GC: Hands on with Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes

Ninjas with spiky hairstyles battle the fantastic

GC: Hands on with Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes

Namco Bandai didn't have much in the way of handheld games at the Leipzig Games Convention, but what it did have certainly packed a punch. We heard about Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes way back in April, so spotting a couple of lonely-looking demo units that had been jettisoned to the outermost reaches of the booth (they were tacked to the outside wall), we seized the opportunity to get stuck into some high-kicking ninja action.

We went for a single fight – the only option available from the demo – and were expecting to be asked to select three characters, in line with the promised team-based combat. After it became clear that at this stage of the game we were only required to pick a single avatar (the parka-clad Shino Aburame), we were somewhat disappointed.

The feeling evaporated roughly ten seconds into the action, though.

The developer has clearly tried to set Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes aside from other fighters in a couple of respects, and the first thing we noticed was how long the matches were. Despite being thoroughly pummelled throughout our first bout, it took an age until it was all over thanks to the enormous health bar running along the top of the screen.

Presumably this is so you get to see more of the game's dazzling moves, visuals and special effects, which are often so over the top that at times they give the impression you're watching the fight rather than partaking.

That isn't to say the control scheme felt loose, though, just slightly unorthodox. The four face buttons are not ascribed to straightforward punches and kicks, but rather to special moves that make it easy to fill the screen with bangs and flashes after just seconds of play.

No doubt the game also has a great deal more depth than we were able to discover in our relatively short hands-on, but what we did unearth was the charge attack, which is activated by holding and releasing the Triangle button, and a projectile attack that is triggered with the Square button. Slightly more conventionally – though still shrouded in all manner of screen-filling effects – were the dash and jump attacks, mapped to the Circle and X buttons, respectively.

Ultimately, we found we were able to pull off all manner of show-stopping moves that only seemed to hold back our opponent for a very short time. Just like in a real anime cartoon, then. There was heavy emphasis on aerial combat, too, with the characters able to defy the laws of gravity at will for lengthy mid-air combos.

The fighting itself takes place on a 2D plane, with blocks and parries the chief means of defence (via the right shoulder button) as opposed to dodges. We were able to move in and out of the screen in order to evade attacks, as well as outflank our opponent, but the ability seemed ambiguous and we were unable to exactly determine how it was done.

It was also possible to make further use of the environment in combat. On several occasions we thumped our opponent into a wall and at one point used a tree to gain extra height. Again, this felt slightly vague, though further familiarity with the controls would no doubt yield better results.

Overall, the fights were certainly action-packed and there was a great deal of satisfaction to be had in stringing together special attacks to create a whole screen's worth of graphical flamboyance.

So, visually at least, we can safely say Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes currently ranks as one of the most accomplished fighters to grace the PSP. The cel-shaded characters are lovingly animated, the backgrounds lavishly detailed and the effects during the fights are nothing short of heart-stopping. When the action was cut to display a glorious anime cinematic, only to fade back into the actual fight, we were left breathless and slightly amazed that what we'd just witnessed was merely part of the ebb and flow of the game.

There is, of course, the worry that on prolonged play such regular interruptions to the actual fights could disrupt the rhythm but that's something we'll have to reserve judgement on until we get to grips with a finished copy for review – something we're very much looking forward to.

Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Heroes is due to be released in Europe on October 19th.