"The game is deeply flawed, but it's not broken, and I was willing enough to forgive its flaws and still had some fun with it."
Now celebrating its 15th anniversary, One Piece is an anime and manga that most fans of these genres probably have at least a passing familiarity with. Unfortunately, after 15 years of history, watching or reading the whole thing is a mighty daunting prospect for anyone who hasn't been following it since near the beginning. The good news for anyone in that situation is that the fine folks at Three Rings have given us a game that summarizes just under 600 chapters of the manga (a little over 500 anime episodes) in about 60 hours of gameplay. The bad news is that the presentation style and some of the editorial choices made in that summary make some scenes only intelligible to those who are already fans, and this leeches much of the excitement and drama from the experience.
My own, even briefer, summary of One Piece's story goes like this: the series follows the main character, Luffy, and the crew he gathers in his quest to find the One Piece treasure and become the Pirate King. In Luffy's world, people can gain special abilities by eating an extremely rare "devil fruit," each of which grants a specific(-ish) and unique(-ish) type of power but also curses the eater to lose the ability to move if they are touching sea water. Obviously, this is a significant drawback for a pirate, but the powers gained are enough to convince many to eat the fruit regardless. Luffy ate the Gum-Gum fruit and gained the ability to stretch himself like a rubber band. One of his frequent opponents, Captain Smoker of the Marines, has the ability to turn all or part of himself into smoke. The laws of physics rarely apply here. It's a rich world with characters on all sides of the central conflict (Luffy's friends, enemy pirates, and the Marines) who really care about each other in their own way and are capable of setting aside their silly quirks to demonstrate real maturity when the occasion demands it.
Romance Dawn covers most of the series that has been released to date, ending just after the Marineford Arc, which the creator Eiichiro Oda says is the mid-point of the overall story. (Yes, this series may continue another 15 years.) The game tells its story mostly through static facial pictures over scene-relevant backgrounds, with rare clips from the anime to punctuate a few of the most emotional moments. This is particularly nice given that some of the static pictures really don't align with the emotions expressed by the dialogue. The game mercifully skips over several sections of the story that have little long-term significance, including the nearly 100 anime episodes comprising the entire Sky Island Saga and the lead-in sections to the Water 7 Saga, which I greatly appreciate.
At the same time, the game often makes poor choices as to the specific details included in a scene. For example, in the Alabasta arc, a character swoops in to save the day despite having never been mentioned until that point. In other scenes, one-off comic relief characters are included for a single joke, again, with no backstory. It's not a constant problem, but it is definitely a common one. The needless inclusions feel like the more painful of the two, especially during the chapters of the game that leave you reading text for way too long. There were multiple occasions when I found myself moving from one extremely long scene to a short dungeon with no save points, then back to another extremely long scene for literally hours. What if I had died at some point in that span?!
Fortunately (not really), this game is rarely difficult enough to have made that a real possibility. In my 60 hours with Romance Dawn, I only died twice. Once during a relatively early boss battle where the difficulty spiked unexpectedly and once during a very late boss battle where my knowledge of the anime led me to expect it would be unwinnable, so I didn't try to stay alive the first time I fought it.
Battles are turn-based affairs in which turn order is based on the characters' speed. On their turn, characters have free movement within the battlefield, although if they move farther than a set distance from their starting point, they'll incur penalties on the wait time until their next turn. Winning battles earns party members experience points toward leveling up and improving their stats, and doing things like knocking opponents into walls earns skill points, which are used to level up attacks. Thus, battles often mean positioning your character before attacking in order to maximize the skill points they'll earn, which helps to keep things less boring than they'd be otherwise. Still, well before the end of the game, I had maxed out Luffy's area-damaging Gum-Gum Whip attack and could generally kill every foe in his first turn, negating any worries about his positioning or the actions of his companions.
Sadly, the tedium does not end there. The area designs are, graphical differences aside, cut from one of two identical molds: building interiors/city streets made of straight lines and 90 degree angles, or nature areas with maps that all curve in exactly the same fashion. Many of the islands (particularly those where you're not playing a story mission) even share backgrounds. I realize that there are only so many options when it comes to corridor-based maps, but Romance Dawn really does often feel like 60 hours of the same two maps. On non-story islands, you are free to choose three party members you want to play as, but you should take care to keep Luffy's entire crew at similar experience levels, since story missions generally force at least one of your party member choices.
On the upside, the anime's familiar characters all look, move, and sound as fans of the series have come to expect. The clips from the show and special attacks in battle even use the original Japanese voice-overs (necessary, given that most of the series has not been dubbed into English). The music appears completely unique to the game, which is somewhat odd given that the anime series has had a number of theme songs over the years. The game's music gets the job done, but does nothing beyond that, and in fact, the extreme length of the cutscenes meant that I frequently left the game on mute as I played while I watched TV.
When all is said and done, One Piece: Romance Dawn is a tough sell. It summarizes a series that's been running for 15 years into a 60 hour game, which would appear to make it a perfect entry point for anyone who has been scared to jump into the anime or manga, but it does so in such a way that would likely leave that same player confused. Instead, it seems to me that the ideal audience for this game is someone who is familiar with the source material and would like a reminder of what has happened over those long years and doesn't mind a fair amount of tedium. The game is deeply flawed, but it's not broken, and I was willing enough to forgive its flaws and still had some fun with it. In addition, the emotional moments took me back to my original experiences and had the power to choke me up, which speaks strongly for the source material — a crucial element for any adaptation like this.