Thank you Bandai Namco for sending us this game to review!
I have been a long time anime lover, but for some reason, I had not heard of One Piece before I started playing this game. I don't know why - maybe it's the settled question of ninjas being better than pirates, or perhaps my subconscious aversion to series' with episode counts totaling in the hundreds - but now that I have, I can very much see why this series is so popular. The action is fun, and the dialog is funny. But most of all, the characters, despite their rather obvious flaws, all have a lot of heart. They carry the detestable label of pirate with pride, while always doing what's right and helping those in need.
Much of that winsome quality to the characters does come through in Romance Dawn. The problem is that the anime does a much better job. Not just of developing the characters, but quite honestly, of keeping my attention.
It's not to say that One Piece: Romance Dawn is a bad game. It isn't. I would say it's most endearing quality is the interesting and dynamic battle system. It is a 3D rendered, turn based RPG battle system that uses your character's position to impact your performance. You can use your environment to inflict more damage, or even strike multiple foes. It's pretty fun. There is also an interesting crafting system where you can make and upgrade equipment.
There are several problems with the game, however. First of all, the story is told with faces of the characters along with bubble text boxes. While this might not sound bad, the fact is that much of the context of the story they are telling is completely lost if you haven't seen the show. The story is told as though you know what is happening, but with no 'action' shots, you really don't. For example, Buggy shoots the buggy balls that destroy entire blocks at a time. In the game, you know something is bad when they are fired... but no idea what or how much damage they do.
The storyline moments are also often devoid of emotion. For example, a few characters are talking, and one gets very upset, but the portrait doesn't seem to change, as they are still smiling...
To top it all off, if the inconsistent application of character emotion and missing or confusing plotlines weren't enough, what really takes the cake is the forty five minute scenes in some cases. It is not unusual to have to sit through, in one play session, close to an hour to complete one scene. This is not necessarily bad, but it is barely interactive other than pressing 'A' to see the next slide. It can get very boring and mindless, and more exasperating than fun.
I sincerely wish that this was all I had to complain about. But, sadly, it isn't. If the game world felt like you could really explore it, or each level felt varied enough to seem new every time, that could really help. Instead, we have corridor level after corridor level, with some different backdrops in each case. Every level has one entrance and one exit, with a bunch of treasure chests sitting in a bunch of dead ends on the way. Once the pattern becomes obvious, the game becomes really predictable. I had it figured out by the second or third level.
The overworld map is serviceable enough, and doesn't do anything wrong. As you clear and complete levels, more open up for you to explore. There are maze levels for gaining experience and treasure, and there are episodes which progress the story. Each of them show up as stops for your ship on the map. But it got really hard to get excited when landing on a maze level meant another boring maze traversal, and another story level meant another thirty minute bout of pressing 'A' over and over, despite the interesting characters.
Sometimes an episode will interrupt the comic show with gameplay action, like battles or similar things. It is interesting and enjoyable when this happens. But the thing is, just as often (or even more), you see conflict work itself out in the comic, instead of in game - despite what seems to be a perfect transition coming. I also ran into a case where the outcome of the in game battle had no effect on the cutscene to follow... which makes sense if you've seen the anime, but I was rather surprised when I beat (through skill and lots of healing potions) an 'unbeatable' boss, only to have the game continue as though I lost afterwards.
It is incredibly frustrating to find the game so unevenly handled. On top of this, certain story sequences are handled with anime cutscenes. While this may sound great, and indeed it is, there again does not seem to be a rhyme or reason why this scene is rendered as video, while another as comic text, and yet another as a gameplay segment. I found it very hard to slide into a groove, or to feel engaged. I often found myself dozing off, which is never a good sign.
Another roadblock for me was that I started watching the anime soon after I started playing the game. I quickly found myself preferring the anime by far, so much so, that I would stop playing the game because I didn't want to spoil it any more. They cover much of the same content, so one does indeed spoil the other, though the show does cover more details. At times it felt like watching the show and playing the game took almost the same amount of time to cover the same story, and I found myself enjoying the anime more.
Morally, the game and anime have a lot in common. I found it to be generally pretty clean for an anime, but still not without problems. Cartoon violence is a given, and there's plenty here. Alcohol and Tobacco are shown being used. Some characters, both male and female, are shown inappropriately. A female's large bosom, is featured and commented on, and a male's buttocks are visible. Blood is featured at times. There is some PG-13 language, like a*s, ba*tard, and so on.
Characters, including the heroes, are presented as being very flawed, while in some cases still being good (or evil) to the core. I found this one of the more endearing aspects. One great example of this is Usopp, who is a perpetual liar. But his heart really is for the betterment of those he cares about. Time after time, the heroes will sacrifice their very beings for the sake of those whom they care about, and it's just great.
I also really enjoyed the music. The main themes, the battle theme, and most other music pieces really are very nice. The only music I found got somewhat repetitive was the comic scene music. The sound effects and voices are also nice. The voices come right out of the Japanese original show.
One Piece: Romance Dawn is a game with a lot of potential, but feels like a missed opportunity. The pieces - comic/manga cutscenes, anime cutscenes, and a neat battle and crafting system, all sound like a recipe for success. But instead, we have a game that is mediocre, with flaws in all of them. If you are a hardcore fan of One Piece, you could do worse. And honestly, the game isn't all bad. But the Nintendo 3DS' library is so fantastic, there are so many better ways to spend your time than this game.