If you thought waiting four months between volumes 1 and 2 of Naruto was tough, the five month wait for volume 3 probably had you at your wits' end! But now it's here, and after the last volume tantalisingly left our heroes on the verge of starting the second stage of the Chuunin exam, we now get to see them tackle it.
The volume starts with all of the remaining examinees entering
the Forest of Death, a deadly battleground in which they must battle their
fellow ninja. Each team of three ninja are given a scroll marked with
either the word 'heaven' or 'earth' and their task is steal another scroll from
a rival team so they subsequently hold both. However, if getting hold of the scrolls
wasn't difficult enough they also have to hang on to them and get to the tower
at the centre of the forest, all the while fighting off rival teams. The
forest is filled with dangerous animals and poisonous plants, along with traps
laid by other teams, making the task even more difficult. For Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura there's an even deadlier threat though - the mysterious and
extremely powerful ninja Orochimaru has his eye on them and is using the exam as
cover for his own nefarious schemes. His presence in the forest poses a
grave threat to Konoha Village, and with an opponent of his level targeting them
does Naruto and co have any chance of completing the exam, or even surviving it?
There's been a bit of a change of pace following the end of the Zabuza arc, but now we're right back into the action. The Forest of Death takes up pretty much all of the episodes in this set and as well as featuring plenty of fighting it also moves the plot further considerably, adding a host of new plot elements that really change the direction of the series. Orochimaru changes everything. The series appeared to be heading down the Dragonball Z path which would see our heroes work together to overcome various obstacles
and get stronger from them,. However, after Orochimaru's intervention the fragile bonds that holds the team together are severely damaged, and a dark power rises in Sasuke which threatens to change him completely.
The Forest of Death sees the series take on a
decidedly darker tone. The examinees are fighting to the death, and for
once it's not a flippant statement. Examinees drop like flies and some die
in quite gruesome ways, whether crushed to death by sand, eaten by flesh-eating
leeches or caught in a hail of knives. And it's not just the support characters that
get their hands dirty either, even Naruto, Sasuke and (to a far lesser extent)
Sakura are aiming to kill. All of the characters are in danger and because
of that it's pretty tense. You're never quite sure what is going to
happen, and Orochimaru's appearance really adds a sense of mystery to the story
too. Who is he? What is he after? Why is he so feared by the
elite Konoha ninja? These questions aren't answered in this volume but a
lot of possibilities are opened up and it's no longer clear how the story will
develop, something that makes it even more intriguing.
The best thing about this volume though is the action. Fights are happening left, right and centre and it's great to see the likes of Rock Lee and Gaara let fly with some great moves. During the space of the volume many of the newly introduced characters get to show off their abilities and the main trio grow as characters quite considerably. Naruto's strength is that it can have plenty of action and introduce an expanded cast yet still retain its character focus. No matter what else goes on, and no matter who else turns up, the series is
still about Naruto and his team. It doesn't get so caught up in the big events that it forgets to develop the cast, and it still manages to have enough variety to keep it really exciting.
The only problems are the amounts of flashbacks and the fact that Sakura doesn't really do a lot. She has more focus and development than before, but is still a bit useless. The flashbacks are infuriating, often replaying things that happened just a couple of episodes before. We know that Orochimaru has turned up, we don't need to see each of his actions over and over again! Flashbacks are a big drawback of the series, it feels a bit patronising - I know in Japan the episodes were shown once a week so it would have been a few weeks since the event happened, but credit viewers with some memory! It's a shame but despite the flashbacks this is still a very enjoyable series and it's really getting into gear. Naruto Unleashed Series 2 volume 1 sees the series scale new heights in terms of story and I for one can't wait for the next volume!
As with volume 2 we get a slipcase box and a clutch of trailers on disc 2. There are more trailers than last time (including one for Atari's anime based console games), but it's still not that great.