With most anime licences being turned into turgid or impregnable beat-'em-ups, its good to see a developer go down a different road once in a while in an effort to keep things fresh. Kudos, then, to Cavia, because Uzumaki Chronicles does just that. It is, in essence, an extremely gentle action-RPG, with the emphasis very much on the action side of things. And while the pummelling might not be up to the dizzying standards set by the likes of Ninja Gaiden or Devil May Cry 3, it's still surprisingly robust, especially for a game with such a young demographic.
There's a decent amount of stock combos to throw out and by mixing these with ranged weapons and special jutsu attacks, you can string together some rather impressive patterns once you get a feel for the controls. There's even a 'parry' in the form of the substitution jutsu, allowing you to cut damage and teleport behind a foe with a well-timed tap of the jump button - this certainly adds an air of finesse to battles, especially once you start avoiding most attacks thrown at you in this way.
This brings us nicely to a sore point, however, in that the game's AI is pretty much awful. Some enemies just mill around while others attack relentlessly regardless of what you're doing. It's hardly proper ninja behaviour either way. Still, in many other ways, Naruto's first proper adventure appears to borrow heavily from the Kingdom Hearts games, simplifying things a little further (with no real stats to worry about besides the odd bonus here and there) and opening the door to an audience that wouldn't necessarily know what an action RPG even was, let alone play one.
That said, things aren't entirely basic and the character progression system here is an interesting one indeed, allowing 'Virtue orbs' obtained from fallen foes to be invested either into boosting your maximum health or chakra levels or into purchasing Skill Chips. The latter part of this is by far the more freeform, allowing you to buy chips with various effects from adding extra clones to Naruto's Shadow Clone Jutsu or enabling air dashes to boosting stats in various magnitudes. The more potent the effect the larger and more awkwardly shaped the chip is likely to be, so when it comes to arranging them on your initially tiny Skill Plate you won't have too many options.
As the game goes on, you can expect to find larger plates to fill with more abilities, and filling the board is far more important than the tutorial lets on - a full plate rewards you with a significant boost in the dominant aspect while a well-balanced Skill Plate grants even greater bonuses in more areas. It's far simpler than it sounds, although you might want to grind for experience early on to stock up on chips. That way, you're given the option of setting up Naruto for each coming challenge, which can be extremely handy at times.
Structurally, Uzumaki Chronicles is pretty much as basic as games come. After accepting missions from your home town, you traverse the simple 'world map' - your standard lines-for-paths-and-blobs-for-towns affair - and fight off enemies that appear randomly on the way to your destination. There's little in the way of exploration here and although some mission stages are larger than others, these are the only times you'll get to run around properly and do ninja-type things so you need to make the most of them.
Some frustrating tasks aside (like protecting caravans...surely we've established that nobody likes escort missions?), there's plenty to do and you'll notice things getting decidedly tougher as you move up through the ranks. To help with this, Naruto often receives assistance from familiar friends and allies from the series, with the combat system allowing you to switch between lead and support characters on the fly. Some are just there to help out in combat while others have useful abilities that can grant access to otherwise impossible areas and all in all, this feature works well both for the gameplay and for the fans, even if the puzzling side of things is a tad simplistic.
With the voice actors from the English dub of the anime reprising their roles here, Naruto fans can expect a suitably authentic adventure, and even though Uzumaki Chronicles is outclassed within its genre, it's certainly a valiant effort at doing something a little different with the franchise.
Newcomers to the Naruto scene definitely won't get the most out of this though, and without at least a little knowledge of the subject matter some of the character relationships, dialogue and even parts of the basic premise might sail straight over your head. Still, if you do know your Kakashis from your Irukas, add a couple of points to the score and think about picking this up. For everyone else, games like Kingdom Hearts 2 and Ninja Gaiden offer far more substantial and rewarding adventures in a similar vein. Everyone's a winner, basically. Hurrah.