Yo-ho-ho he took a bite of Gum-Gum
I've never really paid attention to Dynasty Warriors, as Chinese history usually isn't something that grabs my attention. Besides, I didn't think that I was missing much more than a whole lot of button mashing. Then Namco Bandai and Tecmo Koei announced that they were making a Dynasty Warriors game based on One Piece, Shonen Jump's anime/manga franchise about a stretchy boy trying to become the next Pirate King. Most anime-licensed games tend to be forgettable, but early footage looked surprisingly fun, like it could capture the energy of the source material.
Though plenty of anime games get passed over for localization, Namco Bandai actually decided to release One Piece: Pirate Warriors, albeit without an English dub. Fans should feel lucky the game is being released at all -- One Piece's popularity outside of Japan is far lower than other Shonen Jump properties like Bleach or Naruto. But is the game worth playing, or is it just Dynasty Warriors with cel-shading and stranger characters?
One Piece: Pirate Warriors (PlayStation 3)
After eating the Gum-Gum Fruit, one of many types of Devil Fruit, Monkey D. Luffy gains the ability to stretch his body like rubber, but at the cost of never being able to swim again. Not letting his handicap deter him, he sets off to sail the seas, finding adventure and gathering a crew. His ultimate goal: to traverse the Grand Line (the most challenging section of the ocean), find the legendary pirate Gold Roger's treasure One Piece, and become the Pirate King. Along the way, Luffy must overcome rival pirates, government-sponsored privateers, shadowy organizations, and ultimately the full might of the Marines.
Pirate Warriors follows Luffy from his early adventures in the East Blue all the way to the massive Battle of Marineford, spanning more than a decade of a story that is still only halfway done. As might be expected, adapting the source material into a playable form necessitates massive cuts, and so the game tries to focus on the important fights and events. This is both a blessing and a curse.
Part of the appeal of a long-running story like One Piece is having a chance to get to know the characters and understand their place in the growing story. While many arcs feel somewhat self-contained due to the nature of traveling from island to island, the arcs often introduce a new crewmate, develop characters, allow background machinations, and generally move the overall story. So when the aforementioned Battle of Marineford occurs, readers understand the weight of the events and why they matter. Combined with the exuberance and earnestness that creator Eiichiro Oda puts into his work, it's easy to become attached to the characters and cheer them on through increasing adversity.
There is almost none of that build-up present in Pirate Warriors. The story is a disjointed mess, merely "best of" moments that will only truly make sense to someone who is already familiar with the manga. The majority of the game is told from a flashback occurring at the recent start of the manga's post-timeskip second half, within which the crew flashes back to even earlier events. None of the crew questions why three of them weren't important enough to get a flashback to their introduction story, and apparently no one at Namco Bandai questioned this awkward presentation. Any detailed explanation of characters or the world around them are relegated to a glossary.
Chapters open and close with a narrated text dump trying to explain what has happened since the last chapter and what the ramifications of the chapter you just played were. Many cutscenes are presented in manga panels with voiceover, which feels lazy and barely serviceable when the fully animated cutscenes are so visually thrilling. Of course, because there is no overall narrative context, non-fans have much less reason to get emotionally invested with these moments. All that will register is that the guy made out of rubber blows up a ludicrously-sized giant fist to fight a leopard man who can shoot lasers from his finger.
That being said, Pirate Warriors features many attention-grabbing moments, such as a guy made out of rubber using a giant fist to punch a laser-shooting leopard man. The story bits that the game adapts may be disjointed, but these moments were chosen for being some of the best, most important parts of the manga. The game manages to capture the spirited tone of the source material. Unlike the sometimes slow and stiff One Piece anime, playing Pirate Warriors felt true to the manic energy of the manga.
The core of the game is what you'd expect from Dynasty Warriors -- various combos using square and triangle -- but the attacks are punchy and satisfying, even though there's little challenge in taking out a crowd of enemies. There is also a dash button for dodging attacks that can be mixed into a combo to halt counterattacks and speed up combat even further. Attacking or taking damage builds a meter for crowd-clearing special attacks, which are rarely necessary but feel quite good to mix into combat due to how snappy they feel. Some of the unlockable special moves power-up a character for a time, making you feel like a god on the battlefield.
Often a crewmate will be nearby fighting, however, they inflict such small damage that you can't count on them for more than distracting enemies. Instead, it's better to tell one of them to follow Luffy, who gains the ability to summon them for a crew strike after performing the appropriate combo. Crew strikes feel somewhat superfluous, but they're useful for preventing enemies from counterattacking.
The combat can be a lot of dumb fun, so it's a shame that the camera tries its best to hinder combat whenever possible. It is content to swing wildly and offer the worst view whenever close to a wall. Adjusting the camera feels flighty and loose, while hitting L1 to center it behind Luffy is not always the best choice. Pirate Warriors attempts to fix this when it matters by allowing you to lock-on to certain powerful enemies with a press of R3, but this is awkward and doesn't help aim attacks. In fact, getting near the wall even while locked on still creates confusion. I'm pretty surprised that a game would be saddled with such a poor camera in 2012.
The primary mode is the Main Log, a story mode which follows Luffy, with another character occasionally stepping in for specific fights. Main Log features three types of stages. Musou is a typical Dynasty Warriors kind of stage, pitting you against hordes of enemies, plus a boss fight. Capturing territories is incentivized, requiring enough kills in an area before that location's leader can be challenged for control. Stronger baddies will show up from time to time, usually signaling a mission to beat them or capture a specific territory. Though the game promises that missions have a great outcome on how the stage plays out, they only make a difference in the Battle of Marineford. Otherwise, the reward consists of a character being available to follow Luffy or activating a support ability to stun the enemies in a territory.
Another type of stage, boss, is simply a couple boss fights back to back. These encounters are generally more involved than the ones found in the musou stages thanks to plenty of cutscenes filled with quick-time events. QTEs are never a great design choice, but since the pop up so naturally, it's hard to complain in the heat of the moment when it feels like your button presses still make a difference. While this isn't the most flattering comparison, if you were able to enjoy the QTEs in Asura's Wrath by focusing on the crazy events on-screen, you'll probably enjoy these too -- they do an excellent job of keeping the boss fight's energy going.
Unfortunately, outside of the cutscenes, boss fights can quickly become frustrating. Most bosses have eaten their own Devil Fruit, granting them powers such as separating body limbs, summoning a hydra made of poison, or even turning into an element like sand or light. It's these element-based enemies that are the most frustrating. According to the rules of One Piece, their bodies are actually made of this element, meaning that they can turn into it at a moment's notice, letting attacks pass right through them. This means your in-progress combos are often going to whiff, leaving you open to a punishing counterattack. The only defense becomes alternating square and X to dash back and forth, getting a light punch in here and there, while fighting the camera to stay focused on your opponent. It slows down what would otherwise be a dynamic fight.
The third stage type, action, is all about platforming using Luffy's rubber abilities, with intermittent enemies and a boss at the end tossed in for good measure. Calling it "platforming" is generous, considering that jumping, hitting, dodging, and grabbing the environment occurs via QTEs. Beyond extremely light puzzle elements, traversing an environment practically feels on-rails. This can be exciting at the right moments -- the Battle of Marineford comes to mind -- but more often made me wish that the engine supported greater free movement. It doesn't help that Luffy does the same canned animation every time he has a "Eureka!" moment for creating new ways to use his stretchy body to move around.
The game often struggles to maintain its lively pace, a problem that occurs in all three kinds of stages. When surrounded by enemies, bouncing through an action stage, or participating in exciting cutscenes, Pirate Warriors is a thrill. But the moment things slow down, be it from running to find more enemies, searching for the right path across a gap, or feebly chipping away at a boss's health, things begin to drag, and suddenly your engagement drops. Overlooking the game's button-mashing gameplay and imitation platforming is only possible thanks to the euphoria created by the enthusiastic pace. When the adrenaline rush wears off -- and it inevitably will -- your actions suddenly feel repetitive and dull.
All that said, when Pirate Warriors is on, it's on, and part of that comes from its presentation. The game is scored with a lively jazz/rock soundtrack, and while I wouldn't call it memorable, it fits the mood of the game perfectly. Similarly, the cel-shaded characters don't possess the most complex graphics, but they're appealing and well animated, translating Oda's unique character designs far better than the anime does. Little touches like the cartoony way enemy soldiers run away with their hands flailing in the air are well appreciated. Sometimes there's a slight disconnect with the background graphics, which fall between bland cel-shading and overly-detailed (yet still styled) realism, but it's nothing too jarring. Slowdown is almost unheard of, with scenes running smooth no matter how many enemies are surrounding you.
Not to sound too snobby, but I'm so happy to see the Japanese dub present -- and not just because there's also no English dub. The Japanese voices do a wonderful job at shouting excitedly and screaming melodramatically, getting your blood pumping to mash more buttons. Admittedly, an English dub would have been a good option to have, particularly now that FUNimation is dubbing One Piece instead of 4Kids. But since FUNimation's localization is far behind the Japanese episodes, it would have required a lot of advanced casting for characters that wouldn't appear for dozens of episodes, not to mention the added cost that might have made localizing Pirate Warriors too expensive.
There is a nitpick about the dub however, and that concerns the need to read the subtitles to understand the characters. It's not a problem in the cutscenes, but when characters talk during gameplay, it can be difficult to switch your attention between reading subtitles and monitoring the action. In addition, the subtitles will often disappear while performing platforming moves -- perhaps appearing for only a second -- making it impossible to know what was just said. Little of the chatter is terribly important, usually amounting to trash talk, so it doesn't affect progress; still, it is something that wouldn't be an issue if the game had an English dub (or if we all understood Japanese).
Progressing through the Main Log opens chapters in Another Log, as well as two boss-rush challenges. Another Log puts the focus on the 12 characters other than Luffy, who all offer unique movesets and playstyles. The characters only have chapters for where they actually appear in the story, but it's possible to use a character in any other character's chapters, with that chapter's official character filling a support role. These are all musou stages, and many of the chapters are nearly identical, especially those of Luffy's crewmates. As Luffy's first crewmate, Zoro gets seven chapters that the other seven crewmates share, while two additional chapters are shared between the remaining four characters. They're a fun distraction, but due to the lack of story, there's little reason to play through them all. It would have been much more interesting for Another Log to offer exclusive fights or events not shown in the Main Log.
Since Another Log isn't full of story cutscenes that show changing conditions, it is here that the game can most often react too slowly to your actions. I can't count the number of times I would capture a territory, notice that a powerful enemy had just appeared, or receive the support of another character, only to be told about it half a minute later, as though it had just occurred. It made me wonder whether another powerful enemy had appeared or if it was referring to the one I had already killed off, and with the camera being so unhelpful, I never knew if I was going to get smacked with a strong attack out of nowhere. It was particularly jarring to be fighting a strong enemy, only to be interrupted mid-combo by a stock cutscene introducing that enemy to the battlefield.
The chapters in Another Log are available for play in both online and offline co-op, though offline co-op should be avoided at all costs. If the camera was unwieldy in single-player, it is almost unusable in splitscreen. Like many old Game Boy games, screen real estate is sacrificed to allow for full-sized characters, meaning you're almost always unaware that an enemy is charging up a big attack unless they're right in front of you. And even then, the frequent pop-ups explaining the latest mission take up more space. The map has been shrunk and placed twice on the screen when one regular sized map in the middle would suffice. Offline co-op just reeks of a throw-away mode, so it's surprising that teaming up with another player online can be quite fun, even if it just makes the normally easy stages even easier.
Every mode also makes use of collectible coins, which offer stat boosts to characters when properly equipped. Coins are gained by killing certain enemies, killing enemies without getting hit, capturing some territories, and opening rare treasure chests. Combining three related coins will cancel out the coins' normal stat boosts and create a team skill that may reduce flinching or increase attack strength when health is low, among other effects. Because the coins are based on characters or items from One Piece, it may be hard for a non-fan to discover team skills without fully understanding what three coins have in common. Even as a fan, I was frustrated to not be able to activate certain team skills due to a missing coin, as the coin distribution is near-random, with little chance to acquire a complete set without heavy grinding. The stat boosts and team skill effects have little impact on gameplay, so it's not a huge concern that acquiring coins is tedious, but it does make the entire system seem superfluous, as if it was only put in place to reference minutia.
One Piece: Pirate Warriors ultimately isn't that different from what I expected of a Dynasty Warriors game. The combat is simplistic, and despite the bubbly tempo, there are many parts that could have used more polish or consideration. Fans may decry the complete ignorance of two major arcs (Skypiea and Thriller Bark), as well as the small number of worthwhile non-Luffy fights. And yet, I can't say that I didn't have quite a bit of stupid fun with it. When the shouting characters, weird attacks, and strange enemies come together, Pirate Warriors excels at silly yet awesome spectacle. Just don't expect any depth or lasting appeal once the glow has faded.
THE VERDICT - One Piece: Pirate Warriors
Reviewed by Bob Muir