Spring Ahead, Fall Back
And it's not like Ultimate Ninja 4 isn't without some advancements of its own -- most notably that it's finally embracing the Shippuden timeline, which pushes the characters and world of Naruto a few years forward to help break out of the setting of the past games. CyberConnect2 already had a hell of a base to work off of; I've often lauded the series for being a simple, accessible, yet somewhat deep little fighter with fantastic animations that has the potential to rope in even non-fans of the anime/manga, but Ultimate Ninja 4's bigger issue isn't what was already there, it's what's been added.
More specifically, it's the Master Mode that's so painfully bland as to render almost everything else about the game (including a massive cast of fighters that have to be unlocked through the adventure mode) a huge waste of time. I'm sure the idea of following the first major story arc in the new Shippuden timeline was a great idea on paper, but the execution is far less appetizing: big, empty corridors filled with encounters that can be won by simply yawning and mashing a single button. That's not an exaggeration; you can win almost all the basic fights in the main story mode by simply tap-tap-tapping the attack button until everyone's gone.
What's worse, the Hidden Leaf Village that was free-roaming in previous PS2 games has been turned into a series of load-heavy little corridors that whittle everything down into little chunks -- and boring ones at that. I can understand the desire to separate the next-gen and "older" iterations of the series, but CyberConnect2 knows how to do far bigger, more expansive games (just look at the .hack series). The addition of ham-fisted "RPG-lite" elements like gaining experience and new moves only makes everything feel that much more lifeless and boring because you have to slog through it, needless backtracking and round-about conversations and all, to level Naruto up.
If the new adventure mode could be completely ignored, then it might be worth it for die-hard Shippuden fans. After all, this is the first game with an older, more powerful Naruto and friends, but the fighting side of things was apparently given a back seat to the clunky "main" mode of the game. That so much of the content from the previous games was re-used only makes it feel like the commitment to doing PS2 games feels like an afterthought now that the team has moved on to the PS3 -- and done a hell of a job in the process.
During the game's 2D combat, things look just as they have in previous games, which is to say plenty of great animation, some absolutely killer (but familiar) finishing moves and a great framerate. The framerate holds true for the adventuring bits, but nearly everything else about the experience feels like a slapped-together rush job just to have something other than a straight fighter. The actual exploratory dungeons are mostly barren (save for a bunch of random stuff you can break that respawns after you leave anyway), and the hub worlds are detailed, but so restrictive that they feel like something you'd find on the PSP.
The audio is, for the most part, pretty standard stuff. If you played the previous games, you'll be all too familiar with the screams of "Chakra Recovery!" and the variously smacks, slaps, grunts and shouts. The audio is, unsurprisingly, solid too, with a mix of classic Japanese instruments and some grinding rock guitars during some of the more actiony bits of the game, but it's par for the course.
In the end, Ultimate Ninja 4's biggest competition is not other fighters, but the evolved (though older timeline) Naruto game on the PS3. This is just such a big step back (or a retread of what's already been played more than a few times in previous games) that it seems almost like CyberConnect2 has already moved on and just threw together the scraps of their old PS2 engine and assets while hastily cobbling together something to stretch out the non-fighting bits. If you don't yet have a PS3, then there are plenty of previous versions of the series to digest that are a bit meatier in the adventure department. No, it's not the Shippuden timeline, and I can understand some will have wanted that, but this isn't the way to experience that story arc anyway. If you do have a PS3, then go buy Ultimate Ninja Storm already!