Another year of console fighting games spawn another year of pocket spin-offs, as the Naruto series continues its blitzkrieg on the American anime audience. As with each year, Naruto: Clash of Ninja on consoles is met with a pocket-geared adventure on DS, and like each of its predecessors, this year's pocket experience is unfortunately going to take a back seat to the main focus of the series with both Clash of Ninja Revolution on Wii, and Rise of a Ninja on the Xbox 360. Will it be enough to satisfy rabid fans of Naruto lore? Perhaps, but it won't have the legs to pull in new fans through the game experience alone.
For this year's pocket effort, D3 brings an all-new DS-exclusive series to the US with Naruto: Path of the Ninja. As the first of its kind here in the US, Path of the Ninja is a traditional RPG built around the world of Naruto, following the foundling ninja students from the beginning of the first season, as the story begins anew in RPG form. As an issue all-too-common in the anime world, fans of the series will again need to face the facts that Path of the Ninja won't be telling a new story, but instead retell the origins seen countless times in other games, manga, and the anime series itself. For those that enjoy an in-game recap, however, many of the lines in Path of the Ninja are taken directly from the anime script, so the authenticity is definitely there.
What isn't there, however, is much in the way of fresh content. If all you're looking for is another dose of the familiar Naruto conduct, you'll get it, but Path of the Ninja does very little to set itself apart from the other games both visually and stylistically. For starters, this now-DS title started as a GBA product in Japan, and while the team did a great job of bringing many of the touch elements and duals-screen presentation to the US package - rather than port something over, D3 has always put pride in setting the two regions apart, even if it is through design patchwork - you'll still get the same core game as GBA owners years ago, complete with an overall graphical presentation and audio effort that sets on par with Nintendo's last-generation technology. You'll get some added voicework and full touch support (the entire game can be played without buttons, in fact), but the majority of the game will remain unscathed.
The core gameplay is about as traditional as you get as well, so while fans of the series will undoubtedly embrace the style, we have to admit it's becoming more than a bit stale. Players move from section to section via an overworld map, explore each region with an on-screen avatar that represents the entire party, and then will be quickly whisked away to random battles which force them to either overcome the odds, or lie recumbent and out of the action until eventually revived. Along the way you'll gain access to familiar Naruto characters, unlock Jutsu powers for both stand-alone attacks and also team powers, and level up as with any other traditionally-set RPG since the Super NES era. It's not that any single portion lacks depth or is broken in any way; it's just amazingly cookie cutter, and won't do much more than offer hours of fan service for gamers that just can't get enough Naruto.