There aren’t many licensed properties that can claim to have a game on both the Bandai Wonderswan and Nintendo’s Switch, but that’s the case with Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece — this evergreen manga megahit has had a steady stream of video game adaptations over its 20-year-plus run, with One Piece Unlimited World Red - Deluxe Edition on Switch as the latest. It’s an updated version of the same 3D action title that came out on the Wii U and 3DS in 2014, and though it doesn’t add enough to warrant a return trip if you’ve already played it on those platforms, this is still a fun, vibrant beat-‘em-up that series fans will get a big, stretchy kick out of.
When Unlimited World Red kicks off, long-limbed Luffy — One Piece’s always-hungry hero — and his pirate friends have finally spotted land after being long out at sea. The forebodingly named Island of Promises looms ahead, and it’s there that they plan to part ways with Pato, a mysterious magical tanuki friend they picked up along the way. Of course, as you might imagine, things don’t exactly go to plan; not five minutes after setting foot on the island Luffy finds himself alone, with every last one of his crew mysteriously kidnapped, and so sets off to rescue his friends and uncover what’s really going on.
The adventure that follows is full-on shōnen fun, and carries all the action, plot twists, and old friends and foes you’d expect from a piece of the One Piece plotline, but it also comes with a caveat: Unlimited World Red assumes you’re already a fan of the series, and doesn’t do much to catch newcomers up to speed. While it’s not really much of an issue in terms of the story — sure, you won’t appreciate returning foes or catch every reference, but it’s not difficult to follow — it’s still a shame, because much of the appeal of this decades-long series is in its characters and worldbuilding, and without so much as an introduction to the crew that appeal will be largely lost on new players.
Still, even without any backstory, the gameplay loop is immediately accessible: you’ll begin your adventures in the island’s centre of Transtown — a brightly coloured hub area — and then warp off to self-contained levels from there. You’ll start by rescuing your kidnapped companions, but once you get the gang back together you’ll be able to choose your adventuring party — of up to three members at a time — before you head out, and then make your way through each stage in succession.
The levels themselves are relatively straightforward jaunts through extraordinary settings, characterized by groups of baddies to beat up, loot to grab, resources to gather, and bosses to challenge. The bosses are real highlights of each stage — while the mob foes that line the route towards them are mostly unmemorable, these end-level enemies come with plenty of personality, cutscene introductions, and satisfying attack patterns that made us excited to face each one.
Once you do best a boss you’ll be whisked back to Transtown, and you can use the spoils and treasures brought back to improve and expand the hub. You’ll build restaurants, pharmacies, taverns and more, and these open up everything from item shops to quests, which in turn send you back out into the wild. It’s a classic, compelling gameplay loop, and Transtown itself an enjoyable hub — there’s plenty to see and do, and Luffy’s impossibly long arms letting you zoom around from point to point like a Straw Hat Spider Man is one of our favourite modes of locomotion in recent memory.
Luffy's lithe limbs aren’t the only unique character point in Unlimited World, and part of what makes the beat-‘em-up gameplay feel both unique and satisfying is how differently each character plays. Luffy’s long-range punches and kicks have a lasso-like feel, while Zorro’s straightforward swordplay is the most reminiscent of standard action heroes. Nami fights with a staff, but also has the power to control the weather, which means placing clouds and juggling foes with zoning techniques. Resident not-a-racoon Chopper shapeshifts all over the place, from a rampaging reindeer to an impossibly buff tank, and Robin attacks from the ground by raising human hands out of the soil.
And while these character traits do lead to appreciably different play styles — we tended to run Zorro as a rushdown character while setting up traps and controlling space with Nami, for instance — the controls remain blessedly consistent between them, which means it’s always easy to switch off. ‘X’ and ‘Y’ are used for two different basic attacks across the board, with long-presses resulting in variants, and combinations of the two leading to character-specific combos. You can switch between your three teammates on the fly with a press of the ‘-‘ button, as well as initiate special moves and tag-team partner attacks by holding ‘R’ and tapping a face button — these drain an SP meter, but it recharges quickly enough that you’ll almost always have the power for at least one.
In fact, ‘having the power’ is the general theme of combat in One Piece; though you’ll often find yourself outnumbered, you’ll almost never feel overpowered. It’s a bit on the easy side in general, with mob enemies slow to act and little match for Luffy and friends’ special moves, and the presence of almost constant counter opportunities — with a quick press of the ‘A’ button in a forgiving time frame — cuts their danger level down even further. It’s also worth noting that Unlimited World Red has some of the most competent teammate AI we’ve seen in an action game — to the point where we spent one fight just wandering around enjoying the view, and still came out on top.
Normally that might be a bit of dealbreaker, but the lack of danger (outside the more challenging boss fights) doesn’t stop Unlimited World from being a lot of fun. Much of that is due to the vibrant, pop-off-the-screen style and the gorgeous aesthetic — between the visuals, the Japanese voice acting and the excellent orchestral soundtrack, it really does feel like an anime come to life — but it’s also thanks to fast, satisfying combat and a system that seems to lean hard into making the player feel good. You’ll feel like an overpowered, rampaging pirate king, and that’s as fun as it sounds.
In other areas, the game falls down on this smooth sense of style, unfortunately; the camera is decent, for instance, but can be a bit unwieldily and too zoomed-in for comfort, and transitions between free and fixed camera control often led to awkward moments of reorientation. Then there’s the ‘Strong Word’ system, which lets you customize your characters with new moves and stat bonuses tied to catch phrases; we love the theme of these boosts being linked to incantations, but the fact that they essentially just act like well-named items feels like a missed opportunity — we would have loved to have seen them pop up on screen (or at least be uttered!) when invoked.
And finally, while the levels are visually impressive — and much more thematically distinctive than the island setting might lead you to believe at first glance! — the level design itself feels uninspired. Whether it’s desert sands, the insides of a volcano, or an above-water reef, you’ll still trek forward through a series of remarkably same-y open-air corridors and arenas on the way to a boss. There’s also almost always a bit of backtracking involved in each level, and though character-specific abilities make return exploration more interesting, having to hike back halfway across the map just to pick up a newly-minted key and hike back is less fun.
Of course, all this was true in the Wii U and 3DS versions of the game; how does this enhanced Switch version stack up? Pretty similarly, as it turns out. The ‘Deluxe Edition’ moniker refers to the inclusion here of all previously-paid DLC, though we expect that will only mean much to the most fanatic of fans. It consists of a handful of costumes and a series of extra quests, but aside from the excellent ‘15th anniversary’ collection, the outfits aren’t too exciting, and generally end up being less colourful and appealing than the characters’ default clothes. It’s certainly nice to have, but we also imagine that most players this DLC would make a difference to will have already played the game on a previous platform.
The game does run wonderfully on the Switch, however, in beautifully smooth 60 frames-per-second — aside from cutscenes, which are locked at a lower rate — and the hybrid handheld-home-console nature of the system fits the game (almost) perfectly; we loved being able to see the beautiful art and vibrant colours on the big screen, but the relatively quick levels and fast action also make for great on-the-go gaming. The one qualm we have specific to the Switch version is that the lack of a second screen is surprisingly keenly felt; we found ourselves diving into the menu to check the mini-map frequently for goal markers, while the 3DS version kept us informed without having to pause.
The Switch version makes up for its single screen with its built-in two controllers, however; this version features drop-in co-op with single Joy Con controls, and it’s a killer feature. You can switch the game over into two-player mode at any time in the menu, and then a second player can drop in or out with the press of a button. The screen splits into two smaller widescreen views arranged diagonally, and while it’s a bit small in tabletop mode, on a big enough screen it’s pretty perfect. The controls work surprisingly well mapped onto one Joy Con as well; the only issue is having to shake to centre the camera, but we’ll take some occasional camera confusion if it means getting to team up with a friend — the action beat-‘em-up gameplay is a perfect fit for co-op.
Not much has changed since its Wii U and 3DS days, but Unlimited World Red is still a swashbuckling good time for anime action aficionados. The handful of extra quests and costumes included in this ‘Deluxe Edition’ probably won’t be enough to tempt anyone into double (or triple) dipping, but excellent visuals and drop-in co-op with single Joy Con controls make the Switch version a great place to jump in. It’s a shame that there isn’t more of an effort to introduce Oda’s incredible world to players unfamiliar with the manga source material, but if you’re already a Straw Hat supporter this is an easy recommendation.