Second presentation of a Ubi game this week with Naruto: The Broken Bond. This time I went there on my own since my fellow colleagues all had better things to do but it was a good opportunity to check out what this new iteration could bring to the franchise.
One thing should be clear before I start: I know absolutely nothing about Naruto and I've only played the very beginning of Rise of a Ninja. So basically, what you'll read will automatically reflect a bit of my lack of knowledge.
The afternoon started with the usual presentation though I was disappointed to see that Stéphane Cardin - producer - and Daniel Bisson - game designer also in charge of the storytelling - had decided to use the Xbox Live demo I already knew to present us with the new features of the game. Anyway, I still learnt a few things that I can share with you guys and we also got to play the beginning of the game and the versus mode.
Fans will be happy to know that the developers have paid close attention to the feedback they had from players and that they used everything they were told in the many focus groups they organized to make the game everyone wanted to play. It took them about a year and a half to complete this new project and to push the adventure/action side of the game even further, as it was the fans' first wish. As a result, it should take you about 18 hours to complete Broken Bond, which, compared to the 7 hours of Rise of a Ninja, is great news I suppose.
The first big change in the way the game is built is the absence of sequences directly taken from the anime. The team wanted more coherence on a visual standpoint so all the cutscenes are now in-engine, with this time real facial animations. Everything is not perfect yet as I regret the fact that you can't read pain on the characters' face when their butt is being kicked so big it would even make Chuck Norris whine like a little girl. Other than that, the different cinematics are rather well-done if you can trust someone who has no idea how the anime looks like that is. However I feel it's still behind what we can find in Namco-Bandai's game in that area.
Since I'm talking about the graphics, I should say a few words on the artistic direction. The developers told us that they had Miyazaki's work in mind when they were working on the game. That's why you will find that the environments are always full of life, with butterflies twirling around and flowers blowing in the wind for example. It might not respect the true design of the anime - you tell me - but as far as I'm concerned, I like it. What's more, the game alternates colorful environments with darker ones, which adds some variety.
Another criticism the development team tried to listen to was the corridor feeling people had in the first game. In Broken Bond, the environments should be bigger and less linear and if you explore them well enough you should even find a bunch of mini-games that we hope will be more varied than in Rise of a Ninja. You'll learn more stuff in our upcoming interview with the producer so I shall not say more.
As you certainly noticed in the demo, one of the new features is the possibility to control a team of ninjas and not just one character any longer. There will be puzzles based on cooperation since each character will have specific abilities to take advantage of. 11 different characters will be playable in the course of the story mode which is good news in terms of variety obviously. You can switch between the different characters composing your squad at any time and so the game's progression will be a mix of platforming and puzzle solving requiring your teammates.
The combat system also offers new features to make it even more strategic and less based on button mashing as in too many fighting games. You can fill up a bar to unlock more and more powerful jutsus and there actually is more levels to a jutsu than before. The Rage meter is still there but this time, you will have to use it wisely as it will empty your jutsu bar leaving you with nothing else than you standard combos. That's where the game's strategic side shines because you really have to weigh the pros and cons but you have to do it fast. The combat system really works like rock/paper/scissors, which means that there's a defensive move to each attack and vice versa. You should also know that you can now use air combos and that the game will feature a versus mode - offline or online - in tag-battle with a maximum of 4 players - 2 versus 2. I'm not a fighting game addict but I had some really good fun trying that mode. One last thing about the combats in the story mode: they will be more story-driven. What I mean by that is that there will be more cutscenes to explain the characters' motivations during the fights.
Also, for those of you who are true fans, I guess you'll be happy to know that you will be able to play Sasuke in specific missions whose artistic direction will be really different from Naruto's. It will also be a good opportunity for newcomers to understand his choices in the adventure.
So what do I think of Broken Bond then? In my humble opinion, the game should satisfy all the fans who want an adventure game with an improved combat system - and the original Japanese actors and soundtrack. From what I heard about Ultimate Ninja Storm, Namco-Bandai's game is really solid in the combat system and a little less complete when it comes to platforming and side-quests so if you want my piece of mind, I think there's room for both games when you call yourself a fan - and the happy owner of both systems. As for those who didn't like Rise of a Ninja because it was quite impossible to understand what was going on without knowing the anime, you might want to try this one as it's a lot easier to catch on. On a technical standpoint, I liked what I saw though there's definitely room for improvements on some animations or character models. It is still a very good looking game, with a very colorful world, no aliasing and nice effects overall.
Stéphane Cardin's interview will be available as soon as possible, as well as some exclusive footage of the preview version we were given - BlimBlim might even give his opinion as a first-time fan. Until then, you might want to try out the Xbox Live demo that is available if you haven't done yet. Stay tuned for more Naruto love in the following days.