As is the case with many manga and anime properties, Eiichiro Oda's One Piece – a hugely successful tale of super powered pirates – is a brilliant basis for a fighting game. Thanks to a massive cast of wacky characters, all of whom boast their own crazy combat abilities, a brawler such as One Piece: Burning Blood seems like a great idea, and, for the most part, it is. This is a colourful, bombastic beat-'em-up that fully embraces the wildly popular source material.
It goes without saying that existing fans will get the most out of this one, but fighting game enthusiasts should still find some fun in exploring the nuances of the title's combat system. On the surface, Burning Blood is an accessible brawler that's built on a pretty standard rock-paper-scissors foundation: quick, normal combos beat guard breaking attacks to the punch, guard breakers smash through your foe's defences, and blocking nullifies regular blows. It's simple stuff at first, but once you factor in perfectly timed guards, sidesteps, heavy guard breakers, unique special attacks, and aerial offensives, things quickly become much more complex.
Indeed, Luffy and the gang's latest can be surprisingly deep at times, and this is often due to the sheer amount of variety that's on offer courtesy of the game's large playable character roster. As mentioned, every combatant has their own unique special moves that complement their general fighting style. An all-rounder like Ace, for example, has three distinct attacks that cover short, medium, and long range encounters, while a powerful brute like Whitebeard sports techniques that are great for keeping his opponents at a distance, where his lengthy blade is most effective.
As you can probably tell, there's a lot to learn about each character – but things get trickier still when it comes to forming a team of three warriors. Indeed, much like fellow Bandai Namco beat-'em-up Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4, Burning Blood focusses on team based skirmishes, where switching between up to three characters packs each match with a lot of variety.
That said, we're sure that some characters will prove to be much more popular than others. It's always difficult to determine how balanced a fighter is before the public gets in on the action, but right from the off, it's clear that a few select combatants have attack patterns that can abused rather easily. It's stuff like this that calls the competitive potential of the release into question, but we doubt that it'll be enough to spoil the fun that fans will have pitting their dream teams against one another.
For a first attempt at a licensed brawler, Burning Blood's quite an impressive creation. The game's got a satisfyingly weighty feel to it; every attack connects with a lovely thump, thwack, or smack, and smashing your opponent across an arena, watching them spiral uncontrollably into the distance, is always more pleasing to the eye than your typical victory pose. The icing on the cake, however, is the spectacle that comes with the combat. Shifting camera angles, crunchy close-up shots, and ridiculous knockout animations all play a part in making it a great fighter to watch, and that's without mentioning the fact that the game captures the source material's art style so well.
However, one thing that we're not so keen on is the in-fight camera's up-close-and-personal positioning. Fortunately, the viewpoint can be zoomed out in the options menu, but making use of bulkier characters can still result in awkward viewing angles, and, at worst, almost obscure your view of the enemy entirely.
It's also a shame that the title's story mode isn't quite as enjoyable as it should be. Told from the perspectives of four different heroes, the release's central mode features plenty of cool cutscenes as it retells the events of the Paramount War – perhaps the most chaotic battle to feature in One Piece thus far. The premise is neat when you think about it, as focussing on just one particular part of the plot means that events can be faithfully recreated.
However, it's not the narrative elements that are to be blamed for the story mode's shortcomings. As you move from stage to stage, each fight comes with its own objective. You may be tasked with surviving against a strong enemy for 30 seconds, or you might have to face off against three opponents with just one character. While some stages provide a nice challenge, others simply see you struggle against vastly overpowered foes – and it just feels unnecessary. Yes, the dastardly Akainu was incredibly deadly at this point in the anime, but that doesn't mean that he should be dismantling your health bar in two hits while he can take 200 kicks to the face. Hitting the retry option for the fifteenth time in ten minutes just isn't what fighting games should be about.
Adding insult to injury, you'll need to slog through all four story mode perspectives in order to unlock numerous characters for use in other modes, which is a bit of a bummer when you just want to dive into the title's online and versus offerings. Fortunately, there's a second way to fill out your selection of playable pirates, which involves purchasing them with in-game currency. Unlocking everyone is an expensive endeavour, but at least you won't drive yourself mad trying to blitz through the Paramount War four times over.
Speaking of online offerings, Burning Blood provides two social modes to get stuck into. The first consists of your standard ranked and casual matches, complete with leaderboards and reasonably detailed records to obsess over. The second, dubbed Pirate Flag Battle, is a touch more creative. Here, things play out over seasons, with players committing themselves to different pirate factions. The goal is to take over the most spaces spread across a map, and to do this, you and your allies have to take on members of rival crews in online duels, building up points as you go.
It's certainly an interesting concept, and one that actually works quite well in practice. Knowing that you're helping your faction conquer the high seas bit by bit, even if you're just popping in for a few matches here and there, gives you a good reason to keep at it. The only real worry with Pirate Flag Battle is that it'll only remain entertaining for as long as players maintain their efforts. There's no doubt that it'll be thriving around launch, but will wannabe pirate kings stick around, or will they settle for the more traditional online versus mode? Only time will tell.
Crunchy and colourful, One Piece: Burning Blood does more than enough to grab the attention of both fans and fighting game enthusiasts alike. While some potential balancing issues dull the brawler's competitive edge and the story mode is more of a slog than it needs to be, One Piece's madcap character roster keeps things interesting. It's not quite the bountiful booty that is One Piece: Pirate Warriors 3, but Burning Blood's explosive combat is bound to leave a mark all the same.