Having just reviewed One Piece Burning Blood, an unfortunate consideration has plagued me: will anime fans ever get the One Piece Games we want? In fact, deeper than that: will we ever get the licensed anime games we want?
In a time of death threats over game delays (to both the developer and the people that report the delay….), I find it difficult to speak about this without seeming entitled. Still, though I do appreciate the hard work and effort developers put in to their games, not all games are created equal, and anime-based licensed properties have a hit-or-miss habit even within the studios that are known for doing them well.
Obviously this whole topic is subjective, so take it with a pinch of salt (or your preferred seasoning), but there’s still yet to be a licensed anime video game that fully delivers on the promise found in its source material.
The closest we’ve come is the Naruto Shippuden Ultimate Ninja Storm series. I’d argue that it was the first title in the mainstream to fully embrace its license by the time that the second installment came around. To this day, Ultimate Ninja Storm 2 not only covers the most interesting segment of the Naruto plot; it also proved that these licenses could be incredible in the hands of people that truly care about the properties. That said, even these games – for all of the cinematic brilliance they have treated fans to – have deep flaws in their half-hearted adventure modes. I have a great deal of respect for CyberConnect2, but they insisted on trying their hand at experiments that ultimately ended up hurting the final product. Not because an adventure mode doesn’t belong in these games, but that their implementation of it only got worse from the decent NUNS2 version. The third iteration had clunkier movement, and the fourth was the dictionary definition of an after-thought. Don’t even get me started on the in-between games that sought to milk the franchise (though they did offer some gameplay improvements that allowed them to test ideas out without harming the numbered installments!). The actual fighting and cut-scenes have gotten better, which is the main focus, but the adventure that could have been has never come to fruition.
Oddly enough, the best anime-style games are video games first and have occasionally branched out in to actual anime. The Persona franchise, for example, has struck a chord with core gamers and appears to be making a move for Final Fantasy-like level of appeal, without doing away with what makes it a great role-playing game. The rise in popularity can be attributed to the faith it has in its gameplay, making only slight improvements to the systems each time, and their brilliant art style that only makes it even more engaging. Forgive the exclusion of the social system and great characters, but if I start going on about Persona right now, I’ll never stop. Suffice to say that the growing fan-base of Persona has resulted in, or may be as a result of, its expansion in to both anime series’ and OVAs for Persona 3 and Persona 4 Golden in particular.
Another example of a game that embraces the anime art style whilst maintaining a sense of self is the Tales Of series. Featuring an exquisite combat system which, much like the Persona approach, iterates on its style slightly with each installment, the Tales Of games know their audience and deliver more often than they don’t. That said, even the Tales Of games seem to be waning as of late, with Tales of Zestiria being a disappointment from a narrative perspective. A feature that is usually so strong in those games. Nevertheless, Tales of Zestiria has its own anime due very soon. Time will tell if the story holds up in such a way.
The two aforementioned examples are video games first and foremost, though. Not beholden to a license, the developers have a great deal of control over the direction they can take. It’s common knowledge that dealing with licenses can result in creativity being stifled, with the original creators or investors insisting that certain approaches not be taken with their intellectual property. Just look at the cancellation of Disney Infinity despite it doing fairly well. It’s a trickier thing to handle franchises within franchises, so it’s not exactly the same, but say CyberConnect2 wanted to do a story wherein you create your own Ninja in the Leaf Village. Would they ever let you turn to the dark side and kill Naruto to obtain greater power? It’s entirely doubtful that Kishimoto or anybody else involved would want that unless they were personally involved in making the process meaningful. It’s true that giving too much free reign to a developer with your property could cause more harm than good, so caution is understandable. You need only look to Nintendo’s own guarded nature since the disaster that was the Super Mario Bros. movie.
Back to the topic at hand though, there are a number of licensed property video games that fall around the mid-table of quality. Sword Art Online Lost Song, for example, is an okay game at best, with an interesting flight system but underwhelming mechanics and an over-reliance on awkward fan service. Games like these are often strategically released in quiet times and their target audience is likely to make the effort worthwhile, but Sword Art Online, too, has never had a great game. Though I’ll no doubt play Sword Art Online Hollow Realization, what I’ve seen of it thus far looks to be another half-baked entry. I think the approach the SAO games take is the right one: open world areas with an MMO-like feel to them, but the execution is disappointing. The games need fluid combat, interesting upgrade systems and perhaps a way to build your own little slice of heaven in the world. Those are my thoughts, easy to state when you’re not bent over a computer bashing out code until the wee hours of the morning, but I find it hard to believe these games get released with smiles on the faces of the developers. It’s also, unfortunately, out of their hands for the most part.
The business realities shouldn’t be ignored: these video games need to make money. Sometimes even the effort of localisation just isn’t worth the trouble, as we may have experienced with Koei Tecmo’s Dead or Alive Extreme 3 controversy. Particularly when it comes to licensed properties, there are a vast amount more eyes on the pot of gold at the end, but this brings to mind why these people would want to see a weak product released. If the game isn’t fun to play, the initial burst sales from the dedicated fans might put a momentary smile on their faces until those reviews come-a-knockin’. After which, those sales comes to a screeching halt. The game is forgotten about, washed away in a sea of varying quality and regular releases. If your game isn’t good this week, there might be something good out next week.
This brings me ultimately to my point about One Piece. I played through Burning Blood. I experienced all that it had to offer within a day. It’s not that it’s short, that’s just something I have to do, but it left me feeling empty. The game’s good. If you’re just looking for a brawler to play with featuring your favourite characters, you can’t go wrong here, but One Piece as a franchise deserves the greatest of services. The material you have to work with, the scope of the world, the stories that could be told: this is what makes Burning Blood a disappointment, because it feels like the franchise gets relegated to a good fighter that has very little substance in any other area of expertise.
One Piece has had a fair few video game adaptations. The most prolific in the West is most likely a personal favourite: One Piece Pirate Warriors. From the Dynasty Warriors team (Omega Force), all of your pirates buddies are available to take part in the traditional Warriors gameplay. It’s a power trip befitting of these larger-than-life characters, but it’s not One Piece. As impressively as Omega Force depicts the events of the Straw Hats, it’s a Warriors game with a One Piece skin. Where is the epic adventure? Where is the game that lets us form our own pirate crew, build a ship and set sail around the same time as the the other famous rookies from One Piece? Where’s our Dragonball Xenoverse-style alternate history wherein we help Luffy against a mysterious foe trying to alter the time-line? For that matter, where’s the Naruto game that lets us found a village and develop new jutsu? I don’t doubt for a second that developers have had these ideas and the pitches have simply never come to fruition, but can you imagine a One Piece game the size of The Witcher? If you know anything about One Piece, it’s certainly as dense, if not more, in its narrative.
As we stand here at the release of another game that does what it does well, but isn’t the product I feel the people deserve, nor what the developers are capable of making, it leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. It has me observing the future releases of Bandai Namco and Koei Tecmo just hoping that “this next one! It just might be…. nah, I don’t think it is”. I will say this though: Dragonball Xenoverse 2 appears to be the game making strides. Xenoverse did a lot of what I wanted, with a fantastic Collectors Edition too, but it fell short with its basic ability upgrades and repetition. The second installment, due out this year, shows that Dimps (the developer) must believe they’re on the right track. I just hope they embrace what’s good about Xenoverse and double-down on it. I have my reservations. Dimps has a storied history but it’s a yo-yo of quality in terms of what they’ve released, and so, my wait continues as I look on at the industry; skeptical of any spikey-haired protagonists that try to promise me the “AUTHENTIC ANIME EXPERIENCE!”.
And no, I don’t want Naughty Dog to develop my One Piece dream game. I’d rather not walk slowly around the Thousand Sunny as Chopper reminisces about the cherry blossoms. Actually, I might! I’m conflicted.
I know there are passionate anime fans in our audience as well as gamers that just want to play quality games, so what would you like to see given the extra special treatment? I’ve barely scratched the surface with the games I’ve mentioned and honestly, I’ve written this entire article on a whim. Have a great weekend!