I'm inclined to think that making games under the Naruto franchise cannot be that tough of a job. The series as a whole lends itself well to a bunch of different gameplay elements, from fighting games to adventure, platforming, and even some light RPG trappings these all seem to work out well. But for some reason a standard beat-em-up seems to be the kryptonite to the Naruto games. Naruto Shippuden Kizuna Drive is unfortunately the latest in a series brawlers that just fails to be a fun and engaging adventure. And when your game becomes frustrating by the boring gameplay, insane difficulty, comically bad AI and ultimately pointless time sink it's probably high time to rethink how you go about making these games. Developer Premium Agency may want to go back to the drawing board if they continue to make these games.
Kizuna Drive continues the offshoot nature of the Shippuden story line, this time the Akatsuki have started an assault upon the Hidden Dream village, framing Naruto and the Hidden Leaf village for the destruction of their homeland. This triggers an all out war between the two villages, which will end in utter destruction if the sealed three-headed beast kept in the Hidden Dream is unleashed. So Naruto and company have to set off to prevent the end of the world. To be fair, if I saw a giant nine-tailed fox demon wrecking my hometown and knew of only one person who it could possibly be, I'd want them dead too.
Your options for diving in to the latest game include the Scenario missions which is the main story of the game, and the free missions which allow you to assemble a dream team of ninjas to complete missions independent of the story to power up your team. Each mode allows you to assemble a team of four ninjas to complete a variety of missions that range from escort to simple eradication of enemy ninjas. Completion of the mission will award you with scrolls to power up your team further and will unlock other ninjas to be used for future missions.You can also replay missions in an attempt to earn scrolls that will power up your team and unlock new skills for them to use.
Right off the bat, the combat is at best, shallow. There is one basic combo available at your disposal, completed by mashing away at the circle button. There are finishing move branch attacks that can be inserted in to the combo by pressing the triangle button, but unless you're lined up perfectly with your enemy you'll find that attacks won't always land against the enemies, leaving you open to counter attacks. Even worse, there are a number of enemies that do not have a hit stun caused by physical attacks, allowing them to take a wave of attacks while leaving you vulnerable no matter where you are in your combo. There are optional scrolls that have special abilities to combat these enemy strengths, but acquisitions of these scrolls are at random upon completing missions. If you get lucky it's possible to hit an enemy to the point where they can be knocked in to a weakened state setting them up for a special team attack that is split amongst the four ninjas on your team. Completing these attacks will increase the “Kizuna Points” for the team and affect your overall rank awarded at the end of the mission, but if you screw them up, then you'll wind up losing a good chunk of health, so you've got to be careful with using the attacks for too long.
It's very obvious that Kizuna Drive is meant to be played as a multiplayer game, but with no infrastructure wireless multiplayer (local ad-hoc only) you're more than likely going to be stuck playing the game with AI companions. I wouldn't have a problem with this normally, but in Kizuna Drive's case, the AI is the stupidest, most frustrating companion I have ever had the disdain of teaming up with. I can get wanting to make the game challenging and am all for it, however I am not all for an AI that has no sense of self preservation. It's like I'm playing with dicks in Phantasy Star Online who would rather go get a chest than give me a res. Kizuna Drive's AI companions will run around the battlefield, right in to the paths of enemy attacks, or will just stand around not making any attempt to actually harm enemies. Those that can heal will ignore your health until it is too late, or even worse will drop a talisman on the ground to heal you, but another AI player will run over them, stealing their precious life giving energies. What's also hilariously baffling is during one mission where the AI is supposed to follow you, rather than fight enemies that appear, they simply run against an invisible wall, while the character I control is able to navigate over a pit via fallen trees, in to a group of enemies who are throwing weapons at your allies. You also have the ability to call your teammates in for an assist attack, but rather than target the enemy, they head in the direction that the camera is facing, so unless you're attacking them head on, the attacks are rarely useful, and are actually better spent to get your teammates out of a jam if they are surrounded. Unfortunately these attacks cannot be changed, so if you wanted to use a group of healers to try and keep yourself alive you'll have to rely on the AI to be aware of your health.
I can deal with bad AI companions, provided the gameplay is fair and balanced, but that seems like I am asking too much of this game. Instead you've got enemies that are far more powerful than what your team is typically capable of. You'll find that you'll have to rely on special scrolls that are rewarded upon mission completion to buff out your team. The problem here is that the scrolls are randomly assigned, so you might go through a multitude of missions, and continue to receive the same crap scrolls over and over, meanwhile that boss chapter is not getting any easier. Some of these bosses are so pointlessly hard, you can spend hours grinding away to get new scrolls and they won't make much difference, instead you're forced to rely on a flimsy dodge technique to get out of a jam while you slowly chip away at the opponents health, and I do mean slowly. I spent over eight hours just trying to clear the fifth chapter, constantly going back to free missions to try to get scrolls that would increase my teams power, eventually getting something that allowed me to take more than four hits without dying. Along with abusing the Kizuna Points to allow my team members to revive me, I was able to complete the mission, and as a result, received a lower ranking upon mission completion. This also really burned me up, I use my Kizuna points to bring a team member back, but during that process I am completely vulnerable, but if my companion somehow gets the bright idea to bring me back, they can't be knocked out of the revival sequence, yeah that's fair.
Kizuna Drive has decent enough visuals for a PSP title, though the locales are quite limited and are recycled a lot, I can count the number of forest settings on one hand. But over the game looks better than any Wii titles out there, which is kind of sad for Nintendo's console. Character models are reasonably well detailed, and the game runs at a good clip, with some slowdown occurring, but not enough to hinder gameplay. The use of hand drawn sprites but with limited animation for cut-scenes is a clever idea and overall does a good job of taking over for FMV cut-scenes. Audio is a mixed bag in general, with a lot of repeated voice lines that get annoying after a while, and music that fits, but feels uninspired. The inclusion of a Japanese voice track is appreciated as always.
Naruto Shippuden Kizuna Drive is a puzzling title. Why would you want to make a game that is going to wind up being an incredibly frustrating experience like this? Grinding for a brawler makes no sense, especially when the rewards for grinding are totally random. At the price point of this game, you could grab a number of similar beat-em-ups off Xbox Live Arcade that all do a better job than Kizuna Drive. Instead though, people will pick up this game and find a game that is plagued with puzzling design choices and ultimately missed opportunities. If you see this one sitting on the store shelves, just keep on walking, unless you feel like playing something that will make you want to chuck your PSP against the wall.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
In a past life I worked with Interplay, EA, Harmonix, Konami, and a number of other developers. Now I'm working for a record label, a small arm of casual games in a media company along with Gaming Nexus, and anywhere else that sees fit to employ me.