The JRPG formula is a well-worn one, so it’s always refreshing to have new elements thrown into the mix. Just like how the Straw Hat Pirates have ventured to the different parts of One Piece world, the franchise’s games are no stranger to sailing new seas – and the proof lies in its history.
One Piece: World Seeker, for instance, took on an open-world approach, while Pirate Warriors 4 found its roots in hack-and-slash action. With One Piece Odyssey, Bandai Namco sticks to the exploratory tradition yet again, as it dips its toes into the JRPG genre for the first time in the series’ history.
And it’s a promising adventure, if a three-hour preview is any indication. As with every franchise title, it primarily targets the existing fan base, but there are also enough fresh and friendly elements to delight newcomers into the fold. More notably, the story is penned by series creator Eiichiro Oda himself, which gives it an edge in the appeal factor right from the get-go.
The game starts off in a linear fashion, and leaves very little room for free roaming in its first chapter. Luffy’s crew finds themselves washed up on the shore of a mysterious island called Waford, with their ship entirely destroyed and the Straw Hat Pirates scattered all around. Once all the characters are rounded up, another problem makes itself known – Nami, separated from everyone else, is in danger, and the group has to save her from the crutches of a gigantic ape and other hostile forces.
In between these cutscenes and narrative exposition is where the learning kicks in. One Piece Odyssey is generous with its tutorial sequences, dishing out bits of guidance instead of overwhelming players with a barrage of information. Here, Luffy is able to traverse through his surroundings with a grapple hook mechanic that uses the elasticity of his arm, and it doesn’t take long to get the hang of it.
He isn’t the only playable character, either. The game’s character-switching feature allows for a seamless swap between the crew members, with each of them having their overworld abilities that have been carried over from the source material. Zoro, for instance, is able to slice through walls and blockades to reveal hidden pathways or chests, while Chopper can enter small, tight spaces with his diminutive stature. Usopp proves useful for knocking items off high ground, and there are points in One Piece Odyssey where you’ll have to take control of a specific character to progress.
The entire crew can be used in combat as well. Players can choose between Luffy, Zoro, Sanji, Nami, Robin, Frankie, Chopper, and Usopp, and pick four of them to form the main party, as well as switch them out anytime during battle. In fact, it’s on the battlefield that things become more interesting – unlike traditional JRPG titles, the title presents several fresh elements that challenge genre conventions.
While there are still turn-based mechanics, the addition of a Scramble Battle Area feature, rock-paper-scissors system, and Dramatic Scenes make for a refreshing play style. The first sorts characters into different zones, where they will have to square off against their own set of enemies as opposed to fighting together as a team, which is a nice touch that accurately reflects the combat sequences in the anime. That doesn’t mean you won’t be able to team up and defeat foes together, however – as long as they are defeated early, the characters can move out of their position and assist nearby allies; the order in which they attack can also be set.
The rock-paper-scissors dynamic, meanwhile, should be familiar to those who are well-versed in the Pokemon or Fire Emblem series of games. Every hero, skill, and monster has its own battle type (strength, speed, and technique), and picking the right counter will inflict the most damage to the selected target. There’s also the attack range to take into consideration: some skills can only target close-range enemies, while surrounding forces won’t be affected by long-range assault.
Dramatic Scenes further liven up battles by offering a bonus objective that acts like a special challenge. In one example, Usopp needs to be saved before a group of enemies knocks him out; in another, players will have to use Luffy to defeat foes without swapping out. These sequences introduce an added layer of difficulty, especially if you aren’t used to playing the specific character.
Between managing everyone’s turn order, health, and mana, and paying attention to the party’s positioning and attack reach, the combat system can come across as daunting for newcomers. Fortunately, One Piece Odyssey does offer some aid, giving indicators of the abilities’ effectiveness, and easing players into the heat of the action with a clear, easy-to-understand tutorial.
That’s not to say that the system is perfect. There’s no indication of the damage that the characters will inflict until they actually attack, which can make it difficult to plan for the attack sequence or choose the type of ability for the final blow. It’d also be welcome if there was an option to skip the cutscenes that activate every time a character’s special move is selected, while keeping track of all the enemies and their types, along with the crew’s, can get tedious over multiple rounds – particularly so in multi-target boss battles.
Still, the game does offer an added layer of complexity that JRPG veterans would likely appreciate without getting too deeply rooted in strategy like Fire Emblem. This blend of novelty and familiarity is nicely weaved into other parts of One Piece Odyssey as well, starting from the addition of two original characters: Adio and Lim, who are important to the overarching narrative.
In a show of dramatic irony, the pair is revealed to be responsible for stealing the crew’s power (unbeknownst to them) and scattering them across Waford in the form of cube fragments. The Straw Hat Crew, embarking on the journey to recover their powers, ends up in different locations, including Alabasta, which was first unveiled at Thailand Game Show 2022.
That’s also when the world starts to open up a little more. Where One Piece Odyssey would previously set players on a directed path, the town marks the start of offering more exploration leeway. Here, there are side quests to undertake, bounties to turn in, and enemies to hunt down, all of which can be done in no particular order.
An earlier cave sequence gave a little taste of player choice – they can choose to check out the nooks and cranny of the terrain, sneak up on enemies to gain a combat advantage, or run past them altogether – but it’s in Alabasta that the shackles of linear gameplay begin to loosen its hold.
It’s not just the lands that will meld both the new and old. Familiar faces from the anime are poised to appear over the course of the story, with the game’s introductory sequences acting as a crash course for newcomers. For One Piece enthusiasts, these moments will be a welcome homecoming, and it’s assuring to know that the game also puts the spotlight on the crew’s different personalities.
Indeed, there’s plenty of character interactions to go around in the game. Even outside of frequent cutscenes, the entire crew is constantly engaged in background dialogue, and their dynamics are further highlighted through the new Camp feature that’s reminiscent of Pokemon Scarlet and Violet’s Picnic mechanic, where players can rest, feast and host a party to reap certain combat benefits.
The three-hour preview session barely scratched the surface of its 40 to 60-hour runtime, but One Piece Odyssey is shaping up to be a fun voyage for players, and especially so for long-time fans. It’s interesting and entertaining enough, and puts forth the convincing argument that the JPRG format is perhaps the best presentation for a One Piece game.
One Piece Odyssey is releasing on 12 January 2023 for the PS4, PS5, Xbox Series X, and Xbox Series S. The PC version will launch on 13 January.