Xbox One, PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5, Xbox Series X|S
November 16, 2023
Namco Bandai Games
The anime franchise Naruto has graced our lives for 21 years. This is even longer when you consider the original manga. With that, NARUTO X BORUTO Ultimate Ninja STORM CONNECTIONS is a new 3D fighter title for the franchise all focused on celebrating the classic Shonen Jump series. For such a momentous milestone anniversary, this is an adaptation that well and truly should be better. Connections isn’t even the best Ultimate Ninja Storm game we’ve had. In short, they made a bad one.
The Ultimate Ninja Storm franchise are all 1v1 3D arena fighters that focus on different eras of the greater Naruto franchise. First, it covers the original Naruto and Shippuden, along with a prelude to the sequel series Boruto. With this new fifth game in the Ultimate Ninja Storm series, Connections promises to be a greater summation of all that came before it, featuring over 100 characters to control from each of these three anime series. At least in the base quick play, it delivers this promise. Players can pit characters that might’ve never met against each other. Quite a lot of thought has been put into the cast, each with their unique animations and various era looks they can be dressed in.
Fighting is incredibly similar to prior Ultimate Ninja Storm entries, in the sense that it is, admirably, incredibly easy to pick up and play. One face button fires projectiles such as shurikens, and another serves as the melee button as it alternates kicks and punches and so on. It feels like a watered-down version of the combat in character action games such as this year’s Hi-Fi RUSH. When you make these combos more complex, such as adding in a button otherwise used for charging the given ninja’s chakra, is when your character will often pull off their specialised ninjutsu. Should these hits connect, you’ll be treated to solid animations such as Naruto spawning clones of himself for a devastating attack or hitting the enemy with a charged ball of chakra known as Rasengan.
I could never accuse developer CyberConnect 2 of not at least trying with NARUTO X BORUTO Ultimate Ninja STORM CONNECTIONS. Each character has their little flourishes even in small things such as the way they dodge. These feel genuinely thought out. However, with fifteen years in the books for the Ultimate Ninja Storm franchise at this point, little has evolved in the fighting mechanics. There are quite simply little to no additions. Characters don’t yet look quite as good as they should on a HD TV, playing on PS5. Worst of all, sometimes the fights can feel a little muted and not as exciting as they should be.
Largely, this is because of the little leaps in how combat plays out. At least one way this could be improved would be finding a better way to balance the play of close-range fighters (who make up a majority of the cast) and long-range fighters (puppeteer casters such as Kankuro). When you control one of the latter, this is a double-edged sword. Say you are a puppeteer. You quite literally fight with the puppet, a bonus meat shield, before you can get hit. This is an annoyance and an artificial means of extending fight duration when you’re on the other side because they are always on the move!
Fights aren’t as explosive and exciting as they should be thanks to the fact that the environments and arenas you’ll find yourself in are poor imitations of familiar landscapes. The limitations to your experience are always visible and you never feel like you’re in the franchise’s world. It doesn’t help that backing the game is an assortment of generic Japanese fighting game music that seems to always be playing just a little too quietly. Where are all the big tracks we’ve come to know from Naruto? Where are tracks at least reminiscent of that?
What is supposed to be the big draw for Ultimate Ninja Storm Connections is the original Boruto story labelled the ‘Special Story.’ This doesn’t take place in any one location in the sequel series’ canon and is just another opportunity to hang out with Naruto’s son and friends. Feeling akin to a series of filler episodes, the story goes that Boruto and his friends stumble upon and get invested in an online MMO virtual reality video game known as Ninja Heroes. This is a game that recreates the Leaf Village town and is a means of having players roll into the adventure as an avatar of a real-world Naruto character and engage in fights.
The initial charming and novel way of exploring the Naruto and Boruto cast later becomes tired and even a little unnerving. The implications of real-world characters choosing to load in as an avatar of certain characters as an excuse is good on paper. However, why would one of Boruto’s friends choose to load into the game Ninja Heroes as, say, the great previous villain Orochimaru and start chatting with a friend dressed up as Sakura? Seeing even representations of characters that wouldn’t or shouldn’t interact such as Daidara and Gaara is only morbidly funny until it isn’t. If you know, you know.
What I’m quickly reminded of is that we’ve simply already had better stories in Naruto video games. There is no free-roaming around the leaf village, players will engage with cutscenes after cutscenes before being thrown into a fight. Though there are some high-quality rendered ones, these are few and far between and largely bring in the start of chapters.
Some ways into the Special Story, you’ll reach a period where you’ll get to relive a series of classic fights from the Naruto and Naruto Shippuden run. This becomes a little stale because, as alluded to earlier with the limited environments, these are bad imitations and not as exciting as they should be. These are told via still images from these anime moments and a bland narrator voice. This especially stings when we’ve already had an anime game this same year recreate iconic arcs and stories in 3D world exploration to great effect. What’s going on in the world outside of Ninja Heroes isn’t all that exciting either. Unsurprising to no one, the in-universe video game that follows great villains of the Naruto franchise is not created with the greatest of intentions. Users start getting suspicious headaches and something is seriously going wrong with the Hokage Naruto himself, with Sasuke being the only one who can set him straight.
The suggested driving force for continuing is unlockable cosmetics for characters, frames from the anime and the like. These are achieved by completing feats in battle such as ending a fight with a finisher or upgrading proficiency with a character the more you use them. This means that, thankfully, all characters are immediately available to control, none locked behind meaningless progression or season passes.
The monkey paw to that though is that depending on who you are, you might not find the unlockables all that engaging. I did appreciate this feature and found it to be a small but effective means of celebrating the series and its iconography. There’s plenty there if you’re a collectable nerd like myself, though that’s about it. I could not fault anyone at all for finding this function dull and drab. If all else, I did get to dress up some of my pretty anime boy characters like the ever-serious villain Itachi in cat ears. That’s enough for the charm and hilarity of it all.
Curious add-ons that are neither here nor there include mobile game-style login bonuses whenever you launch the game, providing currency to spend in the shop. The final ‘History’ game mode quickly lets you access these aforementioned trademark Naruto fights. These have social elements where players can, upon finishing a fight, ‘react’ to it with emojis so you can see where people’s thoughts were on the first fight against Gaara, for instance. It’s another weird, novel touch that is welcome, but doesn’t add much to the game’s footnote in franchise history.
- All 130+ characters playable from the get go
- Easy to pick up and play
- Weak story and retelling of historical Naruto events
- Little has evolved in the fifteen years of the game series
- Bland music and hollow environment design for fights
NARUTO X BORUTO Ultimate Ninja STORM CONNECTIONS is quite the disappointment. Presenting as a step back for the series in many ways, there are simply better adaptations to spend your time with. The game comes with a middling story combined with a lack of spectacle that serves as a mediocre attempt at celebrating the IP. Whilst some fun can be had with the stacked roster and it’s easy to jump into, you’ll often be reminded that there are greener pastures elsewhere.