Naruto: Path of the Ninja DS Review

Why can't everything be a RPG? For role-playing suckers like me, the prospect of controlling and breeding any old character into a face-smashing powerhouse is an enticing one, indeed. I'd play anything in RPG form. I yearn for the day when I can grind the cast of Cheers to Level 60 (and isn't that about how old Ted Danson is these days, anyway?).

But, for now, I'll have to make do with Naruto and company. It's not a bad choice, considering the shonen genre of Japanese comics (to which it belongs) often features protracted training regimens, lots of bobble-headed talk about friendship, honor, and saving the world, and epic fights just to wrap it all up with a tidy bow. These are tropes you'll find common to the RPG, and they fit right together like a bunch of puzzle pieces in Naruto: Path of the Ninja.

The game, which follows the story up through the events of the third Chunin exam, will be overtly familiar to anyone who's already a series diehard. Most of the well-known characters are there, represented in all their stunted, 16-bit-era sprite glory (the animation in this game feels positively precambrian), and you'll have to slog through all of the early training missions to get to anything truly interesting (there are even a couple new ones thrown in just to drag out the experience), but on the whole, it's a satisfying treatment of the property.

With dialog ripped right out of existing translations -- including Naruto's irritating catchphrase "Believe It!" being repeated every five seconds without fail -- and a need to spell out every scene precisely as it happened in the manga, Path of the Ninja doesn't miss a beat.

Unfortunately, that's also part of the problem. Adhering to the canon is as much a boon for the game as it is its bane, since it often results in an uneven flow of events and scripted battles that can only have one outcome. Later parts feel like one long series of fights, because that's pretty much what the comic amounted to, as well. Great for readers, not quite as fun to play in an almost bog-standard role-playing format.

Matching blows with the shinobi from the Sound Village brought particular pain. Since the story demands it, you have to fight them four times in a row with different sets of characters each time. If I felt like taking a trip to Snore City, I'd go watch a Sony keynote speech.

It would've been more exciting with some flair or panache injected into the battles, but even the most important of villains have no animation and fight progression most often falls back on the old "mash attack until your health gets low, then heal" formula.

It's a shame because the game does advertise nuances to its battle system. You can move your characters around on a 3x3 grid, kind of like in the Megaman: Battle Network games, which affords them different tactical advantages and weaknesses. You can also give gifts to allies or invite them out for a cup of ramen, which stands a chance of strengthening their affinty with Naruto. This occasionally allows you to dish out an extra attack or two each round, but there's little challenge in building up these relationships, making the rewards seem like "gimmes."

The game says that only certain characters are into specific gifts or types of ramen, but every try I made succeeded without fail. Soon enough, both Sakura and Sasuke thought I was the bee's knees. The other playable characters (Rock Lee, Neji, and Shikamaru) don't show up until quite late in the game outside of certain scripted sequences, making the relationship-building process with them rather negligble. It's another artifact of the game's dogged determination to stick to the canon.

Of course, it all really comes down to why you're playing Path of the Ninja in the first place. If you're attempting to re-live the story, it's a fair purchase (though if you've got an Xbox 360, the similarly titled Naruto: Rise of a Ninja might provide a more satisfying experience), but as a game it gets mired in role-playing tradition.

Outside of the perverse satisfaction of building up a favorite character I expressed earlier, it remains a thorougly average RPG. Some of this can be blamed on the fact that it originally appeared on the Gameboy Advance some three or four years ago in Japan, and it shows. Path of the Ninja is graphically and acoustically neutered. Its mostly static renderings of the characters and environment are helped along by only a handful of generic tunes repeated ad nauseum.

As a DS transplant, you can play almost the entire game through the touch-screen, but I found that to be more of a hassle than using the traditional control setup. Little annoyances like forgetting to provide the player with a way to open up the status menu with the stylus or the lack of diagonal movement makes it feel more awkward than fun. Plus, "making the hand signs" mini-games for activating certain jutsu (techniques) in battle are less frustrating when merely pushing buttons.

Naruto: Path of the Ninja doesn't go out of its way to offend anybody. It's thoroughly playable from beginning to end without any major problems, but the little things along the way tend to stick in your craw. Already knowing where things were headed and generally bored with the experience, I found myself hammering the B button just to get through the last third of the game. It's not a bad game, but it's dated, and the lack of any special incentive to push through the narrative means that the antiquated gameplay gets old faster than Naruto can eat his way through a bowl of ramen.

What's Hot: Faithful to the story. Lengthy quest.

What's Not: Maybe too faithful to the story at times. Also very dated