The Naruto: Ultimate Ninja series has been a rock for Japanese developer CyberConnect2. A franchise which began back in 2003 on the PlayStation 2, there have been numerous entries since, and it's impressive to think that not a single one has been overly disappointing. In fact, the series has only gotten better as the years have passed, with Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 and 3 being particular highlights. Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Revolution is more of a refinement than its name would suggest, but how does this newest entry stack up to its already fantastic predecessors?

Despite undergoing various positive changes to its combat system, such as combo breaking teleportations being far less readily available, Revolution's biggest alterations come in the form of its available content. The game sports over 100 characters that cover almost the entire property, a different take on the traditional story mode, and the entirely new Ninja World Tournament mode, which is absolutely packed with things to see and do. Much like the other titles in the series, Revolution is a fighter that aims to keep you occupied.

The aforementioned Ninja World Tournament is the release's biggest draw this time around, as you choose your favourite challenger and gain entry to a sprawling island that you're free to explore. There are shops where you can purchase tools to help you in battle, fellow ninjas that you can talk to or gain as allies, and countless jobs, battles, and challenges to take on. It's very much a hub for your activities, and it plays much like Storm 2's rather open story mode, but its battles are what separates it.

Instead of the usual one-on-one fights that we've come to expect, here you'll be clashing against three other ninjas in an attempt to collect the most orbs before the time's up. Orbs burst forth from your enemies as you beat the snot out of them, and you're able to lock onto your chosen foe with a flick of the right analog stick. Given how chaotic combat already is with two combatants, it's no surprise that orb battles are incredibly hectic affairs where you can end up being slaughtered from every angle if the artificial intelligence decides that you've been nabbing too many precious orbs.

Thankfully, the four fighter spin works quite well, as the general gist of combat stays the same – you just need to have a better awareness of your surroundings. There are also no health bars, so you're free to try and go all-out against your opponents if you think that that's the best path to victory, and as such, World Tournament brawls can seem a little more free and fluid than the norm.

Working your way through each tournament rank, more and more content is unlocked as you proceed. Areas of the island are opened up to you, more items become available for purchase, and you can find and recruit different allies to your cause. As hinted, Revolution has a huge character roster, so completing your dream team can take some time as ninjas are introduced bit by bit to the island. Because of this, it can feel like a slight grind – especially since there are so many optional missions to undertake – but all in all, the mode is a solid addition to an already massive game.

However, the Ninja World Tournament isn't quite the spectacle that the franchise's traditional story mode usually provides. Typically, the story modes are made up of lavish cutscenes and visually stunning battles that lace quick time events into the most important fights from the source material, but there's unfortunately none of that this time around.

In its place, you'll find Ninja Escapades – a collection of stories exclusive to the title. The tales have been hinted at within the anime and manga, but here you'll get the whole showing courtesy of full-blown animated cutscenes in between decisive brawls. Fans of the massively popular source material will likely adore what's on offer here, but if you haven't dipped into the colourful world of Naruto, it may not keep your attention for long. Each escapade will take you around 45 minutes or so to see through, with most of that time being taken up by the animations, and although the mode doesn't quite provide the excitement of previous stories, it's a nice, almost relaxing alternative to slugging through the World Tournament, single player matches, or online clashes.

Speaking of which, the online offering proves to be quite robust, with two main options available for you to test your skills. Along with participating in standard matches against opponents from around the world, you can also create a network clone – a computer controlled ghost of your favourite ninja – and send them out into the online network. Other players will find your clone on the World Tournament island, and after a quick inspection, duke it out with them. Once a set period of time is up, your clone will head back home, hopefully with battle experience and character customisation items in hand. It's a nice little system that adds another dimension to the game as you manage your fighter and watch them grow, but much like the competitive multiplayer, it's marred slightly by several imbalances.

While testing your mettle against human opposition can provide some utterly intense spectacles, it can be easy to get frustrated. Unbalanced combat elements are nothing new to licensed anime fighting titles, but it's a shame that they still exist in a series as long running as this. Although the issues aren't quite enough to make you give up on online play altogether, they can play a large part in souring the experience. As you can imagine, many players opt for picking the same handful of characters time and time again, simply because of how powerful or how exploitable their particular attacks are, much to the disappointment of anyone looking for the variety that the gigantic character roster should offer.

The Ultimate Ninja series isn't quite a traditional one versus one fighter, as you're given a relatively large arena to jump and sprint around in, while always being locked to your enemy. If you're new to the system, it becomes clear early on that combat is quite a tactical affair, as most attacks or actions feel deliberate, rewarding timing and patience – which means that button mashing is out of the question.

This is a fighting game where movement is as important as combos, where keeping an eye on your chakra gauge is always crucial, and positioning yourself correctly can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Every character has access to ranged techniques, a close melee combo, a special move, and an ultimate attack. Some ninjas are better at the former, while others sport longer melee strings and more powerful ninjutsu techniques. At first, it seems like there's a heck of a lot to get your head around, but within a few matches, most players should begin to discover that it's quite an accessible system that hides a surprising amount of depth.

And this is where the series' strength lies. As you become increasingly adept at flinging your chosen ninja around the battlefield and letting off powerful strikes at a moment's notice, it gets incredibly difficult to tear yourself from the game. Battles become as much about the spectacle as they do about winning, and with a ridiculous amount of jutsus and ultimate attacks to discover, it can seem like the fun will never end. Some ultimate jutsus in particular, especially ones that involve the summoning of your team mates, are without doubt some of the best finishing moves that we've seen in the genre, and pulling them off with perfect timing truly is a thing of beauty.

After witnessing such glory, it can be hard to find a flaw in Revolution's chaotic clashes, but at times, it's impossible to ignore the previously mentioned balancing problems. When selecting your character and their supporting ninjas, you're given the option of choosing between three fighting types that define how you play. The ultimate jutsu type can pull off the abovementioned glorious finishers, the awakening type is able to temporarily transform into an enhanced form that's great for brutal beat downs, and the drive type allows you to summon your allies into the fray much more frequently.

Surprisingly, despite the raw power of both the ultimate jutsu type and the awakening type, it's the drive type that undoubtedly causes the most problems, both online and offline. The support system – where you can assign two additional characters to your team – allows you to create your own dream alliance of ninjas, and you can hit the corresponding shoulder buttons to whisk them onto the battlefield for a specific attack. It's a mechanic that adds some enjoyable depth as you experiment with different team combinations, but the drive type makes the whole thing very exploitable.

As a drive type, your comrades will move in front of you to block incoming blows if you're busy charging your precious chakra, and they'll help out with combos on a frequent basis, allowing you to deal some hefty damage with just a few presses of the circle button. It doesn't sound too bad on paper, but you'll find a large amount of players will utilise relatively cheap tactics in order to gain the upper hand. Whether it's hiding behind their supporting allies and chipping your health away with quick attacks or barraging you with an ungodly amount of combos, it becomes clear that the drive type option is usually the most potent, particularly in the hands of less experienced, but hungry opponents.

It's a shame, too, as even slight tweaks to the type would make a world of difference. Again, it's not something that'll come close to ruining the game for you, but it's annoying to have something like this have a negative effect on what is otherwise CyberConnect2's most balanced and thoughtfully tweaked entry in the series.

Fortunately, there are plenty of options when it comes to playing alone, away from the insanely intense moments that await online. Outside of your standard versus match ups, you can create tournaments for up to eight local or computer controlled players, participate in leagues where you'll need to accumulate the most points to seize victory, and take part in survival, which can prove to be a real challenge. They're all rather basic modes, but their snappy execution means that they're a simple but effective way to keep you brawling. To top it all off, you'll always be winning money from every successful fight, which not only periodically unlocks new characters, but can be used to buy bits and pieces for the release's extensive gallery of ninja moves and stills from the anime.

Meanwhile, on the visual side of things, Revolution carries on the franchise's tradition of looking brilliantly colourful and compelling. The cel-shaded style looks as great as always, and the developer's attention to detail is often quite staggering. There are more little nods to the source material here than you would think possible, which act as further proof of CyberConnect2's extraordinary efforts in trying to capture the atmosphere of the original work. All in all, it's an enthralling title to see in motion, but we're growing increasingly eager to see what the studio can do when it finally moves away from the ageing PS3 and onto the PS4.

Conclusion

Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Revolution succeeds in providing the most thoughtful entry in the series yet, with subtle tweaks to the formula affecting combat in a largely positive way – even if some annoying imbalances keep it from reaching true Hokage status. A slew of engaging gameplay modes and a huge character roster ensure that you'll be kept busy, but once again, it's the brilliant and intense spectacle of all-out ninja warfare that'll keep you utterly glued to your controller.