The Straw Hat Pirates of One Piece are a household name even to those who usually prefer to distance themselves from manga and anime. What Eiichirō Oda created in 1997 with his iconic sailors goes beyond the work of a single person. There are almost 900 anime episodes, several films, merch galore, and of course, plenty of video games have sprung forth from the franchise over the last twenty years. In fact, there are now almost 50 of them - even more if you include the gang's various guest appearances (as we've seen recently in Jump Force, for example).
A big portion of that One Piece-related entertainment isn't all that good, which is a shame. Fans, however, seem to have been able to come to terms with the inadequacies of the games, although most of the offshoots still remain a niche proposition. With Ganbarion handling development, Bandai Namco will open a new chapter for the Straw Hat Pirates in the middle of March and, for the first time, they'll do so in a (mostly) freely explorable open game world. Is this the breakthrough for the series that fans have been dreaming of for so long?
And with that in mind, we've recently taken our first look at One Piece: World Seeker and spent almost six hours with Ruffy on the new setting, Jail Island. This so far unknown location unites several areas and invites you to explore its many regions. Rural zones alternate with busy and well-guarded locations and they offer enough variety to anchor themselves in one's memory. Along the way, Ruffy grabs the materials he needs via fetch quests, crafting, and cooking, with farming spots that regenerate over time that we can revisit frequently.
Much more exciting than that are the various reputation systems in One Piece: World Seeker. In Ruffy's new game we have several "factions" at our disposal, which apparently reward us with significant advantages if we work well with them. The developer calls it the 'Pirate Karma' system, but it has nothing to do with the decisions we make nor the way we play; it's a linear reward system for hard-working players that encourages them to complete visible challenges.
Although the action in most One Piece games has always been the main focus, the hustle and bustle fits wonderfully into a narrative framework. For World Seeker, Oda and the animation company Toei Animation worked together on a new scenario. The opening sequence introduces a dangerous enemy called Isaac who watches over Jail Island. This cunning scientist uses advanced technology to, among other things, reverse the effects of devil fruits. As part of this story we've fallen into the scoundrel's trap and a little way into our adventure we help rebel leader Jeanne take action against their oppression.
New to the series (and, admittedly, it takes some getting used to) are the stealth mechanics. Ruffy, who usually confronts things head on, now eliminates enemies from behind. We can also scan the environment for interesting objects with an infrared view like we do with Batman and Geralt. This may sound like a weird addition, but it makes sense within the context of the game. It feels good not having to fight all the time too, although the insta-kills seem ridiculously overpowered thanks to the enemy AI, especially at higher levels of difficulty, where these mechanics seem to be an indispensable tool.
According to Bandai Namco, Ruffy is the only member of the pirate gang that we are allowed to control ourselves. Our crew is nevertheless an important part of One Piece: World Seeker, as they guard the Thousand Sunny in our absence, collect valuable resources, and help us with their individual abilities. Ship chef Sanji, for example, cooks meals for us and we use these to refresh our health (making them very useful) and receive temporary buffs. Lysop, Chopper, and Franky, on the other hand, equip Ruffy with various items that seem to aid different playing styles.
Aside from this, character development primarily takes place via a five-branch skill tree. There are two sides to the Haki fighting style (one for a quieter 'Observation' style of play, the other's called 'Armament' and lets you do more damage with new combo moves), your base stats, exploration, and the combat itself, all of which can be improved as you play. Each enemy we take down gives up experience points which we can then invest in Ruffy's various abilities. Story missions also have certain abilities/upgrades, such as Ruffy's infamous 'gear' abilities.
Unfortunately, the conversations between characters can be rather rigid despite their otherwise charming portrayal, and the exaggerated poses don't look very good (for example, facial animations are mostly missing and some faces are painted on). The presentation is generally pretty restrained but still convinced us thanks to the crazy character design, the detail in the scenery, and the overall variety of the game world. Oh, and the game is VERY colourful - the contrasting colours on the TV we played on almost melted our retinas.
We had the most fun while exploring Jail Island because Ruffy has some cool traversal options at his disposal, options which suit the action very well. The resulting dynamic style fits perfectly to the series and has room to get even crazier. Compared to the Musou offshoots such as Pirate Warriors, the combat still looks a bit weak (although we admittedly didn't see any impressions of the endgame). Unfortunately, the same can be said for the traversal, the uninspired quest design, the restrictions in the open world, and much more... That said, if you know the setup, can't get enough of the Straw Hats, and if you appreciate some of the weaker tie-ins for their individual qualities, you might still get your money's worth with World Seeker.