We all know that typically anime-based games are bad. Okay, to be fair they lay on a scale between being just barely playable but boring (ex. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex the Game) and really, really, god awfully bad (ex. Mobile Suit Gundam: Crossfire). Between one formulaic anime-themed Dynasty Warriors game after the other and a deluge of disappointing Dragon Ball Z Budokai sequels those of us who happen to be both gamers and Japanophiles have been looking for, at the very least, a decent anime video game adaptation.
Instead of a “game” which has a hamfisted engine and half thought out combat system with an anime license attached, we’ve been waiting for something that combines a well-made video game and one of our favorite animated franchises in a single coherent interactive package. Fortunately, the designers at Oasis Games have (mostly) developed something which fits these criteria.
With a story, aesthetic, and well-rounded combat system all based on the anime, the free-to-play MMORPG Naruto Online is the closest thing I’ve seen which comes close to fitting the “good anime game” bill in a long time. Supervised by the series creator Masashi Kishimoto’s official team, this browser game incorporates Naruto-inspired story mode as well as multiple team-based battle modes both series fans and the uninitiated will like.
Worldview and Progression
Starting in the town of Kotana (or as fans would better know it, the Hidden Leaf Village) you select between one of five character’s original to the game, who are based off of the series element system: Fire, Water, Wind, Earth, and Lightning. Of course, like in any proper RPG this character can be upgraded and specialized as you progress. Your selected character then joins Naruto and the rest of team Kakashi. Following this, you are introduced to a series of easy to understand tutorials which explain the inventory, combat systems, quests and so on. From there the story, which is based on the series first two seasons, takes off.
Your party will then have the option to recruit other ninjas, play through the game’s storyline while achieving the standard MMO achievements (acquiring more EXP, new items, and the such like), as well as interact with other live players.
Aesthetics and Language
So, Is It Pretty?
In a word, yes!
As with many anime inspired games, Naruto Online incorporates watercolor-based character design which pay loyal homage to the animated series. Unlike other anime games, however, the manner in which this design is executed works really well. All of the characters look just like their animated counterparts without coming off as cheesy or lazily rendered.
Part of the reason I think the cell-shade technique works so well in this particular game is because only the characters are animated this way. All of the backgrounds, instead, are two-dimensional digital paintings, which are reminiscent of the manner in which actual animation studios draw action panels and animated characters on top of painted backgrounds.
All of the various architectural, weapon, and vesture designs from the anime are all incorporated which, a player unfamiliar with the franchise will find fitting for the genre, and fans of the series will enjoy immensely.
How’s the Localization?
A big problem with Asian titles when they are imported to North America and Europe is translating them to the region’s native language. Those of us who are old enough to remember are aware of some of the first, fun but obscure Japanese strategy, role-playing, and side-scroll games to come to the West which didn’t have a great localization staff. Said games were riddled with horrendously broken English sentences which were almost, if not entirely, unintelligible.
(Zero Wing, anyone?) Fortunately, Oasis Games didn’t skimp on hiring a competent localization crew. As far as I’ve seen, all dialogue, descriptions, and prompts are written in coherent English, so no need to worry about sifting through paragraphs of unreadable text.
The Combat System
The Good and the Great
While it is technically an MMORPG, Naruto Online is fairly successful in combining team and strategy-oriented combat along with some arcade fighter elements. It’s this unique balance makes me consider this game to be a sort of action-encounter RPG somewhat similar to the paradigm system seen in Final Fantasy XIII.
Although you start with only two characters in your party as more are added you find that you can swap different characters out prior to battles. Said characters are organized on a 3×3 grid and then deployed strategically to maximize their synergy with other party members and exploit the weaknesses of your opponents.
One key aesthetic and combat choice of this game is the inclusion of each of the series individual characters idiosyncrasies and combat moves which flows with the combat system. While this may seem like an obvious inclusion the designers should naturally incorporate, let me explain why it is so significant.
Past anime games, for example, Neon Genesis Evangelion the Video Game for N64 (among many, many other titles) have great graphics and use both standard fighting moves and combat finishers which look exactly like anime, but don’t actually play well. In other words, the designers focus on fan services first and building an actual game, second. By contrast, unlicensed anime games typically dress-up a sprite from its respective franchise and combine it with combat system which involves attacks and maneuvers which are either completely divorced from the series or, at best, merely poor imitations.
Naruto online, though, is built primarily around a solid combat system and then seamlessly incorporates the special fighting animations and character specific battle stances as seen from the series.
The (Arguably) Not-So-Great
As I allude to earlier with my FFXIII reference, an auto-play feature does appear, starting at level 13. This may be a contentious statement with some but I don’t particularly mind it, especially when the difficulty really starts to step up until around level 15. Granted, I understand some MMO players truly detest auto-play but give it a chance. While this game is more oriented towards being a turn-based RPG, the fast pace and action arcade element are key factors which make the auto-play feature a sensible inclusion.
A considerable negative feature I found, however, is the user interface. Despite the fact that much of the game is fairly streamlined, there are simply too many buttons scatters all across the screen. Seriously, following the format set by the new generation of MMO’s like the makers of League of Angels should not be required as an instruction manual when making a browser RPG. Those two arguably contentious issues aside, I find that there aren’t any serious drawbacks to this game.
And the Final Word
As I said previously, this game is free-to-play but ultimately play-to-win. However, that does not mean you can’t have a great deal of fun for hours on end free of charge. I found that within a matter of days you could level all the way into the mid-twenties without having to pay a dime and still enjoy yourself.
Whether you are a mega-fan of the animated series or have never heard of it, Naruto Online is a great MMO that nearly any strategy role player will enjoy. (And as a side those who are in the business of adapting animated entertainment into video games should play this MMO and take notes.) Ignoring the license this game is attached to Naruto Online stands alone as a fantastic MMO browser game. The party system is awesome, the character customization is great, and the battles are cerebrally challenging yet intensely satisfying.
So, have you ever wanted to become the next Hokage? Then start playing Naruto Online today!