Almost everyone who knows anything about anime or has young children knows about the Naruto franchise, which has become one of the most popular anime franchises in recent memory. While most of the console Naruto titles, which generally tend to include fighting games, are quite excellent, as our review of Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 can attest to, the handheld Naruto titles don't tend to fare as well. With the release of the latest handheld Naruto title, Naruto Shippuden: Naruto vs. Sasuke, can it turn around this long-running trend, or is it just another title to add to the ever-expanding list?
Fans of the side-scrolling beat-em-ups of the '80s and '90s should feel right at home with Naruto vs. Sasuke, as it's clear from the get-go this game was made to emulate those games, right down to the core. You have your standard kicks and punches, which vary depending on whether or not you're on the ground or in the air. A welcome addition is the ability to launch attacks in mid-air to attack opponents or drop down an attack on them for extra damage, which isn't too common in the genre as they tend to either disallow these types of attacks or implement them so they aren't useful enough to execute. Players can also utilize throwing projectiles including shurikens, kunais and even ones that explode on contact. They can also evade attacks by warping behind the enemy with the press of a button.
There's also the ability to execute special attacks by pressing one of the two scrolls on the touch screen, which includes a damaging attack which takes some time to power up and a specialty technique that's generally used out outside of combat to explore the levels, both of which vary from character to character. The touch screen allows players to execute dual attacks, which use two of the characters to execute a very powerful special attack, as well as call on the aid of support characters whose abilities include stuff like healing and stat boosts. Normally when you think of a licensed game, you don't equate it with good controls, so to see one which works as well as this one does is quite something.
However, this tends to be the highlight of the game, as there are a questionable amount of odd design choices which mar much of the rest of the game. The stage designs are very expansive, including a number of secret pathways which unlock secret levels, hide scrolls used to unlock new characters and other goodies. Much of the time the current band of characters the player has a choice from doesn't include everyone who might be needed to fully explore a particular level, so players will need to play stages multiple times to get everything. And this is where things get worse for Naruto vs. Sasuke.
Each character has a life bar, and once that bar is depleted they aren't available for use until that stage is completed. Many of the game's later stages are quite long and there are no checkpoints in between the multiple levels that make up each stage, so if all of the player's characters die at any time during the stage, even during the end boss, they are forced to start all the way from the beginning. And since stages need to be replayed, one false move could force the player to spend all their time over again replaying the level. Checkpoints aren't a novel concept for the genre, so the utter lack of its inclusion in Naruto vs. Sasuke is quite baffling and only serves to extend the gameplay, which lasts anywhere from 7-15 hours, depending on the skill set of the player.
Which leads into the next point. For the audience this game is aimed at, the lack of checkpoints makes for a very unforgiving game. While one might argue checkpoints make a game too easy, wasting a good 15-20 minutes because of a frustratingly cheap boss, which pops ups occasionally in the game, just serves to annoy the player.
The presentation of the game is quite good in some areas, but questionably odd in others. The graphics and stage environments are quite detailed and show that a lot of care and effort was taken into crafting them. However, the cutscenes and story presentation are exceptionally lacking. For those who are not hardcore fans of the Naruto series, the game drops players into a segment of the story where it's near impossible to figure out exactly what is happening. The cutscenes don't help to draw in the player, since the same track plays during each one, even when a more appropriate piece could be played, especially in the game's more important scenes. The right music can do so much to set the mood, and this odd design choice only helps to kill it.
There's also a multiplayer mode available, which allows players to fight against one another in local WiFi matches. While it's nothing special, it is a fun side aversion and is a welcome change from the single player's AI opponents. A free-roam mode is also available post-game, allowing players to use any group of characters they wish. And for high-score completionists, a Boss Rush mode is also available, which has you fight each of the game's bosses back to back.
It's frustrating when part of a game is done so exceptionally well, but the other part is marred with bad design choices which bring it down. However, unlike most licensed games, the gameplay is entirely functional and unexpectedly polished. So for Naruto fans who only have a DS and are interested, it's a worthwhile choice. But for those who aren't rabid fans of the franchise or have a choice between this and the multiple other games out there on the market, Naruto Shippuden: Naruto vs. Sasuke is a mixed bag you may or may not enjoy, depending on if you can look past its flaws for the good gameplay within. If Tomy builds the foundation provided here and fixes the glaring issues with the game, they could have quite a winner. But as it stands, Naruto vs. Sasuke is only fighting with itself.