Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2: The Phantom Fortress

Being the living prison of an evil six-tailed fox can't be much fun for a young lad. Whilst others his age are out smashing up bus stops and getting drunk in public parks, Naruto Uzamaki has to console himself with practising his ninja skills and getting funny looks from people in his village.

For those of you unfamiliar with the immensely popular Naruto series of manga and anime, that's the basic premise. Perhaps the worst problem young Naruto has had to face, though, is being plonked into a series of derivative and sub-standard video games such as the ones found on the Nintendo DS. Thankfully, Namco-Bandai's Ultimate Ninja series has been consistently excellent, and (deep breath) Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2: The Phantom Fortress is no different.

Retaining the original's side-on one-on-one fighting gameplay and adding a healthy lick of spit, polish and new features, Phantom Fortress provides a heady mix of kinetic brawling and light adventuring, with a smattering of simplistic mini-games thrown in for good measure.

As a fighting game Phantom Fortress forgoes all of the usual mind frazzling button combinations and thumb-cracking joypad gymnastics in favour of a simple, uniform move-set. Though each character possesses an individual style, everything is centred on a single attack button, with variants and combos achieved by adding different directional presses into the mix. Special moves are activated by preceding an attack with a double press of Up or Down.

Whilst this could prove overly simplistic, it really isn't. The skill instead has been pushed to the timing of your moves, an effective defence and the utilization of your environment. Each arena contains a number of breakable objects which yield bonus items, whether they be health boosts or some kind of pointy object for lobbing at your opponent from afar. In short, from the start you'll be fighting your opponents rather than the controls.

Fortunately, for a fighting game based on movement and attention to the environment, it looks and moves fantastically. It's rendered in an incredibly slick, cartoonish style that perfectly reflects the source material. If you squint a little you could be watching a zoomed out episode of the anime series.

The sound, too, is fantastic, consisting of a fine score and an array of beautifully executed sound effects, from the meaty thwack of a punch connecting to the explosion of an outlandish special move. We were also delighted to see the option to choose between English and Japanese dialogue for the story mode. It's an option we see all the time in films, so why not in video games?

The Mugenjo story mode itself is a bit of a mixed bag. It consists of you, as Naruto, making your way up the titular Phantom Fortress, viewing dramatic scenes and engaging in fights against the other characters. The story is nothing spectacular, and the dramatic scenes consist of still images as opposed to fully animated snippets, which is a shame.

On each of the tower's levels you'll have a choice of which magic scroll you want to open for the next empty room. It's basically a level select mechanism whereby you can decide to engage in a fight or have a go at one of the mini-games on offer. Unfortunately, these mini-games feel a little lightweight and superfluous next to the fully fleshed out battles that make up the bulk of the game.

These tasks range from simple item-collection games (with Naruto running up a tree, requiring you to dodge branches and grab bonuses) to simple button matching (where you have to shadow the moves of a colleague). They certainly break the action up, but they also arguably water the experience down.

Far better is the Heroes Mode, where you select a team of fighters and embark on a simple tour of duty, engaging rival teams in battle. Each team possesses a limited number of single-use items which can be employed pre-fight. These can include items that heal your team (you only partially heal after each fight) or inhibit your opponents in some way. These simple additions really enhance the core fighting, adding a welcome layer of strategy to each encounter.

Elsewhere you can engage in a spot of wireless ad-hoc fighting with a pal, although there's no online option. While this is a little disappointing, one-on-one fighting games do tend to suffer the most from unavoidable lag issues, so we'll forgive the omission.

There's also a trinket-collecting element featuring unlockable pictures, animations and back ground music which can be mulled over in the Naruto's House section. It's strictly for the Naruto fans out there, but it's a welcome addition to an already generous package.

Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2: The Phantom Fortress is a really well executed stab at the fighting genre. Its defining feature is its slick, intuitive fighting system that strips away just enough of the tiresome complexity found in many of its rivals without becoming a mere button masher. The new Mugenjo mode isn't wholly successful, but there's more than enough here to lead us to recommend this to any PSP owners seeking a good scrap.

Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes 2: The Phantom Fortress

An incredibly slick fighting system and top class presentation make this a must for anyone seeking an alternative to the usual one-on-one fighters
Jon Mundy
Jon Mundy
Jon is a consummate expert in adventure, action, and sports games. Which is just as well, as in real life he's timid, lazy, and unfit. It's amazing how these things even themselves out.