For a role-playing game to succeed in 2014, it needs to tell a good story.
Well, maybe that’s not entirely true. The definition of “role-playing game” can be fuzzy to the point where it could be argued that, say, Minecraft is a role-playing game, and there are certainly no stories to be found there aside from the ones that players create. Even games more traditionally thought of as RPGs like Skyrim and Dragon Age can have their stories bent and even ignored by the whims of players. Still, if we’re talking about something like a traditional JRPG or even the majority of “western” RPGs, there’s going to be a story involved.
One Piece: Romance Dawn has a story. It’s a story that’s been told before in the One Piece anime, and it’s a story with a built-in fanbase whose members stretch across the world. The anime is fairly well-regarded, and the tales of its adventurers are still being told. Romance Dawn takes a good chunk of the existing part of that story and makes it playable.
This should be a slam dunk. One of the most difficult parts of telling an RPG story is making the players care—truly care—about the characters involved. Most of the audience for Romance Dawn will care, and care deeply, for the game’s characters before a single battle is fought, before even a single button is pushed. And yet somehow, the story of Romance Dawn—a story that, I remind you, existed long before this game did—comes off as utterly terrible. It is painful to watch developers so quickly squash and thoroughly squander the goodwill of a built-in fanbase; it’s even worse to think about how this comes off to someone who has never actually watched the anime.
How does this happen? The story is told in stills and dialogue bubbles. This by itself wouldn’t be so bad, except that the hand-drawn style of the text in the bubbles is too much space for the limited real estate provided by the 3DS. This results in clipped, forced sentences; the following is not an actual exchange from the game, but it’s the level of dialogue on display:
“TAKE ONE STEP AND I’LL SHOOT YOU DOWN, WIMP.”
“DAMMIT, DID YOU HEAR ME?!”
“I’M GONNA BLOW YOUR HEAD OFF.”
“HA HA HA!!!”
“I HOPE YOU’RE READY TO DIE.”
Now, imagine those lines in bubbles that don’t actually point to anybody. Imagine that while multiple or no characters are on the screen. Finally, imagine trying to get through a 20-minute cutscene like that. It’s positively brutal. The decision to take this approach to the story, an approach that leaves it clipped and juvenile at best and utterly unintelligible at worst, is the most egregious of the game’s many poorly-designed elements.
The actual game elements here aren’t much more effective than the story ones. You spend most of your time running around environments that essentially play like hallways, even if they’re supposed to be open spaces like forests or beaches, running into enemies three (sometimes five) at a time. You then hammer the attack button a few times until those enemies are dead and then you move on. There’s no real world exploration because you move from environ to environ in a boat, so the only real exploring you get to do is within a location. While such exploration can yield valuable treasure, the utter repetitiveness of the enemies and the sameness of the various locales kills the motivation to go after what’s likely to be a couple more crafting materials.
There are a couple of decent ideas here, one of which actually is the crafting system, which is quite plainly tailored toward beginners to the genre. By offering the choice of either looking at a list of potential items to be crafted or selecting a crafting item and seeing what can specifically be made with that item, the game allows the player to either go on a hunt for a specific item or see how to turn the things that have already found into something useful. The fighting system has the bones of something positive as well, with the allowance for some positional roaming in the largely turn-based fights.
You really have to look to find the positives, though, because the negatives here are so utterly overwhelming. You button-press your way through interminable unintelligible cutscenes on your way to running through an endless array of interchangeable dungeon maps. There is literally nothing to look forward to, whether you know how the story goes or not. Even if you’re the biggest of One Piece fans, why put yourself through that?