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Naruto: Path of the Ninja was one of the most pleasant surprises I had in 2007. It was a surprisingly solid RPG that actually had more involved dialogue and deeper character development than some of the big-name RPGs by big-name developers out there. This is why I was quite happy to hear about Naruto: Path of the Ninja 2 and decided to check it out. After playing it, I can tell you that Naruto: Path of the Ninja 2 is a worthy sequel and a fun little RPG. If you liked the first Path of the Ninja, you will love this one.
The first Path of the Ninja game summarized three story arcs from the Naruto anime series. Although I felt that the writing and character development in that game were above average by JRPG standards, fans of the Naruto anime and manga felt that the game's plot was a mere skeleton of the Naruto mythos. In addition, the small cast of seven playable characters meant that though some characters like Shikamaru were playable, other fan favorites like Hinata were not. I am happy to say that Path of the Ninja 2 addresses these concerns with an original plot and a greatly expanded roster of playable characters.
Path of the Ninja 2 is set sometime during the anime's filler arc, which began with Sasuke leaving Hidden Leaf Village and ended with a time warp that reset everything. It should be noted that full enjoyment of Path of the Ninja 2 requires some prior knowledge of the Naruto mythos via the anime or manga. For example, if you are unfamiliar with Naruto's involvement with the sage Jiraiya then that character may be lost on you.
The story begins in the Valley of Evil where a small tribe guards an ancient sealed beast whose release into the world could spell doom for everyone. An evil overlord and his ninja minions want to harness the power of this beast and so they attack the tribe and weaken the seal of the beast's prison. Now the beast's energy is slowly creeping into the world turning the people and animals into mindless bloodthirsty savages. A young girl with a protective mirror escapes from the Valley of Evil and beseeches the Hidden Leaf village for help in finding the other four mirrors to reseal the beast before the villains find them.
Guess who the Hokage of the Hidden Leaf Village has asked to be the hero of the day? Naruto, of course! With fierce determination and a heart of gold, Naruto is more than willing to throw himself into this fire with his trademark reckless abandon. But he is not alone in his adventures. His trusty squadmate Sakura is still along for the ride along with Ino, Choji, Kiba, Tenten, and more. The game has more than twice the amount of playable characters as the first game did and all of them are in the canon of the Naruto mythos. In other words, there are no Mary Sues. There are also more villains to face, some known to followers of the mythos and some that were created exclusively for the game, only to be later incorporated into the anime. I'm happy to say that there is no Mary Sue-ism on the villains' side either.
The best aspects of the first game were the above-average writing and characterizations. The great writing and characterizations are back, but because more characters have come out to play, they are not as extensively developed or fleshed out as in the first game. Although Path of the Ninja 2's dialogue and writing is not as deep or as introspective as those of the first game, the writing and characters are still colorful enough to make this standard find-the-hidden-artifacts JRPG journey a fun one to undertake.
One task ninjas often do is fight, and our heroes are no exception. The turn-based battle system remains largely unchanged from before, save for wi-fi battling with friends, an in-game kumite mode, and the addition of summoned monsters that also have special abilities outside of battle. Players can have three in a battle party with a fourth spot reserved for an alternate who can be switched in at any time without penalty. Players can also move their characters to the front, middle, or back row of the battlefield without penalty, which adds an element of strategy since some formations can yield benefits. Keep in mind that only the active three battlers and the alternate member gain EXP from battles, so be sure not to let other characters fall too far behind. Characters level up rather quickly in the game so bringing lower leveled characters up to speed does not take excessive effort. As with the first game, some special attacks require input such as rapidly spinning a wheel or just frantically rubbing the screen with the stylus. Although this adds interactivity to the combat, the first Path of the Ninja game had a wider variety of interactive battle tasks, my personal favorite being inputting timed button presses akin to Sabin's Blitzes in Final Fantasy Vi. I missed that.
Although many ninjas may prefer not to be encumbered by weapons and armor, Naruto and friends need these in their RPG. Buying and equipping weapons and armor works like any RPG, though it's good to pay attention to a weapons' effectiveness at different distances. For example, if Naruto is equipped with a sword, his close range attacks are strong but his distance attacks are weak. If he is equipped with a shuriken (throwing stars) or kunai (throwing knives), his overall attack won't be as strong as that of a sword, but it will not deteriorate if he attacks from the back row.
Ninja Tags are a new addition to the Path of the Ninja series. As characters gain levels, they gain a stat called "Nin." More Nin not only allows a character to hold more Ninja Tags but to hold more powerful ones as well. Ninja Tags fall into four categories: those that add a special skill to the repertoire, those that impart a resistance, those that boost stats, and the wildcard ones that do something special. Generic Ninja Tags can be purchased in stores, but the more unique ones can only be found in the field or in dungeons. The Ninja Tag system is similar to the character customization systems used in other RPGs and has reasonable depth without being needlessly complex. In addition, because many Ninja Tags can only be equipped by specific characters, no single character can learn every trick in the book.
Ninjas like action, and Path of the Ninja 2 delivers on that. Instead of walking on an overland to get from one major area to another, players must now journey to major areas via side-scrolling action sequences called High Speed Maps. In a High Speed Map, Naruto rapidly runs across the screen and players need to navigate him to the other end of the stage while jumping over enemies and collecting scrolls. Control during these action sequences is responsive, tight, and spot-on. The High Speed Maps are like a fun little mini-game to keep the gameplay varied.
Speaking of action, nobody likes it when someone else hogs all the action. This is why characters other than Naruto can be made squad leaders of the party and have their sprites on the screen. Changing squad leaders is more than just cosmetic; it has effects on the party as well. For example, selecting Naruto as squad leader increases the party's attack but weakens its defense. On the other hand, selecting Sakura as squad leader allows the party to slowly regain HP as it walks. Kiba's good to have as a squad leader since he lowers the random encounter rate, which is usually medium-high. Experimenting with squad leaders is quite fun and allows fans to give screen time to their favorite Naruto characters.
These aforementioned aspects need to be kept in mind much more so than before. I found the first game rather easy and did not get a single Game Over. This time around, not only are the normal random battles more difficult, but the boss battles are quite challenging. I saw the Game Over screen more often than I'd like. Bosses often have high HP and powerful attacks, but are never cheap and are beatable with a little savvy, some strategic thinking, and effective defenses. I like it when RPGs make defense as important as offense during battles. In addition, though the number of areas is fewer than in the first game, the dungeons themselves are also more challenging. The dungeons are more expansive than before and some are quite cleverly designed, often requiring the use of the stylus or the microphone to overcome obstacles. For example, the desert dungeon is one of the only RPG desert dungeons I can recall that was actually fun to play due to its clever design. The final dungeon was fun to traverse as well. Be sure to pay attention in dungeons and field areas as they often have hard to reach places that can only be accessed later in the game once summon monsters with special field skills are obtained. Exploration in this game is well rewarded.
Due to the more extensive playable character roster, the Ninja Tags, and the wi-fi options, the menus are more expansive and involved than in the first game. Although there is more content crammed into them, the menus are not difficult to navigate with either to D-pad or the stylus. Another nice addition to the interface is the Y button which reminds you of your current objective. I like when RPGs do that. One aspect I don't like, however, is when handheld RPGs do not allow anywhere saving. The first Path of the Ninja game allowed players to save anywhere and any time they wanted, outside of battle. Path of the Ninja 2 only allows saving at save points. I hold a firm belief that all handheld RPGs should allow players to save anywhere and any time they want to, thus facilitating gaming on the go.
I liked the clean 2D visuals of the first Path of the Ninja game and though the graphics for Path of the Ninja 2 look unchanged from the first game, a deeper inspection reveals that the graphics are slightly crisper and sharper than before. Field environments are brightly colored and easy on the eyes. Character sprites are reasonably detailed on the field but are much larger and more detailed in battles and on High Speed Maps. The visuals also have more charm this time, such as dialogue boxes being accompanied by large character portraits and names written in a large cartoony font. The best graphics are reserved for the occasional anime stills that punctuate key cutscenes and ultimate special attacks. Although the 2D visuals do not tax the DS' hardware at all and could be done on a Game Boy Advance, I prefer clean 2D graphics over blocky 3D graphics.
The synthesized music in the game has changed the least from the first game to this one. Some music themes are carried over from the anime and will sound familiar. Others are remixed versions of themes from the first game. Some are all new. The music is melodic, often catchy, imparts the appropriate mood, and gets the job done. The soundtrack did not wow me, but some of the battle and boss themes were enjoyable. The sound effects are standard fare 16-bit sound effects, though the expanded character roster means more voice clips during battles. The voice clips are by the American voice cast for Naruto and add personality to the battles. Other than the battle cries, there is no other voice acting in the game. For those who cannot get enough of the music and voice clips, a sound test opens up after beating the game.
Naruto: Path of the Ninja 2, and the Path of the Ninja series as a whole, is proof that an RPG based on a popular license can be good. Naruto is not the first anime I would think of to translate to an RPG, but it works. Plus, it has ninjas. Everything's always more fun with ninjas and I haven't played too many English-language JRPGs with ninja motifs. Any way you slice it, Naruto: Path of the Ninja 2 is a fun little RPG.