Starting life as a viral webcomic back in 2009, One Punch Man is a celebration and a send-up of superhero fiction. It’s creator, aptly named One, envisaged the story of a hero who was already the best. Tired of being able to defeat every enemy he faces with one punch, protagonist Saitama worries more about missing the supermarket cabbage discounts than impending world threats. The joke is that while our eponymous hero’s power level has no equal, he is so inept at life that everyone else thinks he’s some wannabe loser. A world full of ridiculous heroes and terrifying monsters cause city-razing destruction around him, all the while Saitama struggles to pay for his next meal.
Following in the wake of a wildly successful anime adaptation, Spike Chunsoft’s One Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows, offers a curiously doubled-edged proposition. The characters and stories in this universe are so hilarious and cool that playing them in a game is a tantalising prospect. However, how can a story, in which one hero can defeat anything with a single hit, be a sustainable experience?
One way the developers manage to solve this is by making the game a single-player RPG of sorts. Rather than going the traditional fighter route, you create a custom character and take them through a tale that incorporates all the major players of the Hero Association and parallels the events of the series’ early story arcs.
Much like the recent Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot (and the XenoVerse series), you run around doing errands for citizens in peril, upgrading your character and unlocking quests to progress the main story. Increasing your ‘city contribution’ level makes you available for story missions, which in turn helps you climb up the hero rankings. Predictably enough, most quests result in fighting, and this is where you’ll be spending most of your time.
Fights are three-on-three tag battles that pit you and the insanely camp heroes of One Punch Man against a rogues gallery of demons, mutants, and aliens. An arena brawler with 3D movement, the combat mechanics are simplistic but satisfyingly explosive. Unfortunately, the series epic fights aren't fully realised here, due to some ropey visuals. But the developer does its best recreating the beautiful art of Yusuke Murata (who supervised character design for the game). Attacks hit with resounding force, while throws and ‘killer moves’ trigger devastatingly stylish special attacks. News bulletins splash onto the screen to signify incoming events that cause hazards in the arena, adding further danger and additional tactics. A well timed dodge triggers a dramatic evasion animation and you can sprint towards your opponent with speed straight out of the anime. It’s clunky and imprecise, but undoubtedly a blast.
As exciting as the battles can be, there is a somewhat tedious loop to the city sections of the game. Questing is punctuated by fun distractions like designing your apartment and exploring the absurd customisation options, but that can’t distract from the repetition. Even the social system, in which you befriend the Hero Association's big stars, is a bit hollow. The fights do, for the most part, make it worth the grind. It’s just so much fun unleashing stylised attacks and watching these outlandish characters do their stuff.
Then there’s the ‘Hero Arrival System’. This is the other method Spike Chunsoft employs to justify a game that stars Saitama and doesn’t take seconds to finish. Allies arrive on the battlefield a set time after the fight starts. You see them in the corner of the screen, comically sprinting to your aid, eventually arriving with a catchphrase and a kick to your enemy's face. Once present, you can switch to them and draw on their many advantages. Successful combos take seconds off the arrival clock, so bringing an inevitably more powerful ally into the battle should be your priority.
The titular baldy himself always seems to be running late, as his timer is painfully long. If Saitama is in your corner you are essentially one player short unless you can evade your enemy and run out the clock, which is no easy task in later fights. Most of his encounters in story mode are scripted and it’s always a highlight.
When the hero nobody knows finally enters the arena, it’s like someone enabled God mode. Saitama is invulnerable, meeting even the mightiest enemy with a grunt and a bored face. Any attack button is an instant finisher, his killer moves only add to the comedy (supermarket discount special!), he doesn’t even flinch. This is the central gimmick of the game and it mostly hits its mark.
Alongside Saitama is a roster of colourful heroes and villains to take into versus battles outside of the game's main story mode. Not every major character is accounted for at release, which means DLC is on the horizon. There's a decent mix of fighting style templates (all of which can be applied to your custom hero), but some are far better than others.
All-rounders like Mumen Rider have mobility and decent attack power, while brawlers are slow but hit hard (fear the Tank Toppers). Weapon wielders like Metal Bat and Stinger feel somewhat overpowered with reach and speed in spades. Then there are the big guns like Genos, Silverfang, or Mosquito Girl, with her wild swiping attacks. It’s a shame and an annoyance that you have to wait to meet these characters in your hero's journey before you can take them into battle, because they are undoubtedly the biggest draw. Elsewhere in the main story, you can interact with other players in the city areas. Challenging them to versus battles, emoting at them like crazy, or just laughing at their insane outfit.
Speaking of which, online versus battles are frantic and messy affairs. Giving your opponent an inch can result in a string of devastating killer moves that will chew your team up. Even before release, the servers have a healthy population of terrifying foes.
As for Saitama, he can be enabled or disabled in PvP. Most people seem to prefer the former, which makes for a humiliating defeat, capping off a sustained beating with a punch into the stratosphere. There is a generous selection of online features, including ranked team modes and avatar battles.
Ultimately, as feature rich as it is, the overall experience of One Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows is of a workmanlike adaptation with a unique hook. It doesn’t look great, with bland arenas and a drab hub area that suffered some sizeable frame rate dips during our playthrough. The main story is quirky but repetitive, while the battles feel awesome but lack depth. The opponent AI is predictable and the difficulty uneven, especially in missions where you have to survive until another hero arrives. Cracks start to show online as well, with the chunky fighting style and the (purposefully) game-breaking addition of the title character frustrating as much as it excites. Players can escape and close distance in an instant and the timing on both feels too erratic for network matches to be truly enjoyable.
All gripes aside, any fan of this series will revel in what the developer has tried to do here. It’s genuinely funny (the tutorial-spouting Lecture Man is a highlight), the main characters are lovingly designed, and the depressed ‘hero for fun’ Saitama is great value. It’s a shame then, that this suffers similar shortcomings to other recent adaptations published by Bandai Namco.
In One Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows, becoming a hero for fun isn't all it's cracked up to be. Saitama is a hilariously game breaking gimmick that pays off in single-player, but online he only leads to frustration. Elsewhere,the main story mode has plenty to do, but there's not much variety. Fans will mostly enjoy the writing and the fighting, but newcomers might be left wanting.