Perhaps I’m a sucker for Eiichiro Oda’s hit manga One Piece. Something about this particular work strikes a chord, not just that it’s based of pirates, but that the world building is completely unique. I have One Piece: Pirate Warriors to thank for that, by tastefully introducing me to the manga without butchering the source material too much. One Piece: Unlimited World Red nearly put me off it entirely however by being just too dull for the franchise.
This particular adventure takes cues from the original manga, but strips it down to fights and stages with a loose thread of a new antagonist holding it all together by the name of Patrick Redfield. His ability is to create elaborate illusions using the memories of others. An obvious twist is pretty much spoilt a chapter before and the finale, despite having an inspirational message, is handled so awkwardly by using far too much exposition that the impact is nowhere near as inspiring as it thinks it is.
Credit where credit is due, One Piece: Unlimited World Red captures the visuals and sound of the anime wonderfully. It’s bright visuals are appealing, even on the low resolution 3DS, which is quite the accomplishment. Camera controls on the 3DS version are a problem and while the lock-on compensates for this, it doesn’t quite do enough as I constantly needed to readjust the camera using the focus button. Music is authentic enough to pass for anime quality, but don’t always fit the levels.
At the core of all RPGs is the art of meaningful exploration and the battle system. The real-time combat works well enough. You can eventually use button combinations to scratch off a checklist that once clear boosts your power for a short time, adding a much-needed layer of complexity to the combat. Special moves can be performed by filling a gauge, not unlike One Piece: Pirate Warriors. However the game runs at a sluggish pace with each stage being a multi-zone gauntlet with very little depth required to succeed at the level, with mandatory backtracking to find certain power words to progress. There are excuses to revisit levels for hidden loot using different characters, but that’s about it.
Power Words and Item Words are essentially how characters progress beyond simply gaining experience. Each one equipped gives a perk that is unique to that character, since they aren’t interchangeable. Gambarion can call them whatever they like, but it doesn’t detract from the fact they’re functionally similar to other RPG tropes. They work and they’re in theme, but they’re not new. Characters also have unique movesets with some specialising in ranged combat and others brawling with their fists, but moves lack the same impact that other One Piece titles have offered in the past.
Transtown acts as the central hub where your loot can be converted into new buildings and facilities. This is where the meat of the experience lies, which again is hardly an original idea. Occasionally expanding Transtown is a mandatory requirement, but investment into the town reaps its own rewards. Luffy’s abilities are hugely welcome in traversing the ever-growing town, but its maze-like structure is more complicated than the challenge levels themselves.
You are on occasion asked to gather some resources which are mostly found by smashing obstacles or hunting/fishing. Mini-games play out where upgraded equipment helps make those timed button presses count, but they’re merely diversions that add little to the overall experience. In town, there is a card based mini-game where it asks you to identify certain character traits – i.e. Women, Marines & Ex-Marines, etc; in a short time limit. If you are unfamiliar with the manga, you’re pretty much out of luck and have to guess. The side arena mode is yet another distraction, but is a series of battles rather than anything meaningful.
Frankly, One Piece: Ultimate World Red is a disappointing effort that only devout fans of the series can get into. It captures the spirit of the franchise with its visual style that even looks surprisingly polished on the 3DS, but lazily reusing old encounters to pad out the flimsy storyline is absurd. Derivative gameplay, dull side missions and unintuitive mechanics round off the more typical fare of anime tie-ins that you should steer clear of. If you’re desperate for One Piece in a playable form, either of the One PIece: Pirate Warriors games would be a far better choice than this underwhelming effort.