Last month saw the release of Dynasty Warriors 8, the latest instalment in the seemingly never-ending hack and slash series. This month, One Piece: Pirate Warriors 2 arrives on Western shores, bringing with it more vast, hectic battles to sink your bloodied weapon of choice into. You’d be forgiven for being worn out on Warriors with two releases in as many months, but thankfully artist Eiichiro Oda’s popular universe brings a welcome breath of fresh air to the tried and tested formula.
Like the other licensed titles that borrow Dynasty Warriors’ gameplay template – including Dynasty Warriors: Gundam and Fist of the North Star: Ken’s Rage – this game is essentially a re-skinned edition of Koei’s flagship series. Replace all of the ancient Chinese warlords with characters from the One Piece manga and anime and you’re left with the basis of a title that will appeal to fans of both franchises. However, this release is far more than the sum of its parts.
The only mode available to you in the beginning of the game is Pirate Log, a series of levels split over multiple chapters that tell an entirely original story. The tale makes use of just about every major character that fans will recognise, and although the constant introduction of new personalities can be a little hard to follow at times, the title manages to construct a cohesive and enjoyable plot that only gets better as it continues.
The narrative itself acts as little more than an excuse to force the cast to go to war with one another, but it’s still told in such a way that it seems plausible given the source material. During the prologue, Luffy’s Straw Hat Pirates are separated, while strange alliances are being built between rival bands of rogues. To top it all off, the Marines – a law enforcement military that governs the seas – seem to have secret information on devices known as ‘dials’, supposedly the source of the chaos that has engulfed the world.
Chances are, if you’re not a One Piece fan, you won’t have understood much of that. However, even if you’re completely new to the franchise, the game requires next to no prior knowledge – it’s perfectly possible to see the characters simply as they’re portrayed within the story, and you’ll only be missing out on some minor references here and there. Accessibility is arguably the story’s greatest achievement, and its likeable, creative cast is a testament to how well the title captures the essence of the original work.
Indeed, the franchise plays host to a gigantic amount of characters, and fans will love seeing their favourites pop up in cutscenes, while newcomers will be surprised again and again by each new arrival. This is mostly because of how incredibly diverse the cast is, which ranges from cool-headed, stylish swordsmen to utterly insane, Tim Burton-esque villains who command hordes of zombies. For a series that’s based on the life of pirates, there aren’t too many shanty-singing sea dogs, but that’s what makes the personalities involved so captivating.
You’ll start the game with just a couple of crew members unlocked, and you’ll need to progress through the story in order to open access to everyone else. The roster is a decent size, sporting 27 playable characters in all, and is supplemented by support characters that tend to play a lesser role when it comes to the narrative. Despite having a low number of fighters to choose from when compared to Dynasty Warriors 8, for example, diversity is once again where the title excels.
Unlike the officers of the Three Kingdoms era, the majority of the seafaring warriors of One Piece don’t rely upon chosen weaponry. Instead, much like a group of super heroes, special powers are the most popular means by which to fight. For example, series protagonist Luffy can stretch and expand his body like rubber, while ex-military man Kuzan can control ice, using it to freeze opponents solid or barrage his enemies by raining chunks of hail from the sky. There's even a cyborg named Franky, who can shoot intense beams of light from his nipples. All of these individual powers translate perfectly into hack and slash gameplay, and the inherent variety means that each character is a joy to discover and play as.
If you’re not a fan of the trademark chaotic action that Koei’s games provide, however, this release probably won’t change your mind. As usual, the square and triangle buttons make up the simple but eye-catching combos, while a tap of the circle button will unleash a powerful special attack. Things differ when it comes to defensive techniques, though, as there’s no block button. Instead, you’ll have to rely on your dodge, which varies between fighters. Thankfully, the evasive manoeuvre is responsive and well-implemented, and dashing away from a foe’s sudden onslaught at the last second is insanely gratifying, although adapting to the fact that there’s no way to simply parry an enemy’s attack can take some time.
Your dash can also be used to link combos together, or cancel out of most moves, bringing a blisteringly fast pace to the combat at times. Each warrior also has a character-specific move tied to R2, and it usually complements the user’s moveset, either by being an attack that’s great for finishing off combos or a technique that counters a weakness. A monstrously powerful but extremely slow fighter like Jimbei can counter incoming attacks with his special move, for instance, eliminating the vulnerability that accompanies his sluggish martial arts when used correctly.
Topping off the already mass amount of destruction that you’re capable of wreaking, the crew system allows you to pair up your chosen character with another, giving you the option of summoning them during tense clashes. By activating the oddly named style mode when its gauge is filled, time slows around you as you beat your foes to a pulp with enhanced attacks, and by dealing out enough damage, a tap of the circle button calls in your ally, who can then be controlled to dish out even more punishment. The mechanic not only provides fans with the opportunity to create their ideal dream teams, but it’s also a brilliant way to level the playing field when you’re completely surrounded by the opposition. Unfortunately for you, bosses can also initiate style mode, making them invulnerable. At first, it’s an annoyance when your attacks bounce off the ugly mug of a pirate warlord, but countering with your own style mode and subsequent special moves in order to deal some hefty damage creates some thrilling encounters as you both devastate the battlefield.
Sadly, gameplay is let down slightly by some niggling problems. Level design is undoubtedly repetitive, as almost every stage consists of bases ripe for capture and relatively narrow corridors packed with grunts. It’s the typical Warriors formula at work, but here objectives are almost always identical. You'll be tasked with capturing specific territories, or defeating 1,000 opponents, or taking out a particular enemy general – and then the gates to the boss’ encampment will open up invitingly, level after level.
The camera can also be troublesome, primarily due to the fact that it zooms out much further than fans will be used to. While the positioning actually gives a nice overview of the immediate area, allowing you to see opponents that are creeping up behind you, it tends to get itself stuck inside of walls and around corners due to the distance at which it’s placed, potentially causing unnecessary frustration when you’re fighting a particularly deadly foe and you can’t see a thing.
Fortunately, the meaty, satisfying combat itself will make you quickly forget about these problems, especially when the game is constantly rewarding you. After every stage that you complete, you’ll be showered with coins, money, and bonus experience points. Coins can be equipped to your character in order to boost their stats, and collecting them from fallen bosses and treasure chests scattered throughout levels soon becomes an addictive experience – even more so when you begin to unlock skill notes. These bingo-like diagrams are gained from completing story missions, and by filling them up with the corresponding coins, you’ll gain abilities that bestow different effects when in combat. Meanwhile, money can be used to level up neglected fighters and to buy content for the game’s comprehensive gallery, which contains things like character models and audio clips.
Outside of Pirate Log’s main story stages and optional crew levels, you can play previously beaten stages in Free Log, and Challenge Mode puts your skills to the test against powerful opponents and armies under certain conditions. Every mode besides the latter is playable online with another pirate enthusiast, although the co-op experience is horribly limited. It’s somewhat understandable that you’ll only be able to play missions you’ve both unlocked in order to avoid spoilers, but after inviting your partner and beating your chosen level, you’ll be automatically disconnected from one another, meaning that you’ll need to begin the process all over again once you’re done. This is also the case with the title’s intriguing but flawed rescue request mechanic, where you’ll receive in-game invites from strangers who need help on a particular level. Overall, the online component feels incredibly archaic, and it’s an absolute shame, as fighting back-to-back with a friend against hundreds of enemies can be very empowering.
Aesthetically, the title is easily the most colourful Warriors game available, with vibrant, detailed character models that sport delightful animations even when walking or running, and the stages, while repetitive in terms of gameplay, boast some lovingly crafted assets and backdrops. It goes without saying, however, that the star of the show is One Piece’s deliciously charming art style itself, which has been brilliantly recreated in this release.
In terms of audio, things could be better. Much of the title’s soundtrack is made up of forgettable, generic rock, but there are a couple of standout tunes that are genuinely catchy thanks to some brilliantly timed, jazzy arrangements that are bound to put a smile on any fan’s face. Elsewhere, the dialogue is entirely in Japanese with no English option available – but every character is voiced in a suitably over-the-top manner, spouting crazy 'Engrish' catchphrases whenever they get the chance. Our only real gripe is with the subtitles, which, at times, are in desperate need of a spell check.
Well worth its weight in gold, One Piece: Pirate Warriors 2 continues the recent trend of great Warriors titles. Even if you're observing it while wearing an eye-patch, it’s clearly the most visually charming Koei release yet, but the game’s greatest hook is its incredibly diverse character roster. Fans will feel right at home on these waters, while newcomers might just discover a map that leads to a treasure chest full of empowering gameplay.