As legions of fans will tell you, it's not hard to become captivated with One Piece, one of Japan's most popular manga creations, and its latest video game venture, One Piece: Unlimited World Red, is a good example of how easily this colourful world can ensnare anyone with an eye for crazy pirate adventures. The title itself is a competent mix of action and exploration that's both accessible and entertaining – but is that enough to keep you hooked on Luffy's lengthy quest?
For fans of the source material, the answer is almost certainly yes. Much like almost every anime or manga tie-in that makes it overseas these days, the release is packed with references to the original work. However, that also means that those unfamiliar with Eiichiro Oda's creation won't quite get the same buzz from gallivanting around this action role-playing game. Thankfully for outsiders, there's still plenty of reasons to enjoy the adventure, especially if you're the type of person who loves taking on myriad quests and developing an unbeatable party of fighters.
Ultimately, it's quite difficult to pin down the game's influences. At times, it feels a bit Monster Hunter-esque, particularly in structure. The strangely named Transtown acts as your hub where you'll pick up different quests and buy new gear, before setting off on another journey through a themed level where you'll beat a boss, or gather a number of raw components within a time limit. Meanwhile, the combat comes off as a kind of fusion between Dynasty Warriors and a Tales Of title, where you'll need to tackle groups of opponents using combos that have you tapping square and triangle, while also pulling off powerful team attacks. At first, it seems like a weird mix that doesn't quite gel, but give it some time, and you'll soon come to realise that it serves up a solid, if unspectacular, gameplay concoction.
As alluded, the release follows a structure that we've seen countless times before, but it works surprisingly well within the context. Playing as the diverse Straw Hat crew, protagonist Luffy's allies all go missing under suspicious circumstances having just arrived in Transtown, and as such, he'll have to sail away to distant lands and track them down. The plot that drags you from area to area feels disjointed, particularly near the beginning of your adventure, but once the gang has been gathered, proceedings start to move at a better pace.
Like many licensed titles before it, the narrative basically boils down to being an excuse to throw the source material's many personalities into one scenario, but as you can imagine, fans will still find more than enough reason to see it through. Story missions typically involve picking a stage from a menu and then proceeding through relatively linear environments that are populated by gangs of enemies, before clashing with a boss – most of which are taken directly from the source material. The cast is faithfully recreated here – even though the title features a unique plot made especially for the release – and it's undeniably fun seeing One Piece's heroes battle it out with the franchise's popular villains.
Combat isn't perfect, but the variety that the playable characters offer is enough to keep it feeling fresh throughout this 20 hour journey. Confined to a reasonably sized arena, you'll have to overcome different combinations of foes by unleashing numerous attacks taken straight from the original work. Rubber-bodied Luffy boasts fast attacks and a quick dodge, ship navigator Nami brings a bit of strategy into the mix – summoning clouds that can then produce lightning – and burly cyborg Franky can build a cannon that you're able to mount in order to fire off explosives from a first-person view. Despite the initial simplicity of quickly tapping face button in combination, there is some depth here if you're willing to look. You won't necessarily have to wrap your head around every fighting style's intricacies to see the main narrative through, but doing so allows you to dominate the battlefield in a very satisfying manner.
And sometimes, you may need all the practice that you can get. Bosses can be challenging if you're slow to read their attacks, and at their worst, these pivotal brawls require a fair bit of trial and error. A few hits from a big baddie and your health can end up in the red, but thankfully, there's a dodge and counter system in place. It's certainly not the type of thing that you'd find in Assassin's Creed, but pressing circle when a specific icon appears above your pirate's head allows you to avoid all damage – at least, most of the time. At points, the mechanic will get you out of the way of one devastating attack only to leave you completely open to the next. As a result, it can feel a bit cheap, especially when you're forced to use up your stock of healing items that you could have otherwise saved for a more pressing encounter.
In combination with dodging – or blocking, in some characters' cases – you'll also need to take up advantageous positions when you're in a fight. Dive straight into a swarm of opposition like you're playing One Piece: Pirate Warriors 2, and you'll likely get beaten up from every angle, so running into space and then unleashing a torrent of techniques on foes that come stomping towards you is usually the easiest way to rack up a chunk of kills at once. Fortunately, you're accompanied by two chosen party members for the vast majority of the game, who you can switch to at any time with a press of the select button. Your computer controlled allies are extremely effective, and you may even find yourself relying on them as you nurse your drastically low health bar. Combat may not be the most polished that we've seen, but there's definitely a nice sense of teamwork when you're kicking the snot out of opponents with your colourful companions.
Being part RPG, there are ways to boost your abilities if you're in a spot of trouble. Along with a wealth of single-use trinkets that can provide attack buffs or health bonuses, you'll come across both custom and item words after completing a quest. On paper, equipping words sounds rather weird, but in practice, they're essentially just a quirky take on the standard equipment that you'd find in any other RPG. Like levelling up your party with experience points, the system is accessible and rewarding, and acts as a good reason to search every corner of each environment, where you'll often need a particular crew member's unique skill to slice open a gate or dash across bodies of water so that you can find the hidden goodies.
Fortunately, if you're getting a little fed up with sprinting around large locations, the coliseum mode provides a welcome change. Sporting its own separate narrative, this additional mode acts as a great way to jump straight into the action without having to worry about levelling and the other RPG elements that are present in the core release. The same battle system is at work here, but it's at the centre of what is essentially a small fighting game. You'll unlock new playable characters as you work your way through various brawls and duels – most of whom aren't available elsewhere – and there are plenty of familiar faces to take down. Alone, the main story feels like enough content to justify a purchase for One Piece enthusiasts, but the coliseum adds a lot more bang for your buck, and it comes as one of the most pleasant surprises that the title throws at you.
Sadly, the game's presentation isn't quite as pleasant. It's pretty clear that the release is a port of a handheld title, with rough textures and not a hint of good lighting to be found, but it at least looks bright and vibrant, while character models are detailed and nicely made. It doesn't capture the original work's art style or energetic feel as well as the fantastic Pirate Warriors 2, but it's still obvious that the developer has put a lot of time and effort into recreating the loveable franchise for this newest release.
Fans should know that they won't have to scour the seven seas to find the treasures that One Piece: Unlimited World Red has buried beneath its somewhat rough exterior. Alas, even if you're not an honorary member of the Straw Hats, Luffy's latest outing proves to be an accessible, well rounded, and enjoyable action RPG – although we daresay that the title's tried and tested gameplay structure would better suit the handheld version of the release.