Naruto games are a dime a dozen these days, so it's incredibly surprising to see Namco Bandai take their license for One Piece and let the guys at Omega Force and Tecmo-Koei run wild with it. As a result, One Piece: Pirate Warriors is a musou title akin to Fist of the North Star: Ken's Rage and Dynasty Warriors. That result comes with some caveats though, since the musou games aren't known for having the most depth when it comes to gameplay. The brief demo at E3 definitely felt like a lot of fun, but had I known that Namco Bandai was showing their entire hand back in May I might not have been so disappointed when I finally got my hands on One Piece: Pirate Warriors. I'm not writing this off as a bad game, though I am going to consider it a squandered chance since the presentation is almost flawless from both a graphical and storytelling standpoint. It's just a shame that the shallow gameplay had to come along and ruin all the fun, literally.
Following the One Piece storyline, Pirate Warriors takes place between the East Blue Saga and the New World Saga. It's not a complete telling of the story, just the highlights, giving it a 'best of' feel, and cutting out a lot of filler. I like this route better than a lot of games based upon an anime series since it lets me cut right to the chase and see what the story has to offer, instead of spinning wildly off in to a tangent like Bleach or Naruto are prone to do. And the presentation in Pirate Warriors is just phenomenal, the game itself is just as colorful and wild as the series, but it is lovingly translated in to a 3D cel-shaded world that captures a lot of the emotion that exists in the over-exaggerated facial expressions that the show likes to throw out there regularly. All of the characters have been recreated quite faithfully, which is pretty impressive when considering how eclectic some of the character designs are. The visuals aren't without fault though as the game suffers from some framerate hiccups when things get too hectic on the screen during combat, which is kind of expected but the fact that it's even an issue at all these days in kind of surprising given the hardware. But I guess that comes as a side effect of the level of detail and bombastic nature of the series since enemies go flying quite regularly from the attacks of the Straw Hat Pirates.
The audio is also faithful to the television series with all voice actors present and accounted for. There isn't an English dub which is a surprising omission, though given the short turnaround time since the game's announcement I am not too embittered by it, but I know it's going to be a sticking point for some, so just know that the entire game's dialogue audio is in Japanese. This is both a blessing and a curse, on one hand the game reflects the source material perfectly, but on the other hand there's a lot of 'Gomu Gomu noooooooooo' before every special attack that Luffy throws out, and is constantly used in combos and after a while it's easy to just tire of it. The same could be said of the other characters but they aren't used as often as Luffy so it didn't feel like as much of an issue. The soundtrack is definitely full of energy, filled with a lot of rock and ska sounds, but it's constantly on loop so it gets to be a bit grating after a while, especially when tracks are recycled.
I'll just be blunt about it, the game becomes boring if played for longer than one mission at a time. It boils down to the same repeated combos, using the square and triangle button for the entirety of the game, occasionally a special move every minute or so, and then some sort of boss fight. The mission structure tries to make things a little more interesting by having the standard adventure mode that contains quick-time events to get Luffy from point A to point B but these situations just kind of mask how shallow the combat is. The quick-time events that are used in the boss battles at least offer a little more variety and require a little more attention since they result in a useful payoff against some of the powerful bosses. The musou mode is all about combat and following objectives as they appear, which usually involve getting to point X, assisting character Y, and defeating opponent Z, continuing ad nauseam until the level is complete, and along the way bowl over enemies until the contested area has been captured.
Most early levels take about twenty to thirty minutes and at that the gameplay is shallow and tolerable enough to get through, but later levels are much worse and can drag on for much longer periods of time. Thankfully there are save points peppered throughout the stages that are useful for when players get their fill of simplistic combat and weak platforming. Yes there is a little bit of platforming present in Pirate Warriors, and for the most part it's clunky and unnecessary. One of the earlier levels had me jumping through some narrow platforms, and really all it felt like was me lining a up truck to go off a ramp, because the characters jump a specific distance, and it's very easy to overshoot the landing and in turn take some unnecessary damage. There's even a trophy that is unlocked for falling too many times, so that kind of underscores the thought process that went in to the platforming. Navigating and completing stages will net Luffy and company some more powerful skills throughout the adventure, but rather than make them part of the combos they are just mapped to the R1 button and they are only effective against enemies in a weakened state, or one enemy at a time. I found myself relying more on Luffy's standard Gum Gum Typhoon just because it was useful for clearing out multiple enemies at once.
Pirate Warriors also comes off as a little too easy at the default difficulty. I got through a majority of the game with little trouble and it wasn't until I goofed on a boss battle that I had actually failed a mission. Having enemies that don't provide any real challenge until a swath of paper-thin enemies have been cut down doesn't really do anything for me. If anything I felt ashamed if I was hit by a fodder enemy. Doing well in a stage and completing peripheral objectives in musou mode will in turn unlock coins that can be used to boost stats like attack and defense. The amount of coins that can be carried will increase as a character levels up, and there's a small meta-game of trying to forge relationships between coins in exchange for a higher stat boost.
Outside of the Main Log, there are a few options for players, the Another Log will offer different story paths and tell the tale from the eyes of a different crew member. The rest of the Straw Hat Pirates can be unlocked and leveled up like Luffy, and surely there's a character that everyone can enjoy in that wacky ensemble. Those characters can also be taken online and players can join in to each other's games as they progress through the story, which is useful for when it feels like the AI controlled characters just aren't carrying their weight. There is also a Challenge Mode that is unlocked upon completing the Main Log, so if the game feels a bit too easy, expect to get beaten down there. And for the completionists out there, there are plenty of pieces of art, coins, and movies to unlock.
I don't think One Piece: Pirate Warriors is a bad game by any means, it just happens to lose steam very quickly. It's obvious that Omega Force put a lot of love and care in to presenting the game, but their penchant for popcorn gameplay continues to hold back what should have been an exceptional game. Fans of the One Piece franchise don't have much to lose in checking out this game since it's the first non-fighting game outing for the series and is something different, and like I've said it's not a bad game, it just requires letting the brain go to that place where it doesn't have to think a lot about what's really going on, it's the summer movie equivalent in a video game package. I think that's what is disappointing about the whole thing, it's that I wanted a One Piece game, just not quite like this, not with shallow combat and dodgy platforming. I had hoped for something better, and maybe that's where I made a mistake in the first place. One Piece: Pirate Warriors is worth a look, but gamers will quickly find there isn't much behind that fantastically prepared window dressing.