For the number of games based on the wildly popular Naruto anime and manga series over the past few years, none have made much of a concerted effort to appeal to players outside of the admittedly large and well-established fan base, particularly to potential fans in the US. Given that most Naruto games rely on somewhat threadbare genre staples such as one-on-one fighters and beat-'em-ups, there has been for the most part little appeal outside of the license. Ubisoft's Naruto: Rise of a Ninja for the Xbox 360 distinguishes itself from its predecessors in a number of ways. It's the first Naruto game developed outside of Japan, and it attempts to approach the source material in a way that would make it digestible for Naruto neophytes. Rise of a Ninja also aims for a much larger scope, with a detailed realization of Naruto's hometown of Konoha and a number of distinct gameplay elements. As much fun as it is to use Naruto's developing ninja abilities to explore the city, the game spreads itself a little thin in parts.
Actual scenes from the anime are often used to move the story along.
If this really is your first exposure to Naruto, don't worry. Rise of a Ninja wisely starts at the very beginning, jumping right into a crazy world of magical ninjas to establish young Naruto's fate as the vessel for a nine-tailed fox demon. The story in Rise of a Ninja is based on the US version of the Naruto anime series, and it covers the events that take place over the course of the first 80 episodes, from Naruto's initial graduation from the ninja academy through the end of the Chunin exams. Granted, it's a highly abridged version, but for most of the story it does a smart job of providing enough exposition that you needn't have watched all 80 episodes to follow what's going on. However, at a certain point during the Chunin exams, it kind of falls apart; characters appear without much explanation and disappear just as quickly.
To tell the story, the game relies almost entirely on actual clips from the show, which look sharp and lend the game a certain air of authenticity. Nevertheless, the transitions between the 3D game engine and the 2D animated cutscenes can be jarring, and the emotive and dynamic qualities of the 2D animation really put into stark relief how stiff the in-engine dialog sequences look. The biggest knock against the narrative is its relative brevity. For a story that took nearly 30 hours of TV time to tell, you can burn through the main story elements in Rise of a Ninja in less than 6 hours. It ultimately doesn't feel as epic as it ought to, despite all the changes that Naruto goes through.
At the start of the game, Naruto handles like a pretty standard third-person platforming hero, though he gains a number of unique abilities, including the ability to double jump and sprint at high speeds. Two major concepts in Naruto are chakra, a kind of ninja-magic-life-force-energy-thing, and jutsu, which are special abilities that ninjas can activate by tapping into their chakra with a series of intricate hand gestures. There are three significant types of jutsu that Naruto learns over the course of the game--shadow clone jutsu, sexy jutsu, and chakra concentration--which you'll activate by holding the left trigger and inputting a series of commands with both analog sticks. It's a system that doesn't get too complicated, but it does a fantastic job of evoking the jutsu hand gestures. Shadow clone jutsu is good for busting down barriers that block your path, whereas sexy jutsu can debilitate certain pervy characters you encounter. Chakra concentration is probably the most useful jutsu because it can be used to run straight up walls (giving you access to otherwise unreachable areas), and later on, letting you walk on water.
Exploring Konoha is some of the most fun you'll have in Rise of a Ninja.
You'll spend the majority of your time in Naruto: Rise of a Ninja within the city of Konoha, which serves both as a hub for taking on missions, as well as a bit of a playground for Naruto. Konoha is, without question, the single most impressive aspect of the game. The city is large and has a very organic feel to it, with lots of narrow alleyways, serpentine paths, and multiple levels of rooftops to traverse. Although all of the characters in Rise of a Ninja are cel-shaded, the environments aim for a greater level of realism and more muted colors, which creates a contrast that ably recalls the feel of the source material. Save for the dialogue sequences, which are plagued by a lack of fine-character details such as mouths that animate along with the dialogue, this is generally a really sharp and stylish-looking game.