I've always had a strange relationship with Naruto games. I was a fan of the series and going into each game I'd always look for something that transported me into that world. So many of the games seem to miss the mark and fall into the trope of just repeating the story from the show beat for beat (Dragon Ball, you're not off the hook, either). So when given the chance to create my own ninja in Shinobi Striker and work my way up the ranks, I jumped at the chance. Sadly, I don't think there was much for me to land on.
Let me get this out of the way: this game is online only. It says it has an offline mode, something that I played extensively, but it's a husk. If you don't like playing online, you might want to consider skipping this title because there is little else here.
To begin with, the “offline mode” is literally just the online mode... but offline. That sounds obvious, but let me elaborate. Imagine running around in any other online game, like World of Warcraft, a world populated by human players, then just removing them all. Konoha, the Leaf Village, is empty and dead. You'll get quest givers to appear on occasion, but you're in a hub world specifically crafted for online interaction.
Let's look at the missions. Early on you're informed the game is centered around a tournament that is happening in Konoha, a tournament that is, in fact, the main game. Teams of four human players face off against one another in straight fights, capture-the-flag, capture-the-base, and more. The game makes it clear this is the core experience. If you're offline, you don't get to play. Instead, you're restricted to the VR Arena, a mode that lets you play missions solo or with a group, adjusting difficulty accordingly. What are these missions? You guessed it, re-tellings of specific moments in the shows.
New missions in the VR Arena are given by NPCs that drop in as you complete previous ones, providing a steady, if awkward, supply of content for both online and offline players. Here you're expected to team up with characters from the show as your mentors, learn their techniques, and improve your character. Unfortunately, even in offline mode, the game acts as though this is all online.
You can't pause battles. You can't skip cutscenes. You have to go through multiple screens to begin a mission (so you can recruit others to join you.) You can't skip through the results screen at the end of the missions, instead having to wait for twenty second count downs, meaning if you're grinding, you're going to sit here forever.
But what about the actual gameplay? Well, it's surprisingly decent. The game focuses on one of four fighting styles: Attack, Defense, Ranged, and Healing. Attack has more strength, Defense has more HP, Ranged has better distance attacks but terrible HP, and Healing, well, heals. You pick your class in the hub world with one NPC, then start your missions with a second. As long as you complete the mission before the timer runs out or your defense target (a base or person) is killed, you can die all you want and respawn. There's a big focus on teamwork and making sure everyone's role compliments the group. Don't go in with all healers or all attackers unless you want to fail miserably. While I didn't play it online, I can certainly see the allure of planning out your tactics with a team of friends and supporting each other with your unique abilities.
The moves are fun, though having weapons and abilities restricted to certain classes feels limiting. Regardless of whether a move is ranged or melee, the game decides which class can use it, meaning that great long distance Rasen-Shuriken you just earned and would be amazing for your Ranged fighter is limited to your Attack fighter. Still, if you don't mind the restrictions placed by the classes, the core fighting elements are quite fun. Some of the missions are really intense and deciding which class you'll need to be to best overcome the obstacles is very rewarding.
Let me nitpick for a moment now. Yes, I understand the game is meant for online play, but I'm just not an online player. I recently played Strange Brigade, another game that touts itself as an online multiplayer game. You can play the entirety of that campaign without ever needing assistance. You could be forgiven for not realizing it even has multiplayer elements. The core mechanics and solo game play are solid and strong. In Shinobi Striker, the solo elements are just a constant reminder that you're supposed to be playing online. The hub world is a tiny area in a vast city. You're barred by literal picket fences from exploring what looks to be an amazing metropolis. You can't change any outfits or items from the start menu, you have to talk to an NPC. In fact, you'll be running from NPC to NPC constantly to do every little thing in the game. Even the one game play element you're allowed, the VR Arena, is a constant reminder that all the missions your doing aren't real even within the context of the game. The online tournament matches are the only thing that matters.
Don't get me wrong. If you like fighters, you like Naruto, and you like playing online, this is your game. But if you're looking for an immersive story and a chance to explore the Leaf Village as your own ninja, keep looking. The entire game feels like it could be a side mode to a larger, better game. What it does, it does well, but without a solid base, it's little more than a series of side quests. It's like dining at Ichiraku Ramen: a tasty little experience to be sure, but it leaves you feeling hungry for more after half an hour.
Final Score: 6 out of 10
A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of review.