for a short while. What this means is that as you unlock more and more friendly villagers, you have this low-level assistance available to you more and more frequently. It's a really subtle and clever way to make it feel like you're winning the hearts and minds of the villagers.
Third - from a level design point of view, the village is really well thought out and put together. The village has four vertical layers to it. As you progress through the game and unlock new powers and abilities, you are afforded access to higher and higher levels of the city - each higher level connected more 'broadly' then the previous.
At the beginning of the game, you cannot even double jump, and you can only access the lowest level - the streets and the rooftops of a few single story buildings. But you quickly learn the major routes and the major landmarks and get a pretty solid understanding of the basic layout.
Soon you are able to double jump and to run vertically up walls a short distance. This gives you access to the rooftops of most of the buildings in the village and is a very liberating step up. You also gain access to the first set of roof-connecting cables that allow you to 'slide' between interconnected rooftops.
Eventually, you upgrade your wall-running ability and can access the third and fourth vertical layers. The lowest level of cabling is the densest, connecting the most buildings with the shortest cables. The second level of cabling is sparser, connecting fewer buildings, but with longer cables. The highest level of cabling is the most sparse, connecting only a very few of the villages tallest structures.
Effectively these layered fast-travel networks allow you to 'climb up levels of movement heirarchy' giving you fewer degrees of freedom in your movement as you ascend, but giving you the ability to move much further and much faster the higher you go. It's really a fascinating topology.
The game has a really well thought-out economy and progression system as well. There are four currencies in the game: cash, coins, antique coins, and stars. Cash is the only unlimited resource and it is the resource you use to buy consumables (throwing knives, noodles, etc). Coins are (mostly) used to upgrade what you can carry - more knives, more noodles, etc). Antique coins upgrade the effects of your consumables (making all future knives purchased with cash into hardened knives or explosive knives or both). The stars are 'experience points' used to unlock and upgrade your personal abilities - combos and jutsus. Stars are doled out by missions. Both kinds of coins are collectibles (with the antique coins about 1/10th as common) and cash is given for just about everything.
The benefits of this system are obvious - it gives the designers the ability to maintain both limited economies (there are only so many abilties to unlock, hence a finite number of stars), and an open economy (once you have unlocked everything, you can still keep earning cash to buy more noodles to keep your health high - something which I desperately need). And further, by breaking the coins down into two separate limited economies, they alleviate decision stress on the player... not sure whether to save up 23 more coins to pay for that upgrade? You don't have to worry about it - the coin-based economy prices items in the 10's of coins and the antique coin economy prices things in the single units of antique coins (instead of in the 100s of standard coins). Very smart (unless of course, you are going for a more hardcore, more player-choice driven, and more consequential economy).
Anyway - I think the Naruto economy is fascinating and it taught me a lot about different concepts for game economies and I think it's worth a look.
There are also a few things I don't like.
First - I really don't understand the side-mission structure, as simple as it is. In the very beginning of the game, I am told that 'noddle delivery side missions' are unlocked. So I go do some. They are fun, easy, and help you learn the city. Then shortly thereafter, they tell you that races are unlocked, and also that hide-and-seek games are unlocked.
However - when you go to try and do a race or a hide-and-seek game, you cannot. The mission-givers tell you you need to train more - but I spent at least 4 hours (!) playing the game, doing missions, training and buying and unlocked new things before I was actually able to DO one of these supposedly 'unlocked' side-missions. Then - arbitrarily - the missions lock again after a few and you are told 'you need to train first'... but of course, I had no idea what I needed to train in or how, and went another couple of hours before being able to do these missions again.
I understand the notion of wanting to tease the player forward -but you need to tease the player forward with an IMMINENT reward, not one that they may unlock sometime this week. Additionally, by unlocking and relocking the side-missions, you end up playing two different games in parallel - you play a game where there are bunches of side missions and collecting to do - then you finish it all, and play a game of doing main missions until the side-missions are arbitrarily re-unlocked, then you switch back. It's weird. I would much prefer to just do side missions as they suit my whim.
Also - and this is probably the shelf moment for me - I am about halfway through the main story missions and a strange icon appeared on my health/chakra HUD following a major battle with a boss. This icon capped my health and chakra at 500 each, when formerly they were both around 1000. There is no explanation anywhere of what happened to cause it, or how I get rid of it (or even if I can)... I don't even know what it is or what it means - but it has stripped away fully 1/3rd of my power... and I am certainly not a good enough player to make due.
In both cases - the inexplicable locking and unlocking of side-quests and the bizarre 'capping' of my two main combat stats - are simply not explained, leaving me frustrated. Not only is it not explained to me what I need to do to continue forward and/or solve the problem, or when or if I might expect plot progression to solve the problem automatically, it is not even explained to me what the problem is - these impediments are just arbitrary.
Anyway - I still enjoyed the first half of the game quite a bit, and for the city structure alone, I once again recommend it to anyone interested in a rock-solid level design for an open world.
If the two problems mentioned above have been ironed out in the sequel, I'll definitely be picking it up.