It's nice to be pleasantly surprised by a franchise these days, especially when it comes to the Naruto series. The Naruto games have run the gamut from impressive to dismal, with the latter being more prevalent over the past few games. So when Naruto: Powerful Shippuden showed up for the 3DS I was ready to expect the worst of what developer Inti Creates had to offer. But after getting through the campaign, the charm of the super deformed characters and gameplay won me over. It's not the best in the series but it is a definite improvement over some of the older portable titles.
You don't see many games with super deformed characters these days, or if you do they're usually left to niche titles that never leave the shores of Japan. It's not always the best design decision since the style has such a love hate relationship with hardcore fans. But in the case of Naruto: Powerful Shippuden I have to say that it was a great choice. The lighthearted take on the Shippuden storyline is also a perfect fit for this game, employing charm and humor instead of the serious tone makes the experience that much more enjoyable. Though they employ a lot of tropes that are lost on a western audience they still manage to fill a lot of culture gaps and even had me laughing at points.
I'll forego explaining the Shippuden story line as I'm sure I've covered it a number of times in the past. The main campaign of the game follows the individual stories of both Rock Lee and Naruto Uzumaki during the Shippuden story arc, though with a great deal of design freedom to make it as silly as possible at times. I don't think they've ever called Rock Lee out on being a stalker for Sakura in any of the other games or in the show, but blatant jabs at characters are the order of the day, along with just a number of weird events like Lee trying to imitate Neji's Byakugan technique by taping his eyes open. I think the image that would sum up the whole game perfectly is Tenten's shocked look, it has a 'Why would you do this?' kind of energy to it that permeates through the whole game. Naruto's story line is a little bit lighter on the comedy, but never loses that easy-going feeling.
The 3D implementation feels kind of like an afterthought here, with everything just being on different planes, there isn't much to be excited about, and I think this is one of those games where things look better in 2D. The sprite-work is pretty decent, with really big characters that have decent ranges of animation. The audio is surprisingly unchanged from the Japanese release and has no option for a dub track.
The gameplay of Powerful Shippuden is a bit of a mixed bag. The mission structure of the game works surprisingly well for a 2D platformer/brawler, requiring players to defeat enemies, traverse through areas to reach a goal, or perform some rather specific task that employs a combination of elements. These bite-sized missions don't take much effort to get through, though there is definitely some difficulty in there. Those that are really up for a challenge can set personal rules before a stage begins that would allow you to earn extra experience. There's no penalty for failing, so it's worth doing all the time. The experience gained goes toward powering up skills and leveling up your characters. Upon clearing some chapters you'll be rewarded with keys, which are used to unlock special missions. The wrinkle here is that you'll need keys from both stories to unlock some stages, so you're pretty much forced to play both story lines in order to get through important missions.
The combat is a little bit shallow, with one button dedicated to standard attacks, and another that serves as a jutsu modifier that can be used to do special attacks that can stun enemies at the cost of some chakra. There's a nifty dash that can be used to cancel out of combos, and it's easy to see the Cyber2Connect games have had influence in the creation of Powerful Shippuden. Button mashing will most certainly work, but I'd advise against doing it, since enemies are perfectly capable of dodging and doling out status boosting attacks that can drain your health and your chakra.
While the Naruto franchise doesn't instill the greatest confidence in me, it's definitely had its share of good games, and Powerful Shippuden is a step in the right direction. It just needs a little bit more depth to its combat and it would be a stellar title. As it is, it's just a pretty good title. The team at Inti Creates definitely has a good base to start with, hopefully Namco will use them again in the future and can give them a bit more time to craft a portable experience that is a go-to game for the 3DS.