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Naruto Shippuden Legends: Akatsuki Rising
Score: 78%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: NAMCO BANDAI Games America
Developer: NAMCO BANDAI Games America
Media: UMD/1
Players: 1 - 2 (Ad Hoc)
Genre: Fighting/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:
Naruto Shippuden Legends: Akatsuki Rising is one of the more expansive and feature-rich Naruto games to come out in a while, but what it has in breadth, it severely lacks in depth.

Visually though, Akatsuki Rising does a fair job. While not necessarily as crisp looking as the system's other Naruto fighters (i.e. Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes), that is most likely due to Legends' 3D fighting nature instead of the others' 2D style. Nevertheless, each of the characters are easily identifiable and all sport their new Shippuden style.

Audio is pretty fair, but it has its drawbacks. All of the cinematics are fully voiced by the American actors and that aspect of the game sounds great. The game's audio gets a little annoying during actual fights though, as the various grunts and shouts from the fighters get very repetitive, very fast. Generally this isn't noticeable, but when you are confronted with wave after wave of enemy (which happens often), it becomes very apparent.


Gameplay:
Naruto Shippuden Legends: Akatsuki Rising spans the first story arc of the Naruto Shippuden series. The game's story mode (called Scenario Mode) starts off with Naruto's return to the village after years of training under Jiraiya and goes to the end of the Gaara Rescue story where the Akatsuki have kidnapped the Sand Village's Kazekage. This story brings back a lot of old characters (though the younger ones are older and have new costumes) as well as introduces two new Akatsuki members, Deidara and Sasori (don't worry, Itachi and Kisame also become available as well).

The Scenario Mode itself is broken into a series of chapters that cover each of the main story elements of these first few episodes. While some details are left out, there is still a lot of information conveyed in the game's cinematic, so even casual fans of Naruto, or those that haven't gotten a chance to see how these events play out in the anime or manga, can follow the story pretty well. As you fight your way through waves of enemies (which range from animals to bandits and even quite a few boss battles with characters from the show), you will earn XP that causes the character you are playing as to level up. With the new levels, characters gain the ability to use more powerful Jutsu through the use of Skill Scrolls collected in the missions or combined in the shop (more on that in a minute).

But Akatsuki Rising's Scenario Mode isn't the only place to gain experience for your characters. Mission Mode allows you to take the various unlocked characters through several random jobs. Low level ones require you to collect wheat for The Ichiraku Ramen Bar, or make your way to a field and clear it of boars and birds. Higher rank missions will involve much more complex and harder tasks that should only be attempted with higher leveled characters.

Survival Mode also lets you level up your characters. Despite the name, this game doesn't actually pit you against an endless series of enemies to see how long you last. Instead, this feels more like another type of Mission Mode, where the mission is simply to take out a certain number of enemies and survive. As you complete each Survival Mission, a new one is unlocked that has more powerful enemies.

Both Survival and Mission Modes open up fairly early in Scenario Mode, but the last major gameplay mode in Naruto Shippuden Legends is Akatsuki Mode, and that only unlocks after completing all of the missions in Scenario. Here you can take the unlocked Akatsuki members through their own story in a slightly different Scenario Mode.

Besides these mission-based modes, Akatsuki Rising also lets you take your characters (either the ones you customize in the game or pre-set ones) into battle either against the computer or with a friend (in Ad Hoc mode).

The final element to its gameplay is Legend's Shop. Here you can restock your equipment and buy everything from weapons (i.e. kunai, shuriken) to pills that will rebuild your health and chakra. But the main purpose of the Shop is the Scrolls section. While it would seem natural to think that this is where you go to buy new Skill Scrolls (which allow your characters to perform jutsu like Naruto's Shadow Clone or Kakashi's Lightning Blade), instead you can either sell scrolls or combine existing ones into more powerful versions. It took me a bit to actually understand this mechanic (actually a majority of a car ride between Gatlinburg, Tennessee and Baton Rouge, Louisiana), and while this system doesn't always produce the desired effect, it is interesting to see... at least as a first attempt. The idea is that you will end up earning scrolls throughout your adventures, and you will undoubtedly get duplicates. By combining these duplicates (or other scrolls for that matter), you can make more powerful ones. For instance, if you take two Attack+1 scrolls and combine them, you get one Attack+2 scroll. Similarly, if you take two Level 1 Shadow Clone scrolls and combine them, you get a Level 2 (and a Level 1 combined with a Level 2 yields a Level 3). For the most part, this mechanic is straightforward, especially when dealing strictly with duplicates. But the game allows you to combine non-duplicate scrolls as well, and the results aren't always what you desired. For instance, you can combine Shikimaru's Level 1 Shadow Paralysis Jutsu with Kakashi's Level 1 Lightning Blade, and get either a Level 2 Shadow Paralysis or a Level 2 Lightning Blade. Thankfully, the screen that you use to select the scrolls will tell you what will result before you combine and purchase them, but this doesn't always work as well as you would hope. For instance, I was trying to get a Level 2 Naruto Shadow Clone. I had two Level 1's, but one was marked as a Naruto exclusive and the other a Kakashi exclusive. According to the combination screen, it results in a Level 2 Shadow Clone, but it wasn't until after committing to the combination and spending 6000 Ryo that the game told me it is a Level 2 Kakshi Exclusive Shadow Clone (something I already had). There are other similar issues found in the Scroll Combination mode which left the overall feel of this particular feature more trouble than it is worth (which isn't good since you need it a lot to get some higher level scrolls). But hopefully this feature will be improved upon in future versions of Legends, provided it does well enough to warrant a sequel, of course.


Difficulty:
Naruto Shippuden Legends: Akatsuki Rising has a difficulty curve that is pretty dead on. The game's Scenario Mode takes you through the first arc of the show and slowly introduces harder and harder enemies. Since there is a heavy RPG and leveling system built into Shippuden Legends, any time you find yourself struggling against an opponent (and those times are pretty much always against bosses), switching to a different, higher level character, or going on other missions with that character in order to make him/her stronger will always do the trick.

Akatsuki Rising's Mission Mode also seems to be structured appropriately. Missions follow the standard Naruto mission ranking system making easier tasks designed for lower level fighters ranked D, and harder ones ranked C, B, A and S. Since any character can take on any mission any number of times, even when you get new characters halfway through the game, you can have them try out lower ranked missions to gain a bit more XP.


Game Mechanics:
Despite the RPG elements, Naruto Shippuden Legends: Akatsuki Rising is, at its core, a 3D arena fighting game. Unfortunately, it is because of that mechanic that several of the game's issues become readily apparent, at least for a game on the PSP. Put simply, the system just doesn't have a good controller scheme for 3D, independently-controlled camera games. Akatsuki Rising attempts to skirt the issue by making you need to rotate the camera manually as little as possible, but there are times when it is unavoidable and painful. Since the PSP doesn't offer a second Analog Stick, Naruto Shippuden Legends uses the D-pad's Left and Right buttons to rotate the camera for you, and since you use the Analog Stick to move around in the first place, you can't effectively move and use the camera at the same time. Instead, you have the option of locking on to the nearest opponent by tapping the (L) button. This means you and your camera will always face that enemy, but this also means that you can be snuck up on by other enemies on the board. This particular issue is balanced by the game's easy use of the Substitution Jutsu. Where most Naruto games require you to block or dodge at the exact right moment to avoid an attack using this iconic maneuver from the show, in Legends, all that is required is that you are attacking. This means that you can spam the (Circle) button to attack the enemy in front of you and if someone else goes to hit you, the Substitution Justu keeps you from taking any damage. Unfortunately, this feature makes the game really easy during most of the fights (the exceptions being the one-on-one boss battles).

As for the RPG elements are concerned, leveling up your characters merely increase various stats like health, chakra, attack and defense automatically (instead of allowing the user to assign points how they want). Since you don't have a lot of control over your character's actual level advancement, the game lets you customize their equipment and jutsu. Jutsus are customized by using Skill Scrolls and assigning them to the character. But the part of this element of the game that really got on my nerves is how you use equipped items while in a mission. Tapping the (Start) button brings up a menu that lets you select items to use (like health and chakra pills), as well as lets you check on your mission status and a ton of other bits of information. That's all fine and good, but unlike pretty much every other console game I've ever played, the (Start) button doesn't actually pause the game. Instead, the menu that comes up has a Pause option. This means that while going through the menu, enemies can still attack you. What's worse is that, since your attack buttons are now used for menu item selection, you can't do anything about it but run around (thankfully the Analog Stick still works). So, in order to pause, instead of allowing for a one-button option, it takes three; (Start), (Left), (X) in order to select the Pause option. This means there isn't really a quick way to pause... well, that's not entirely true. I got really used to tapping the console's (Home) button to pause. I know this feels like a soap box, but it seems like such a simple thing to mess up and was a case of major annoyance on my part. It seems like the developers went out of their way to not actually pause the action when that menu was brought up when pretty much every other game would have the same menu appear on the Pause Screen.

For the most part, Akatsuki Rising is a solid Naruto title. While the game's story isn't all that long, the addition of Akatsuki Mode and Mission Mode add a lot to the game's playtime. But the control issues and annoying Pause Menu really makes the game hard to bear at times and brings down the overall enjoyment factor of the product. This game is really hard to judge. Until the next Ultimate Ninja title hits the PSP, there isn't any other chance to go through the new Shippuden storyline on the handheld, and the story and missions are actually enjoyable (even if they do have a grinding feel every now and then). Because of that, many Naruto fans might still want to give this game a try, but even those should rent before purchasing to see if they can get over the game's hurdles. Otherwise, it's probably best to stay away from Akatsuki Rising.


-J.R. Nip, GameVortex Communications
AKA Chris Meyer

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