Publisher: Namco Bandai
Release Date: January 22, 2008
Although One Piece is a franchise that can be likened to many others, it is far from a retread: Like Pirates of the Caribbean, it chronicles high-seas adventure and bravado; like Dragonball Z, it features mad-cap brawls between increasingly more powerful characters; and like most every shonen (young boy) anime series, its characters desire to become the greatest [insert vocation here] of all time. Unfortunately, One Piece's American iteration hasn't managed to attain the level of popularity its Japanese counterpart so happily enjoys, mostly due to the horrendous dub by 4Kids Entertainment.
While One Piece may not spin the most nuanced tale, it still belies its exaggerated art style by incorporating a few complex themes and lessons. 4Kids essentially put those aspects of the series into a partially constructed meat grinder, causing episodes, character development and any sense of maturity to randomly spew forth. What was left was a "kid's show" few children could even stomach. After the license flopped and floundered around for a while, 4Kids finally did the humane thing and set it back out to sea. There, it was discovered by Funimation and promptly resuscitated.
And that's the most spectacular aspect of One Piece: Unlimited Adventure — Funimation's top-notch writing, not to mention their attention to what really makes the series tick, pays dividends. Every aspect of the game positively overflows with the wacky, whip-smart spirit that so characterizes One Piece. The fairly typical introduction — a lush, bright CG cut scene that features the crew during a seemingly normal day at sea — had me bursting into fits of childlike laughter every few seconds. Luffy, the wannabe King of the Pirates with a hilariously one-track mind, has scarfed down all of the crew's food supply during an arbitrary eating contest. But when he happens upon a mysterious orb while fishing (as punishment for his terrible deed), a turbulent maelstrom suddenly lashes through the sea, and Luffy and crew are literally flung into an adventure. I'm sure the One Piece fans in the audience are currently thinking, "Classic Luffy," in response to the alleged captain's actions, and they're right. In a similar vein, the game's script deftly breathes life into every other member of the crew with skill comparable to that of the show on which it's based.
Now, you'll note that we already have the "most spectacular aspect" of the game out of the way. It's all downhill from here, so to speak, but fortunately, that hill isn't so steep. To put it simply, OP:UA is Legend of Zelda-lite. Bug-catching and fishing minigames are present and accounted for, and the adventure takes place on an island with wildly divergent weather systems, which means that environments run the gamut from sun-dappled forests to arid deserts.
True to OP:UA's Zelda spirit, the island is somewhat open for exploration, but will only divulge its deepest bounties once you've acquired certain abilities. Early on, you'll need a pick that, due to some structural deficiency, can't make a dent in purple rocks. But before too long, characters will start requesting things in order to build better objects so that you can progress to the next area. The mysterious orb that Luffy decided to keep with him (in spite of its propensity to cause earth-shattering disaster) will also require you to feed it a random object, and again, here you will encounter halting progression until you find that object. On more than one occasion, this also leads to confusion in how you should even go about collecting the needed items. As a result, OP:UA ends up being much longer than necessary, and its pacing suffers.
Unlike Zelda, which tends to use combat as a bridge between puzzles, OP:UA uses combat as a bridge between combat. In that respect, OP:UA greatly resembles a straight-up Japanese RPG, and the resemblance is not unintentional; random enemies appear from nowhere, as though conjured from the souls of the enemies you've already slaughtered. As you send more and more enemies back to the magical realm from whence they came — a strange occurrence that even Luffy acknowledges by saying, "Hey, where'd all those guys go?" — your characters gain new attacks and combos.
Combat itself, however, much more closely resembles an action game, with a handful of button-motion combos. However, the many potential Wiimote uses — who wouldn't want to fling Luffy's rubbery arms around or use Zoro's swords to cut a violent swath, with perfect 1:1 motion control? — are restricted by the limited number of available button-motion combos; you can only swing the controller in so many ways, and the dearth of Wiimote buttons doesn't help matters.
Sticking with the ideals of "safe" game design, each playable character is unique insofar as he or she has different attack animations, but otherwise, they're interchangeable. Regardless of whether you prefer Luffy's Stretch Armstrong-esque pugilism, Roronoa Zoro's triple-sword Kendo, Robin's ability to make hands grow out of any conceivable surface, or a number of other zany powers, you'll be able to combat normal enemies with ease. Once you encounter a boss, however, you'll see why super-powered pirates travel in crews instead of opting to go solo. Quite frankly, bosses tend to be overly precise, ridiculously powerful and cheap all around, so you're forced to wage a war of attrition in each encounter. Will you run out of healing items and cycle through all of your characters before the boss's mangled carcass hits the ground and disappears? Hopefully not.
Now, that's not to say that the bosses are a total drag. Due to a plot point that I'm not going to spoil here, bosses are pivotal villains who appear throughout the One Piece series. They're accompanied by in-engine flashbacks to the main characters' first encounters with each respective villain. For One Piece followers, these scenes are real "fangasm" moments.
With all of these features, you'd imagine that OP:UA would be a fairly lengthy game, and you'd be right. The fun doesn't end with the single-player mode, though; the combat in versus mode is quite simple, but the character selection is far more robust, and as you advance through single-player mode, you'll unlock numerous members of One Piece's rogues gallery to join the multiplayer fray.
It's been said of Wii games time and time again, but there's nothing in OP:UA that the GameCube couldn't have handled. Not merely content to underutilize the Wiimote, the developers also elected to create graphics that are satisfactory but nothing more. The game makes use of a vibrant, colorful cel-shaded style, but only the characters are wrapped in that attractive coating. Environments, on the other hand, look as though they were transported from a PS1 RPG's overworld map; they're bland, unimaginative, low-res and merely serve to give your characters a place to stand while they engage their enemies.
Fortunately, the sound is much better. Foremost, the voice acting is pitch-perfect, with each line evoking the correct emotion from its audience. That emotion is usually happiness, and that's never a bad thing. The game doesn't feature its original Japanese voice track, but the English dub is quite good. Disappointingly, a significant portion of the dialogue pulls a sort of reverse-Mass Effect, with truncated versions of the conversation appearing in text bubbles, but the problem isn't overly prevalent. In a licensed title with so much quality elsewhere, the game's musical score wasn't neglected, either, and it beautifully captures the feel of the anime; each orchestrated track contributes to the illusion of a light-hearted pirate adventure.
One Piece: Unlimited Adventure isn't a triple-A title, but it is far more enjoyable than most other anime games, and for that, it should be commended. If you're a One Piece fan, don't even hesitate to scoop it up; you'll be giddy with joy the entire way through the game. If you can't tell your Monkey D. Luffies from your Tony Tony Choppers, however, then you might want to watch a few episodes of the anime before investing in OP:UA. Odds are that you'll like what you see, but even without the One Piece license, OP:UA can stand on its own two feet, which is more than can be said for most anime-based games.
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