One Piece: Romance Dawn - Review  

An Ocean in the Way
by Mike "JuMeSyn" Moehnke

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20-40 Hours
+ Fighting is fun
+ Grand Stream Actions entertain
+ Good tunes and voicework
- Boring dungeons
- Poor method of telling One Piece's story
- Inventory constraints
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   Eiichiro Oda's One Piece has inspired a lot of video game adaptations over the years, but somehow stayed away from the RPG genre. One Piece: Romance Dawn changed that at last, offering a title that attempts to adapt just over sixty volumes of manga into an effective experience. Namco Bandai's title gets a few things right in this sizable endeavor, but does a poor job of getting anyone not already familiar with the property interested.

   One Piece begins with a vow to become Pirate King by Luffy, a dream made somewhat more credible because he ate a devil fruit that caused his body to become rubber. Pirate Kings don't operate solo, so Luffy undertakes a great voyage across the world to recruit crew members and accrue fame under the Straw Hat insignia that commemorates his important headgear. Romance Dawn depicts the story from its beginning up to a break it took in 2011, showing the recruitment of the cast until the protagonists number nine.

   One Piece is a number of things, but well-suited to static scenes of text is not one of them. The developers had plenty of options when it came to telling the story of something known for its kinetic visual style, making the decision to go with character portraits tossing reams of text at each other a mystifying one. Occasionally a backdrop from the anime pops in for the portraits to blather on top of, but the feeling throughout is that the interminable text makes One Piece's story feel boring, not the usual characterization of one familiar with it. Bandai Namco's writers also decided against adapting everything possible, relegating some significant passages to brief stops on the world map, and making others single-paragraph notes along the way. Compressing this much material into a game is certainly a daunting task, but the method by which it was accomplished here will dissuade the unfamiliar and confound the veterans.

   One Piece has a number of memorable fights to its credit, and the combat engine created for this game is quite entertaining. Upon encountering enemies while running around the dungeons, up to three of the Straw Hat gang will fight them in a turn-based brawl that takes quite a bit of tactical maneuver into consideration. Attacks are capable of sending the enemy flying, and if they hit a wall extra damage is dealt. Position matters quite a bit when attempting to use special moves, and if the character is in the right spot more than just the target enemy can be hit, or techniques can miss entirely if the player attempts to use something that strikes at an unwise angle. The protagonists are free to move around the battlefield as the player likes before they initiate action, although going outside visible ranges will delay the time at which their next turn starts. Things happen quickly and the results are consistently entertaining, making combat a highlight of Romance Dawn.

Funnily enough, when a rubber man hits this wall, he still gets hurt. Funnily enough, when a rubber man hits this wall, he still gets hurt.

   Another pleasant part of the game is its Grand Stream Actions. These occur at a few points in the narrative in which characters are hurrying through an area, and the player has no choice but to sit back and watch. The only way to affect the pellmell race is to choose between paths taken and smashing down barriers, both of which are done by pressing the correct face button in time. Going the wrong way usually leads to extra fights with adversaries while not breaking a barrier results in taking HP loss by slamming bodily into it. These sequences are infrequent until the end of the game, but they're welcome appearances of something fast and entertaining.

   Most of Romance Dawn's dungeon exploration comes in much more mundane form, with locations that have all the personality of randomly generated ones. Every dungeon adheres to the same structure of wandering around paths or hallways that look the same, while beating up all the enemies players wish and gathering treasure. Combat may be fun but the same few enemy formations show up time after time, which saps the enjoyment factor. Dungeons are also bigger than necessary, a particular problem in the last few scenarios from Impel Down to Marineford when the environments start having more separate portions than before, but one that will occur to players early on. Even worse are the optional areas that open up while progressing, which simply copy already-established enemies and environments and put them into randomly generated locales to entice grinding. Considering the range of material from the manga and anime not adapted into this game, the undesirability of this method to make the game longer is high when core plot matters can be completed in a little under forty hours.

   Defeated enemies, except for boss and Grand Stream encounters, toss out their spoils as treasure chests the player must manually collect on the field. Not only is gathering this stuff tiresome when it means manually rotating the camera to see what's strewn about, but the constrictive item limits will quickly make an impression. The player can hold ten of any item at a time, with save points offering an opportunity to store a further ninety-nine of anything, but having to run around constantly to do this is not a desirable activity. Enemies are often so eager to drop a certain item that filling up on it will be accomplished without having located a save point yet, hardly an occasion for joy.

   Outside the accrual of it, inventory management is still a mixed blessing. Having the option to alter equipment via a crafting system is nice, and switching what characters are currently wearing is an easy process. Quite a number of items that have descriptions indicating they are for crafting purposes are instead useful solely for the cash they can generate, and newly purchased equipment must be changed after leaving the shop instead of within its menu. There are also a host of items that accomplish the same purpose but have different names, leading to even more inventory bloat.

I get it, Buggy, you once caught a fish THIS big.  What does it have to do with the fight? I get it, Buggy, you once caught a fish THIS big. What does it have to do with the fight?

   Most of Romance Dawn will pose no challenge to veteran RPGamers, but certain story battles do demand caution. These tend to be the ones that are duels against powerful adversaries, fitting given that they are centerpiece struggles of the narrative. More difficult to overcome is the possibility that the game will freeze and kick the player back to the 3DS menu, something that only happened five times to me but was enough to guarantee obsessive use of save points.

   Most of the visuals are fine, especially those of the central cast, but the sameness of the dungeons starts to get wearisome. The infrequent and brief animated clips from the show demonstrate that what the developers did in the game was workmanlike but not quite at the level of Oda's character models, especially certain special moves that don't look quite right. The music in Romance Dawn is pretty good for the most part with several catchy tunes, even if it's not taken from the extensive library of tunes from the anime. A good variety of battle themes that change as the story progresses is most welcome, especially since they're strong enough to be memorable. The well-practiced Japanese cast of One Piece turns in small performances for use in battle and the brief animated scenes, which unfortunately makes the text-only plot scenes stand out.

   I was eager to play this game, hoping it would deliver on the potential of One Piece to create a memorable and effective RPG. The potential is still there, because Romance Dawn doesn't do nearly enough right to make this an adequate substitute for reading the manga or watching the anime. It's nice to be able to play with the whole cast, but this game turns a series that is still going strong seventeen years after it started into something monotonous, which is truly unfortunate.

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