Review by Awasai
"A Real Treat for Fans"
One Piece: Romance Dawn
Preface: This is still a Japanese-only title. I know Japanese, so this presented no obstacle to me in playing the game, but for the purposes of this review, I will assume that you also know Japanese or are using a translation patch to make the game's text legible to you. Wandering in the dark, language-wise, will obviously produce a very different gaming experience that I would estimate would warrant knocking at least three points off the score, unless you enjoy such strange challenges.
Romance Dawn, taking its title from the first chapter of the ongoing, decades long manga, One Piece, is the first full-blown turn-based RPG to cover a sizable portion of the series' actual storyline (and not a non-canon story, as with real-time RPGs Unlimited Adventure and Unlimited Cruise). The gameplay elements alone make for a rather shallow RPG, but the One Piece coat of paint does its job well, and assuming you're a fan of the series, it is that aspect that makes playing Romance Dawn worthwhile.
The game covers the plot of One Piece from Luffy's outset from Fusha Village, all the way to the Whitebeard War at Marineford, covering what could be characterized as the first half of the series (meaning we may see a symmetrical sequel 15 years from now). For non-fans, it's the story of 17-year old Money D. Luffy, who sets out to become the King of the Pirates during the great age of piracy, recruiting crewmates along the way (in a very RPG-like fashion), traveling to different islands, and fighting a variety of villains with absurd abilities, ranging from the wacky to the terrifying. It's a story that has taken over 15 years and more than 700 weekly chapters to tell, so far, and a good 80% of that story has been transformed into playable content in Romance Dawn, with only a few glaring omissions (most notably Skypiea, and Shabondy). Every major arc pre-New World (except Skypiea) is covered to some extent.
The story is told through a large number of skippable cutscenes with static images of characters and text bubbles, and a few fully-[re]animated scenes, taken from the anime. The static scenes tend to drag, and those familiar with the series may actually be more inclined to skip them and move on to the action. I personally find One Piece's story to be an engaging, emotional, and epic trip with an incredible sense of scope that translates well to RPG format (starting with a single, relatively-weak character in a tiny boat with big dreams and ending with a full nine man crew decked out with abilities and gear and a massive ship, taking on the world), but Romance Dawn's stale method of conveyance leaves something to be desired. More anime cutscenes might have been asking for too much, but a bit more voice-acting and dynamic elements would have greatly helped the dull bits of exposition.
Players traverse a world map, going from island to island (backtracking is allowed), and gameplay on each island is split into two modes- exploration and battle. With one selected crew member as your avatar (and up to three in the party at a time), you traverse 3D environments that amount to a series of labyrinths, each with start and finish points. Although there are multiple environment templates (forest, Marine base, cave, desert, cities, tundra, haunted island, etc.), there is a set number of maze layouts, which makes this bit into a chore sooner than later, when you find yourself having memorized which paths to take (because even if you know the way, there is a lot of running and no way to increase one's speed). Littering the mazes are treasure chests with items (equipment, healing items, crafting items, etc.) and groups of enemies that pursue the player on sight (mobs are based on typical fodder characters from throughout the series, like marines, basic pirates, Alabastan guards/rebels, Lapins, zombies, and so on).
Upon contact with an enemy, battle begins. Romance Dawn's battles are turn-based, but stand out from those of other similar battle systems because the characters are free to move around the field in real-time before deciding on the action for that turn (within set radii; crossing those lines results in battle penalties). This creates some interesting dynamics, when re-positioning oneself could allow for an AOE attack to hit multiple enemies in a line. Enemies are also physically moved as they are battered around, so a decent amount of strategy can come into play when a weaker character might first herd enemies together in a group so that a stronger one can wipe them all out at once. Characters can guard, flee, use items, or attack. Every character has basic attacks that do not require TP (TP is replenished by landing those basic attacks), and a set of special moves that naturally do require TP. Multiple attacks forming a combo are allowed per character per turn (typically four, with set conditions that increase or reduce that number mid-battle), and the player can choose to mix in special attacks at the end of a basic attack combo. Winning a battle rewards the player with money, experience points, and SP, which is used to permanently upgrade the power of both the basic combo and special attacks. Those special attacks are taken directly from the series, such as Luffy's Gomu Gomu no Rifle, Zoro's Three Thousand Worlds, Brook's Humming Notched Arrow Strike, to name a few (most characters have 5+ by the end).
There is a fairly basic equipment system (each character has a slot for a hat, clothing, shoes, and an accessory) and a relatively robust crafting system that uses found items to construct more powerful healing items, battle items, and equipment.
Very rarely, the player is confronted with Grand Stream sequences on the field, wherein the character automatically runs through the maze, and the player is prompted with quick-time-event button cues that reward success with restored HP and failure with HP-loss or extra battles.
Fighting bosses is the highlight of the game. The battle system is the same as with grunts, but it is with the bosses that the difficulty takes a noticeable spike and that the flavor of One Piece really shines through via their personalities and special moves. An astonishingly large number of bosses are present in the game, found at the appropriate points in the story, ranging from the major and expected ones to lesser ones that might take even a dedicated fan by surprise. The game is true enough to the story to the extent that, for the most part, the player is only allowed to use the character[s] in his/her party who actually confronted the enemy in the manga. The makes for several particularly grueling gauntlets of battles in places like Enies Lobby. Defeated bosses randomly reappear on the world map if one wishes to fight them again for experience, drop items, or just satisfaction. Despite the difficulty, grinding is rarely required, as good item management and utilization of special attacks counts for a lot more than base level.
Romance Dawn's gameplay is shallow in the grand scheme, but it stays fresh for long enough to get through the main storyline, and the fact that it's all based around One Piece adds an exciting flavor that saves it from complete mediocrity.
The aforementioned anime cutscenes are a real treat, but the game's visuals in general are a mixed bag. Graphics are crisp and clear with fluid animations for all of the character's actions, but the environments fall flat. Even the most intricately detailed ones still just amount to the same old labyrinth paths. If you've seen one hallway, you've seen them all, and there's very little that keeps one's attention. Even items/equipment are just represented by a small set of stock avatars (four types of equipment, healing, crafting, or battle item), which seems like a missed opportunity to implement a lot more creative attention to detail. Characters' appearances do not change based on their equipment except in the case of wristbands (but they do automatically update their costumes for different story arcs). Although the graphics are top-notch, a lot of the visual decisions feel lazy. There's also a small amount of slowdown when a large number of enemies are on-screen.
The sounds do their part. Satisfying smacks when you hit enemies and voice-acted battle cries when you use special moves are a constant and pleasant reminder of the One Piece theme. The One Piece anime is known for its excellent music, and while Romance Dawn's music doesn't quite live up to that standard, it's not bad. There are a few tracks for the various field environments, several battle themes, and a few more sweeping, dramatic pieces used for the exposition and cutscenes. Only a few really stand out, but the rest still get the job done without making you hate them.
At this point, I'll say that Romance Dawn is a must have for any fan of One Piece, as it's the story and characters you love condensed into an RPG for the first time. Despite its weaker points, the grandeur and scope of One Piece is well-conveyed with passable RPG mechanics, and the game does a great job reminding the player how far this series has come from its humble roots.
Non-fans trying to get into the series for the first time would be better off reading the manga or watching the anime first, but if you're dead-set on playing the game, make it a rental (if possible?) or at least try not to pay full price, as the experience is bound to be a bit lacking without familiarity with the source material.
Final score: 7/10 for fans, 5/10 for non-fans
Reviewer's Rating: 3.5 - Good
Originally Posted: 04/29/13
Game Release: One Piece: Romance Dawn - Bouken no Yoake (JP, 12/20/12)
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