Eiichiro Oda’s anime juggernaut isn't short of games on multiple systems, and quality can be distinctly variable; the unimpressive One Piece: Romance Dawn on 3DS, with its repetitive gameplay and questionable production values, is one at the wrong end of the chain. In that sense it's tough to know what to expect from the series, though Unlimited World Red on Wii U does help to restore a little faith.
When Luffy and the gang return transforming tanuki Pato to Trans Town, the elastic explorer darts off to explore this exciting new area. However, after a brief battle with neighbourhood thugs, Luffy is informed his comrades have been abducted, and sets out to recover each of his allies from their mysterious captor. It's a wafer-thin plot set to justify exploring the island, but it works — for a lighthearted game such as Unlimited World Red, players don't need endless exposition to set up the adventure, and the this one knows to kick off the adventure as quickly as possible.
Traversing the town itself holds some novelty and is entertaining enough for the first few hours of playtime — prompts to press the X button appear atop rooftop ledges and lamps, and doing so causes Luffy to extend his rubbery limbs to catapult across the area. It’s a visual spectacle that easily impresses, with a practical purpose that makes it an entertaining way to cross the map. That said, Luffy can only lock onto predetermined points and vaults past them clumsily, making landing on small surfaces tricky and unwieldy. This can be rectified by inflating Luffy’s body into the shape of a balloon by holding the A button, allowing him to slowly drift down towards the ground.
The meat of the game takes place in isolated stages – here Luffy (and, eventually, his colourful cast of cohorts) sprint around fairly enclosed areas, battling enemy groups in what often culminates with a boss battle. Combat is simple and intuitive, allowing most of the game to be played by simply mashing the Y and X buttons until every opponent has been defeated. That said, there are some deceptively deep combat mechanics available to those that wish to explore them — combos are listed in the game’s menu screens, and using the optimum move at each juncture is key to clearing out enemy hordes with finesse.
Luffy can also explore each area with two companions in tow, control of which can be taken by a quick tap of the select button; the AI controls these teammates and does an admiral job of assisting in battle, to the point where many times the computer characters can be relied upon to fend for themselves. Once a gauge labelled SP is filled, teams can perform collaborative attacks that deal huge damage to every enemy present, and doing so can often turn the tide of battle.
Utilising each of the character’s unique moves and special attacks is initially a joy – the stylistic approach to graphics make each attack feel dynamic and energetic, and watching the game be played is entertaining as a result. Once this novelty has been exhausted, though, each battle starts to become an uphill slog to the end of the stage. The issue with these encounters is not that they aren’t enjoyable or are poorly designed, but that they’re far too easy and lacking in impact — the appearance of a squad of enemies soon becomes a chore, as Luffy and his associates make quick work of any would-be attackers, opponents constantly being tossed to and fro like a sack of pirate potatoes. Enemy attacks can be countered by pressing A at the correct prompt, normally mitigating all damage, which makes most assaults easy to avoid and often pointless. The only time enemies will reliably get a hit on the player is when fulfilling one of these prompts causes Luffy to dash into another (unavoidable) attack. It’s a cheap way of the game evening the odds, and it’s frustrating to be punished for correctly meeting a command prompt.
The boss battles, however, are an entirely different story. These large scale clashes are challenging and interesting, many having multiple stages and weaknesses to exploit. Each boss has multiple health bars and often attack with great force — the stakes are much higher in these encounters, and as a result they are much more memorable. These boss battles often serve as the incentive to continue with the fairly linear, repetitive levels, and they function well as a reward to make the more tedious segments of the game worthwhile.
The controls in One Piece are fairly intuitive, and as mentioned before there is a combo list, but most players will find the best method is simply to mash buttons until they find a move-set that works for them. The move-sets are fairly varied and particularly diverse between characters, which helps to keep combat fresh for players who choose to delve into the deeper recesses of these battle mechanics. One particular issue, however, is that two attacks seemed to be mapped to Luffy’s X button — one long range attack, suitable for striking hazardous objects from a distance, and one dashing attack that is the precise opposite. Experimentation seemed to point to these attacks being selected at random; this is not helpful when Luffy opted to dash face-first into a cactus for the umpteenth time. Beyond this minor complaint, though, the combat system is simple and satisfying, allowing even novice players to pummel enemies with aplomb.
Graphically, One Piece is superb – it’s a stylised cel-shaded look we’ve seen before with Bandai Namco’s other anime titles, and it’s been polished to a shine with Unlimited World Red. Each main character is beautifully animated, their bombastic personalities bursting out of this vibrant, detailed world. It’s clear a lot of work has been put into making the game look as close to an interactive anime as possible, and the result is a stunning visual display that adds some much needed spectacle to proceedings.
The game features a Japanese vocal track with English subtitles (likely to serve the purist anime fans who usually prefer subs to dubs) and it fits well with the game’s off-beat humour. The music on offer serves its purpose but never seems to excel beyond non-obtrusive; it’s adequate but entirely forgettable, lacking the punch the visuals deliver.
Some may be a little disappointed that Unlimited World Red makes little effort to explain the setting or the characters to the uninitiated, but perhaps that’s besides the point – the target audience for this game is already familiar with the series’ lore, and it’s those that will take the most from this game. That’s not to say players who are not versed in the anime or manga will be unable to enjoy the game; on the contrary, there’s an energetic, lighthearted brawler to be enjoyed here, and despite some control issues and repetitive segments it’s a decent romp through Eiichiro Oda’s world. For fans of the series though, it’s not a difficult recommendation — the game is passable on it’s own merit, but filled with many nods to established characters and events that One Piece enthusiasts will love. Overall, this title goes some way to take the series away from some of the mis-steps in its past.