If you manage to get past the cover (featuring Naruto and his friend-turned-rival Sasuke, by the way), you'll find an energetic and accessible adventure that respectfully harnesses its source material, without locking out newcomers. Fans tuned in to keywords like chakra, Rasengan and Orochimaru will be more invested in the story, and everyone else will find some way to survive a fighting game without being ensconced in the narrative. Just pretend it's called Ninja Tornado Fight.
Ninja Tornado Fight's appeal lies in its simplicity, though it could be seen as shallowness in comparison to more technical fighters. For instance, there's only one melee attack button, and pushing it repeatedly will deliver an impressive string of punches, kicks and fireballs with minimal mental expenditure. There's an interesting wrinkle in blocking, with a well-timed pull of the trigger allowing you to teleport out of your opponent's combo and follow up from behind, but the real challenge lies in interrupting the other player's rhythm.
In order to perform devastating special attacks, you need to charge up your chakra (magic) bar first -- but you need to stand still for that. There's a liberating freedom of movement in Ninja Tornado Fight's large arenas, and dodging projectiles and keeping your distance from your nemesis is vital while you build up chakra. Battles boil down to exciting surgical strikes, interrupting your opponent's charging while generating distance enough for you to build up your own meter. You can call up to two partner characters into battle, where they'll occupy your enemy or briefly defend you, or you can expend smaller amounts of chakra to enhance your projectiles or provide a burst of speed. It's not the deepest set of rules, but there's a good breadth of strategies (and, admittedly, some obvious points of imbalance) across the 40+ playable characters.
The frenzied battles revel in a disregard for realism, brought to life with some of the best cel-shaded art I've seen in a game. A lack of anti-aliasing hurts the character models, but the spirited animation and gorgeous, over-the-top anime effects make rewards out of even the weakest attacks. I'd be inclined to say the vibrant color and attention to detail makes Ninja Tornado Fight feel like an interactive cartoon, but I can't think of many cartoons that look quite this good. Naruto certainly doesn't.
The "interactive cartoon" label is especially apropos for many of the game's boss fights, most of which devolve into visually spectacular ... quick-time events. These are slavishly devoted to recreating critical encounters from the anime (Sakura's battle against Sasori's puppets is a real standout), but your perfunctory participation doesn't elevate them beyond the notoriously drawn-out show.
The single-player "Ultimate Adventure" mode does an acceptable job of compressing and retelling Naruto's Shippuden arc thus far, but fails to fill in the blanks between fights. I say "blanks," because as nice as the 2D, pre-rendered artwork is, there's nothing to do in Naruto's world. Aside from collecting ingredients and buying in-battle items, you're running a straightforward gauntlet of dialog boxes and go-there-and-fight-whatshisface directives. Unlike Ubisoft Montreal's pair of Naruto games, there's no platforming and no real exploration -- just laborious running between trigger points. If the developers at Cyberconnect 2 had more confidence in their fighting system, they might not have put it inside a bad JRPG from the '90s.
You're not likely to go back to the campaign once you've unlocked all the characters (a fairly quick process if you avoid the tedious sidequests), and the introduction of online play is most welcome, even if it's rudimentary and in desperate need of a proper lobby. The game is at its best with a friend, perhaps someone turned off by the long-term learning required by more complex fighting games. Its longevity isn't assured, but the immediacy and fluidity of Ninja Tornado Fight makes for an entertaining diversion in-between this season's more time-consuming endeavors.
And hey, if you spend enough time with it, maybe you'll even learn what a Shippuden is. (Answers on a postcard, please.)
This review is based on the Xbox 360 retail version of Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja: Storm 2 purchased by the reviewer on a whim.