Platforms: 3DS | PS3 | PS Vita | Wii U (reviewed)
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Cards on the table: I love One Piece. Granted, there's a world of deeper, more exciting and incredibly tedious anime/manga franchises out there, but for me there's nothing quite like watching madcap super-powered pirates fighting each other, engaging in hilarious banter, learning intense lessons about comradeship and doing almost no actual piracy whatsoever.
It's the sweet spot of irrepressible humour, great characters, shapeshifting reindeer, stretchy protagonists, violin-playing skeleton musicians and swordsmen so badass they hold a third blade in their teeth. And, as such, perfect videogame material. Even the incredibly inconsistent Omega Force managed to make an excellent Dynasty Warriors spin-off in One Piece: Pirate Warriors 2, but Gabarion have gone one step further by basing their latest tie-in on something more profound.
Namely Monster Hunter. It's a concoction that shouldn't work, yet in practice makes for one of the best anime tie-ins ever developed: a gorgeous, enormous and surprisingly compelling game that lasts for hours on end.
Though, as I made sure to mention in the very first sentence of this review, I'm a fan myself. Bear that in mind, won't you?
Monkey D. Luffy and co. find themselves in Trans Town, a colourful trading outpost, having agreed to drop off a friendly anthropomorphic raccoon en route to the next island. This sort of thing is a fairly regular occurrence, if you don't have much experience with the series. However, an unexplained series of events sees Luffy's crew abducted and our stretchy perpetually-hungry hero set out to get them back, before then uniting against a terrifying new villain.
It's an interesting tale that benefits from perfectly-observed dialogue and tons of official Japanese voice acting, as characters all act and speak as they would in the anime ("SUUUUUPEEERRRR!"), but cleverly allows Ganbarion to give fans a reunion tour of the most memorable locations and nemeses from practically the entire series. You'll fight Crocodile in the deserts of Alabasta, face off against Blackbeard and Wapol on snowy Drum Island, smash through the Fishman's Isle and plenty more besides. The story quickly reveals its clever yet contrived reasons for doing so, but frankly, you'll be having too much fun exploring and brawling to care.
Like Monster Hunter, each area (typically based on an anime arc) takes the form of a wide open tract o' land that you can explore at leisure with any combination of three characters from the main crew. There's plenty to ferret out for inquisitive players, and some light environmental puzzle solving too, since each crew member has a unique stage ability that reminds us strongly of TT's LEGO series. Legendary swordsman Zoro can chop through steel grates, adorable reindeer medic Chopper can dig using his antlers, cowardly sniper Usopp can scare out insects with bug repellent and so on. Bugs need catching. Fish need reeling in. There's plenty of incentive to continually revisit stages to see what you missed the first few times around, but of course, you'll frequently have to stop to beat up hordes of Marines and rival pirates.
Not to mention ninja walruses and were-bunnies, because as previously established, One Piece is completely bonkers.
Unlike Monster Hunter, combat is responsive and fast-paced as you mix heavy and light attacks with jumps and dashes into familiar combos. Characters are all broadly based on their original movesets and abilities, so Luffy smashes through hordes with his rubber limbs, Chopper continually shifts between different attack forms (including the enormous spherical 'brain point' that bounces enemies across the arena), Robin manifests forests of extra arms to punch foes in the cannonballs and Nami blasts out various lightning-based abilities. A neat QTE-style evade, counter and chase system is on hand for twitchy players to abuse, while Ganbarion has pushed the boat out on making the combat feel like it's lifted straight from the series.
See, whereas One Piece: Pirate Warriors 2 is more cathartic and satisfying than Unlimited World Red, there's no denying that Ganbarion's effort is infinitely more varied. Take for example cowardly sniper Usopp, who can enter first-person view mode to snipe distant enemies or access special ammunition. Consider the fact that cyborg shipwright Frankie can construct a rocket-launching turret in the middle of a battle, which other characters can freely use once they've recovered from another speedo-clad power pose. Chopper can mix medicines mid-fight, restoring health and SP, conversely chef Sangi loves to lightly grill a steak halfway through a tough engagement.
Both fun and versatile, experimenting with the roster is rewarding and easy thanks to instant character swaps, and essential to besting an increasingly tough army of bosses. Another player can leap into the action at any time, too, doubling your firepower if forcing you to squint at tiny diagonal screen segments.
The tight brawling is underpinned by an innovative levelling system and special attacks based on catchphrases. 'Strong Words' can be found in battle and by gaining levels, which can be equipped on your heroes for passive buffs or new skills. Jabbing R also lets characters chat to one another with differing effects, which helps lend even more personality to the proceedings.
So far, so good, but Unlimited World goes above and beyond the call of tie-ins outside of battle. Once you complete or retire from a stage, you'll find yourself back in Trans Town, which acts exactly like one of Monster Hunter's settlements. You won't have to construct new weapons or armour, but you'll absolutely take charge over creating and expanding a variety of shops and service buildings with materials you've collected, then manufacturing new items and consumables. Quests can be undertaken against the clock for extra money, 'Strong Words' can be upgraded multiple levels, and just to put the cherry on the cake Luffy can navigate Trans Town with Gomu Gomu No Rocket; flying merrily about the place rather than traipsing about the streets.
Which means, of course, that there are dozens of hours of fun to be had here as you explore previously-completed stages for the fish, insect or raw materials you need for an expanded restaurant or general store. Not to mention a fully featured 'Battle Coliseum' mode that lets you fight and play as boss characters with its own progression system.
My major criticisms of Unlimited World Red could be charitably described as 'nitpicks,' but they're worth noting. First off, the lack of an on-screen minimap is unacceptable, especially as many levels don't provide visual cues about where to go next. Constantly accessing the main menu breaks flow, and is especially unforgivable on Wii U considering that the GamePad is sitting there like a lemon. The minigames can feel a little vestigial too, especially fishing and bug catching that doesn't exactly fit the tone of the game.
Otherwise, you'll occasionally be reminded that Unlimited World Red was originally a 3DS game. The utterly eyepopping HD cel-shaded visuals may be astonishing -- crisp, gorgeous and sharp as a tack on an HDTV -- but the level geometry is boxy while many environments can be sparse, bereft of civilians or clutter beyond a few obvious destroyables. Enemies also appear out of nowhere and disappear just as quickly if you move out of their specific range, which can kill your immersion from time to time.
Aggrating issues, but nothing that will seriously impinge on your enjoyment of Unlimited World Red, especially if you're a series fan. And even if you're not, perhaps this will be a good place to start.
- Packed with personality, official VO and gorgeous visuals
- Versatile, accessible and enjoyable combat channels One Piece's silly vibe
- Compelling persistent character progression, town-building and exploration
- Boxy level geometry, some confusing layouts
- No on-screen minimap!
- Tiny eye-straining splitscreen arrangement
The Short Version: One Piece: Unlimited World Red is easily one of the best anime tie-ins ever developed. Fantastic fan service, satisfying combat, deep town creation and crafting, dozens of hours of content and exquisite visuals make for a compelling lengthy experience that's more Grand Line than Grind Lane.
Pirate Warriors 2 may offer more cathartic and outrageous brawling, but Ganbarion have finally created a game with a real sense of adventure. Gomu Gomu YES.