When One Piece: Romance Dawn was originally announced for a Japanese release on the PSP, I had a strong desire for the game given the premise, but I had the feeling that it would never see a localization. I was right. However, when it was revealed that a 3DS version was in the works, I remained hopeful. After all, there’s a much larger audience for the 3DS than there ever was for the PSP, so the odds that something this niche would make its way to our shores strengthened my confidence. Wouldn’t you know it, it finally did.
While my preview may have painted the game in a positive light, you’ll find my review to be a bit different in tone. Part of that, of course, is because I want to make substantial progress in a game before passing judgment. The other part is that I really liked the game in those opening hours. It wasn’t until I got farther in that I realized how little the gameplay was evolving and how much the low budget nature of the experience began to show through.
First, let’s back up a bit. If you’ve never heard of One Piece before, it’s a popular anime series about a pirate named Monkey D. Luffy and his merry crew searching for a legendary treasure known as One Piece. What makes him extraordinary as a character is the fact that he swallowed a Devil Fruit as a child, turning his body into rubber. Sounds simple enough, but when you realize that the series spans hundreds of episodes and manga chapters, you soon come to the conclusion that this quest is far more complex than what it would seem on the surface. In other words, it’s like Naruto, but with pirates (don’t hurt me!)
One Piece: Romance Dawn covers a large chunk of the show; it starts from the beginning and goes up until right before the time skip occurs (at least I think, I’m a bit behind on episodes). A combination of clips from the show and still images are used to convey what’s happening, though for anyone not already familiar with the source material, it’s utterly confusing at best and a use for the skip option at its worst. The backgrounds consist of what appear to be manga panels with a still image from the anime gracing the center. Above that are character portraits with speech bubbles that contain all of the character banter. The pacing for these scenes is all over the place. The game attempts to cover the whole story, but spends far too long on some of the more mundane events and completely glosses over battles that would have been exciting to experience.
That isn’t to say I’m completely against the idea of using still portraits as a story telling method. Heck, even Fire Emblem: Awakening did this exact thing, they just have a far better mastery of pacing. It does at least serve as a good refresher course if you haven’t watched the show in awhile, as they chose good anime clips to emphasize, and the various amounts of exposition will certainly make sense to you if you’ve seen it before.
Speaking of the anime clips, they look surprisingly nice and crisp on the 3DS. The rest of the visuals, on the other hand, have begun to show their age. The character models themselves don’t look too bad, but the various landscapes are a bit bland looking. Environments lack detail, and the ones that aren’t completely flat and actually have trees littered about wind up looking like cardboard. It doesn’t help that many of the places you visit are seemingly copied and pasted into other parts of the game like a bad case of Dragon Age II syndrome. That’s all without taking into consideration that no 3D functionality was added in, even though I wouldn’t have used it much anyway.
The audio fares a bit better, though fans of the English dub will be disappointed that, well, there is no English dub. The voicework is fairly substantial and uses the Japanese cast, though I didn’t find this to be a nuisance as I can read quicker than they can speak and the original actors are pretty good anyway. The music is also quite serviceable, with tracks that actually add to the experience rather than detract from it.
One Piece: Romance Dawn‘s gameplay functions like that of a simple turn-based RPG, and to that end, it does its job nicely. You can have a party of three characters, and turn order is decided by the bar stationed on the right hand side. Your character can then move anywhere on the battlefield they want, though journeying outside of the yellow and red circles that surround them will lead to penalties, such as increased wait times for their next turn. Sometimes this is inevitable, as many enemies wield guns and will move out of your range before taking shots at you. Each of the face buttons corresponds with with an attack you can use, and they’ll change with every link in the combo you’re forming. You can attack as much as you have AP for, and ending a combo early will bank it for your next turn. Landing attacks generates TP that is used to deliver some of the more devastating attacks, such as Luffy’s Gum Gum Bazooka.
Adding to the combat dynamic are items that can be used to heal or buff your character, innate abilities that can do the same, as well as a guard option to mitigate some of the more damaging attacks. The key to victory, short of figuring out when is best to utilize each of these tools, is to maneuver your characters in such a way where they can do the most damage to the most enemies at once. For example, you can position your party so that stray attacks can hit enemies that they weren’t even intended for. Plus, if you hit them up against a wall, they’ll sustain more damage and sometimes drop treasure for you to loot later. Getting lined up and taking out four or five enemies at once is an incredibly satisfying endeavor, and one that I happily took part in for the early hours of the game.
In addition to experience, winning battles will earn your characters SP, which is currency for upgrading skills. Using it on your normal combos will add new attacks to select from when chaining hits together, and applying them to your more devastating maneuvers, such as Gum Gum Pistol, will increase their strength. New skill acquisition occurs automatically as you level up, while abilities such as First Aid seem to come and go depending on what you have equipped, though there are a few that certain characters will always have.
Now for the bad news: repetition tends to set in rather quickly after those initial opening hours. Progress is marked on a map that allows you to journey back and forth between unlocked points, though the ones pertaining to the story always advance in a linear fashion (of course). Some of them only exist to bombard you with exposition, and sometimes you’ll encounter multiples of them in a row, completely bypassing important battles from the anime (as mentioned earlier). You’ll also open up extra islands that serve as the game’s sidequests that you can use to obtain more items or gain additional levels. The problem with these areas, aside from being virtually all the same, is that they feel so empty and lifeless. Each map is a corridor littered with enemies that you can see before you engage, which as a Persona player I am okay with, but they all feel so pointless. You fight the same enemies you’ve fought many times before, on the same maps, with similar treasure, and end with a generic boss battle. Supposedly, bosses you’ve defeated before will appear on these islands to be encountered again, though when I attempted to do this myself, all I got was the same generic boss I fought before. Strange.
As much as I wanted to just avoid these areas entirely and focus on the main story, each of the main chapters has a suggested level that seems to increase far faster than normal progress would allow you to keep up with. In addition, many chapters require the use of certain characters, and only the ones in use benefit from experience gained. As tempting as it is to leave Usopp on the sidelines, you’ll find yourself having to drag him out from time to time to level him up sufficiently. It doesn’t help that the battle system, despite all of the good that it does, just isn’t very efficient. Once you strike the killing blow on an enemy, I couldn’t find any way to redirect any additional attacks to other enemies. I had to end my turn right then and there. This drags out battles far longer than is necessary and makes it a hassle to tangle with large parties. Also a nuisance, at least for me, is the fact that most of the major boss battles are fought one on one. This makes sense from a story perspective, but for a turn-based RPG, it really limits your strategic options. Unlike a game like Paper Mario, where timed button presses can mitigate damage, there’s really nothing to do besides have Luffy and said boss trade blows over and over, and occasionally throw in a healing item. Challenging? Yes. Exciting? No.
Mixed in with your island crawling are segments where Luffy is just running through the stage like a maniac. These are active time events that require Luffy to avoid or destroy obstacles to offset damage, or take a route that avoids an enemy confrontation. Certainly you can just run headlong into enemy parties and fight them as you would any other battle, and it would have no major impact on you reaching your goal, save for the additional experience you gain. Too many stops, though, and any enemies chasing you will catch up, leading you into further battles. This isn’t a terribly necessary or rewarding mechanic, but it does break up the monotony a bit.
Running through bland environments isn’t without its rewards, however. Items can be synthesized into other items, enabling you to craft new accessories for your pirate crew. Many of these even change the appearance of your characters, such as Buggy’s hat or Chopper’s joke glasses, which are really amusing when fighting in battles. If you prefer, you can always just buy better equipment in shops or stock up on healing items using the cash earned in fights. There’s a limit to how much you can carry at any given time though, so any excess must be dumped into storage in between chapters or at save points.
At the end of the day, I was a bit torn on what to think of One Piece: Romance Dawn. On the one hand, it’s an RPG and it’s based on One Piece, both things that I enjoy a lot. the way these two things came together, however, left a lot to be desired, especially after all of the hours I’ve invested into Bravely Default thus far. It feels like more or less a direct port of the PSP version, as there’s nothing that takes advantage of the 3DS hardware save for a map housed on the bottom screen. They didn’t even bother to add a tutorial, which is highly unusual for a game released during this generation. There’s certainly enjoyment to be had here, but it’d be best if you didn’t get your hopes up too high like I did.
Short Attention Span Summary
One Piece: Romance Dawn is going to appeal to people who fall neatly into two camps: those that adore One Piece, and those with a strong enough enjoyment of the JRPG formula to be able to overlook its shortcomings. The game certainly had a lot of potential. I liked the combat system and especially enjoyed how much your positioning could affect the outcome of a skirmish. On the other hand, the repetitive nature of the enemies and environments, and the haphazard condensing of the story, will turn away any but the most hardcore of One Piece fans. Given the limited print run of the physical release, it will at least make a nice collector’s item, but keep in mind that actually playing it isn’t going to knock your socks off.