When you peruse the list of games coming out this year, it's fair to say that a title based on a Japanese comic series probably isn't the first thing you jump to.
Launching in the same Autumn period as FIFA, Pro Evo, Skylanders, LEGO Dimensions, Metal Gear Solid, Forza, Mad Max and Super Mario Maker, Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 undoubtedly has some serious rivals in the competition for retail shelf space.
But while many of those games will be competing for the thinly-stretched purchasing power of the same audience, Naruto hopes to attract an altogether different audience.
UNS4 is the latest instalment in the Ultimate Ninja series, based on the original Japanese comic book (also known as manga) Naruto.
Naruto is the third-best-selling manga of all time with over 200 million sales – 75 million of these outside of Japan – behind only One Piece and Dragon Ball and, like those franchises, it also has a highly popular cartoon (anime) spin-off. The Ultimate Ninja games have proven to be a big hit themselves, with over 12 million sales worldwide – more than 3.8 million in Europe alone.
So while a niche title like UNS4 may seem a mere drop in the gaming pond, it's set to make a serious splash among a certain group of passionate gamers.
A lot of manga and anime fans have been waiting to see their favourite franchises make it to next-gen and so, at the moment, there's a real clamouring for these titles,” observes Karla Pett, product manager at Bandai Namco.
Sometimes the manga and anime community suffers from a lack of mainstream visibility, and public awareness rises and falls. But these fandoms are there and they're very strong. Now, with the increasing acceptance of ‘geek' pastimes in mainstream culture, the market is only growing stronger.”
2015 boasts one of the fullest release schedules in recently memory, with the return of blockbuster IP like Fallout, Halo and Metal Gear Solid set to reignite gamers' passions.
But this excitement isn't just reserved for triple-A sequels. In fact, the fervour around Halo 5 and Fallout 4 may even pale in comparison to the dedication of fans awaiting the next entry in smaller franchises like Naruto.
The nice thing about niche audiences is that they're really, really passionate about the products and the licences,” observes Pett.
It's not just die-hard followers that could get swept up by the wave of interest in the next Naruto game. Newcomers looking for something different could also be tempted to pick up the title.
What UNS4 does so well is offer such a great story,” says Pett. It combines adventure and fighting mechanics, and both elements are really strong. Sometimes fighting games can be a little light on story but, with such a strong narrative heritage in the Naruto series, we're able to offer players the best of both worlds: a fantastic story and really great gameplay. It's really robust and also adds fantastic targeting elements for big boss battles that allow you to be genuinely strategic in how you take on those fights.
The biggest differences between UNS4 and Western titles ultimately start with art style and presentation. UNS4 keeps that really recognisable crisp manga and anime look thanks to the cell-shaded style that developer CyberConnect2 is so well known for; it's very expressive and bombastic – a real visual treat.
People sometimes shy away from games like this thinking they're niche and therefore not for them, but that's a shame as they can miss out. UNS4 is a great, fun title and we really hope it can broaden its audience.”
"People sometimes shy away from games like this thinking they're niche and not for them, but that's a shame as they can miss out."
Karla Pett, Bandai Namco
UNS4 is both the first and last title in the Ultimate Ninja Storm series to come to PS4 and Xbox One, with the game serving as the closing chapter to ninja hero Naruto Uzumaki's story.
It's set to go out with a bang, boasting the largest roster of fighters in the franchise's history, plus a number of other additions thanks to the new consoles.
The new hardware has made UNS4 the biggest, boldest and best Storm game we've ever had,” Pett explains.
The graphical capabilities of the consoles really bring the dynamic, bombastic fights to life. The connectivity of the new consoles helps us bring the community together too, and that's such a key part of manga and anime titles.
In essence, we've kept what fans really loved – the great story, gameplay and style – and made it bigger and better than previous games. We've added the targeting element to boss battles and loads of new characters. Plus the graphic effects on battles are visually indulgent.
With this game, we're sticking even closer to the original story and making sure that fans are getting exactly what they want, but also that newcomers are able to join in without being utterly confused. There is a lot more to be announced, but I wouldn't want to ruin the surprise.”
With the end in sight for Ultimate Ninja Storm, at least for now, Bandai Namco and CyberConnect2 are confident that UNS4 will earn its ‘ultimate' title.
It's fair to say that UNS4 is going to be a hard game to forget,” concludes Pett.
From our point of view, we always want to make a game that players are going to love and is respectful of the IP we're working with.
We hope that our respect of the source material can be clearly seen in the game and that players can see how much love has gone into it.
There's going to be a lot to keep players engaged for the future. Naruto has become a reference point for anime and manga lovers, so we're looking forward to continuing the adventure. For now, we'll have to wait and see what the future holds.”
A GRAND GOODBYE
Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4 marks the last entry in the franchise – for now.
With this in mind, publisher Bandai Namco is going all-out for the game's release, as product manager Karla Pett explains:
UNS4 is the swansong of the Ultimate Ninja Storm series and so it's getting a lot of love.
We've got lots of community activity planned and are hoping to really encourage the competitive edge among players, as the game definitely shines in multiplayer.
Because it has a really nice mix of adventure and fighting, it's really accessible. We're hoping that the audience will grow much broader and fighting fans can really sink their teeth into it.
Plus, Naruto games are a real crowd pleaser so we always have them in full force at shows; the game's just been out at E3 and will be the star of our show at MCM this October. For us, and for the Naruto games marketing, it's really about engaging with the audience and having a conversation with them.
We also have some very exciting plans post-launch, with lots of feature