By publishing Tomy’s Naruto Shippuden 3D: The New Era, 505 Games is clearly counting on the popularity of the anime show outside of Japan. With over 200 episodes aired the show has accrued a loyal fan base, so it's hardly surprising that this 3DS entry has made it to European shores, with a US release later in the year. The question is, does this title reward fans with a quality gaming experience, or fit the stereotype of a sloppy franchise cash-in?
Naruto 3D does deliver in one important area, from a fan's perspective: storyline. While training with his master, Naruto hears of five ‘Kages’, or village leaders, who have suddenly and inexplicably declared a state of war. The strange behaviour of these leaders could cause chaos for the land, so Naruto is despatched to investigate. What follows is an interesting piece of storytelling as Naruto travels to different villages and locations, unravelling the plot and the source of the danger. The finale is actually quite touching, so the writers have done their part well.
Most gamers who aren’t ardent Naruto fans will want to know about the most important thing; gameplay. The core gameplay is a 2.5D side-scrolling beat-em-up, following on in principle from the DS entry in the series, Naruto: Saikyo Ninja Daikesshu 4. There are moments where you move from foreground to background, but even on these rare occasions you are ultimately just running left or right. Your objectives are two-fold: run through the level and defeat a sub-boss and final boss, and explore the somewhat limited environments for extras such as scrolls, medals and extra lives. The environments are linear, so exploration is restricted to checking platforms and hidden crevices, rather than any real sense of exploring a world.
On your first play-through of each level, of which there are nine in the main campaign, you keep an eye out for four hidden medals and simply aim to advance the story. Once the level has been completed there is then a ‘Challenge Mode’, where you replay the level with certain criteria to fulfil, as well as beating it as quickly as possible. Depending on the completion time you are awarded a grade as well as up to three additional medals. Between levels it is wise to visit the ‘Ninja Dojo’, where you spend collected scrolls on power-ups such as health boosts, supplies such as medical kits, and on additional back-up characters. Finally, you can exchange medals for special moves and boosts, which become invaluable in later levels. A quick play-through can be completed in around four hours, but collecting all medals and purchasing all of the items will, in theory, add a lot of play time.
In terms of gameplay, this title is very much a mixed bag. In terms of interesting ideas and features, there are back-up characters and lethal techniques. Back-up characters are chosen prior to a level, and can be selected to assist at any point in a level. Recognisable from the anime series, some of these characters attack enemies, destroy specific areas of the environment, or in one case provide a large bird that will conveniently give you a lift over canyons. In truth, these aren’t required to progress through the level, but they’re a fun addition. The lethal technique moves are enjoyable simply because of the flair with which they’re delivered. If you have enough accumulated chakra energy, a tap of the L button will trigger an impressive cinematic of Naruto carrying out a special move, which ultimately polishes off whichever enemy you are facing. Slightly unnecessary and again not vital, it’s nonetheless flashy and enjoyable.
The controls, in general, are functional and work well. The Circle Pad is perfectly suited to movement, while the use of the four face buttons for attacking, jumping, projectiles and the ‘secret technique’ are intuitive, with R allowing you to dash. The D-Pad or touchscreen can be used to call back-up characters or activate the heightened Sage mode, so overall these controls are accessible and easy to use. The problem, in general play, is that the animations and frame-rate don’t flow easily. Muramasa: The Demon Blade, for example, provided flowing movement despite the occasional drop in frame rate. Naruto 3D, on the other hand, suffers from slightly stiff animations as well as occasional frame rate issues, so as a result the act of executing combos and ninja moves doesn’t feel as satisfying as it should. This does detract from the temptation to replay levels on multiple occasions to hunt collectibles, as the level of enjoyment struggles to justify extensive play.
The biggest, potentially game breaking, problem are the quick-time events. At specific moments a cut scene will begin and you will be prompted to execute specific movements using the gyroscope functionality. There is one word that neatly summarises these gyroscope controls: atrocious. We don’t say that lightly, but the execution and concept of these motion sections is disastrous. On the one hand, these controls are excessively imprecise and finicky — initially we couldn’t make these gestures work, and it led to an impasse where the second level boss simply couldn't be defeated without completing the sequence. In order to move on, motions need to be made aggressively, especially in sequences that involve swooping the device left, right and then frantically shaking side to side. Not only do they grind gameplay to a halt on multiple occasions throughout the campaign due to the difficulty in making them work, but these controls could realistically damage the top screen hinge if you don't take an appropriate grip while shaking the device; it is completely inappropriate and ridiculous.
Another negative in this title is the graphics, which are simple, bland and unappealing. Textures are flat and lacking in detail, with the visuals neither representing the anime art style nor impressing with 3D effects. Despite some variety in locations and environments, it is difficult to look at this game and think that it’s just like playing through an episode of the TV show. For fans hoping that the 3DS hardware would be utilised on that front, this is bound to be a disappointment. The only good looking moments come during lethal technique cutscenes and quick time event sequences. The 3D effect is fairly subtle, and for the most part maintains a reasonable frame rate; overall, the 3D slider doesn’t contribute much of a ‘wow’ factor.
Fortunately, the sound is far more impressive. While the sound effects are nothing special, with no voice acting of any kind, this title does boast some excellent music. Some is fairly generic but enjoyable rock music, while softer Japanese melodies are also included. The overall audio package compensates, in some respects, for the lacklustre visuals.
Naruto Shippuden 3D: The New Era is a success in some respects. An interesting story, solid conventional controls, excellent sound, varied gameplay elements and a healthy dose of fan service all bode well. However, issues with the framerate and smoothness of animations make play less satisfying than it should be, exacerbated by the mediocre visuals. Unforgivable, however, are the shoddily implemented gyroscope motion controls. Even when the technique is mastered, these are still ridiculously difficult, often resulting in a drastic halt in progress. There is a decent game crying to get out, but poor design choices mean that Naruto needs to go back to ninja training.