The first thing that's going to strike you about Naruto: Powerful Shippuden is the super deformed art style. After all, Namco Bandai has plastered it everywhere, so it must be quite proud of how it turned out. That's probably a smart move, because the visuals rank among this game's main strong points. It's only when you look beneath the surface that things start to fray a bit.
It's worth nothing, however, that the "surface" is a great one. There's an evolving storyline that drifts in how much it takes itself seriously, but never strays too far from the fact that it is — first and foremost — a joke. The comedy is strong and the static character visuals reinforce that brilliantly, with exaggerated expressions snapping into place for a line of dialogue, and then just as quickly vanishing for the next. It's a funny game, and the lack of a single serious dramatic moment works overwhelmingly in its favour.
Additionally, there are two characters whose stories intertwine at various points, and you can choose to control either of them. This, however, is a bit misleading. While the game opens with you choosing between Naruto and Rock Lee — whoever you select, you'll bump into the other one on his own adventure — you can only progress so far in one storyline before you need to stop, back out to the main menu, and bring the other story along too.
We would have preferred being able to play through them in isolation, because it's not much fun to come to a screeching halt between missions, and have to advance a second story to the same point simply to get ahead. Naturo: Powerful Shippuden gives the illusion of choice, but really just requires you to do both things, alternately, at a pace of its own choosing.
This issue is compounded when you realise, as you soon will, that the missions are all far too similar. The stated goals might be different, but the only thing you'll ever have to do to achieve each one is duke it out with hordes of baddies. You finish one ambush only for it be followed by another, and then another, and then the level ends. Sometimes you'll have to walk in a given direction to trigger the next ambush, sometimes you'll be confined to a single screen and the enemies will come to you. Either way it gets dull, and when it gets dull the last thing you'll want to do is switch to the other character to do it all again.
The controls feel a bit stiff, similar to the abysmal Thundercats, but certainly not quite as bad. Instead it just feels as though the attack animations aren't fast enough to keep up with the actual action on screen, leading to a strange sensation of "intention lag". This is definitely a problem when there are so many offensive and defensive button combinations to remember, each of which needs to be deployed precisely if it's going to have maximum effect.
On the bright side, though, the game does spice things up a bit with a very welcome sense of customisation. You can hone each character's attributes through an experience system, which would be welcome enough, but on top of that you can gamble for experience points in every level. You do this through a "Personal Goals" option, which allows you, before the level begins, to assign yourself an additional objective (such as limiting damage, speedrunning, not using special attacks, and so forth), which, if you achieve it, increases the amount of experience you'll get. Choose a relatively easy goal and your multiplier will be low, choose a difficult one and you can level up much more quickly. It's a great way of injecting a bit of risk into what is otherwise an endless succession of enemy swarms.
There are also helper characters you will unlock as the game progresses, and they can be summoned into battle to help speed things up, which is also quite welcome.
As mentioned, the graphics are simple but great. The 3D adds precisely nothing to the game, but for a side-scrolling button masher that's not really a complaint. The soundtrack is never less than good, but it's also pretty forgettable.
There's an unfortunate feeling of self-limitation inherent in Naruto: Powerful Shippuden. Its missions are too similar to remain interesting for long, and its intriguing dual-protagonist approach ends up making you responsible for the playing twice over in order to get anywhere, but it certainly has its redeeming qualities that we think, just barely, makes it worth a spin.
Naruto: Powerful Shippuden does one thing exactly right, and that's the humour. The actual gameplay gets a bit too repetitive too quickly, but a fun storyline and a personal goals feature do their best to keep things interesting. If you're looking for a fun and quirky way to kill time, you could do a lot worse than this, but if you're looking for anything much of substance beneath the surface, you might want to keep searching.