Anyone would be forgiven for thinking crafting a decent RPG from the lore of established anime juggernaut One Piece would be a simple task; the bombastic characters, epic quests and thrilling battles the series is known for should, in theory, make for an excellent adventure. With One Piece Romance Dawn, what developer Three Rings has actually produced is a tedious, lazy, borderline insulting abomination that stretches player patience in a manner that would have even the elastic Luffy impressed.
The plot of the game follows the earlier portions of Monkey D. Luffy’s impressively expansive adventures, commencing with his humble beginnings as a pirate-wannabe and chronicling his journey to recruit more members into his seafaring squad. The presentation of this narrative, however, is laughably lazy, draining any pretence of drama or suspense from proceedings. Static images of characters spout ceaseless, terribly written dialogue, the shaking of their avatars to distinguish which person is speaking the only animation used in these bland exchanges. Text is placed haphazardly into word balloons and many characters are represented by a single image, making any kind of emotive expression impossible.
These tiresome segments drag on endlessly and yet do a horrible job of any real exposition; important plot points are relegated to a single line or two whereas extraneous dialogue continues relentlessly. They are interspersed with screen captures taken directly from the anime, but even these frequently miss the mark – more often than not these are blurry, marred by poor compression and directly taken from lower quality interstitial frames. Established fans of the series will wonder how Three Rings has made an interesting tale so dull, whereas newcomers will question why anybody would be interested in the One Piece franchise to begin with.
Once gameplay begins in earnest, things begin to look up, albeit momentarily. Character models are fairly detailed and well-animated, the environments bright and colourful and Luffy and co. move at a decent clip. However, cracks in this façade begin to appear almost immediately – cursory exploration confirms that areas are sparse and empty, a constantly repeating sequence of dull corridors lazily populated with the odd crate or barrel.
Certain textures are of a notably low resolution, Luffy’s face in particular being an indistinguishable mess of pixels from anywhere but an extreme close-up. The 3D effect is non-existent; not a statement of hyperbole to imply it is ineffective, but that Three Rings literally did not include any kind of 3D functionality. It should come as no surprise to learn that Romance Dawn is a port of a PSP game, and no attempt has been made to mask the shortcomings present as a result of this lazy repackaging beyond haphazardly slapping a map on the lower screen.
Combat is turn-based wherein player characters can move freely in an enclosed space, but are penalised for straying too far from their starting point with longer wait times for their next turn. Luffy and crew can (eventually) access a fairly varied array of attacks and combos, each of which costs a certain amount of TP to use and have certain effects such as knocking assailants into walls to inflict additional damage. On paper this sounds like it may provide a tactical, dynamic experience, but sadly these mechanics quickly devolve into mashing the A button to use the standard combo, occasionally using a special move when TP accumulates. Enemies mostly pose no challenge whatsoever, lazily countering with weak sword strikes or ineffective gunshots, too underpowered to provide any real opposition. Infrequently one of the heroes will be required to use one of the plentiful healing items provided, but that’s about the extent of any strategic thinking required from the player.
Beyond following the excruciatingly relayed main narrative, players can traverse randomly generated dungeons to level up their crew and search for (inconsequential) loot. Enduring the journey through one of these labyrinths is rarely worth the effort, each one an exercise in tedium and frustration culminating in a monotonous boss battle. If there’s any fun to be had in these mazes, it must be extremely well hidden. Components can be found in these warrens of mediocrity for the game’s extraneous item-crafting system, but this proves wholly unnecessary when the vast amount of goods that can be created are rivalled by equipment the player can find lying on the ground shortly thereafter.
Frankly, it’s difficult to ascertain who would glean any semblance of enjoyment from One Piece Romance Dawn. Any ardent fan of the Straw Hat Pirates’ escapades will only find themselves angered by how little effort has gone into this tawdry misadventure, whereas this paragon of poor design will do nothing to bring new fans into the flock. Namco Bandai has published a number of surprisingly solid titles tied to their Shōnen Jump properties in recent years, but they've indisputably missed the boat on making One Piece Romance Dawn anywhere close to worth playing.