Once upon a time, the licensed game was a cottage industry nested within the larger games industry. These games were often gun for hire work, with the brand name being the primary driver for sales as opposed to quality design choices or a well regarded team. While these types of games have fallen out of favor a lot over time, titles licensed for anime IP are still pretty regular occurrences. These kinds of games have their own merits, but it can be argued that they don’t take full advantage of the worlds being licensed. One Piece Odyssey, published by Bandai Namco and developed by ILCA, is a genuine attempt to truly live up to the iconic series. In practice, One Piece Odyssey might be trying too hard.
Before diving too deeply into the One Piece of it all, it is important to talk first about the developer ILCA (I Love Computer Art). The studio the big leagues in 2021 when they were revealed to be the studio behind the Pokémon Diamond and Pearl remakes. Those remakes received a tepid reception, notably for some old mechanics and performance issues. While what happened with Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl isn’t clear (for my part, I thought they were fine), one definitely cannot point to a lack of skill on ILCA’s part; because One Piece Odyssey is packed with stellar design both visually and in performance. I keep my PS5 locked in performance mode and One Piece Odyssey was not only up to the task, it did so without sacrificing any of the game’s impressive visual quality.
A notable example would be the detail in Monkey D. Luffy’s iconic straw hat. Some type A member of the team made a point to include a repair to the hat from a battle all the way back in volume 2 of this 100+ volume series. They didn’t need to do that, or make sure the texture of the stitching rendered right, but they did and as a long time fan, it’s appreciated. The developers at ILCA are really talented and it absolutely shows here.
As for One Piece Odyssey itself, there is a temptation to drive straight to the point and ask whether or not the game does an acceptable job of representing the basics of the characters and aesthetics of the brand. However, and credit to ILCA’s efforts here again, Odyssey is not a gun for hire production. There was genuine thought put into how to make a game that strives before trading exclusively on brand familiarity, at least on a design layer.
They’re called a crew for a reason
Case in point: One Piece Odyssey understands on a fundamental level that the Straw Hat Pirates Are at their best when they are a unit. As a result, a majority of the crew spends a majority of the game together. By choosing to make the game a party-based JRPG makes this easily justifiable mechanically. The crew is able to work together in combat, which places each crew member in zones across a battlefield. Various moves can be used both cross-zone and locally depending on the current situation. Each individual Straw Hat has been given a character class that matches their natural skills that gets applied in a weapon triangle, with other attacks getting specific and flavorful adjustments. On top of that, the Straw Hats are able to make combo attacks and even switch out zones with each other on the fly.
As a system, it actually runs well and is dynamic enough to stay engaging. The fights try to add extra drama by having somewhat random conditions trigger, but in practice these happen with such little consequence to be more of a novelty. If anything, there is a sense of this being added as an extra complexity layer after the fact. Swapping crew mates around and from reserve effectively infinitely, even the most pressing combat encounters can be over with enough grit and abusing the party switching. Not once did a fight feel more challenging as much as they did feel long, This doesn’t feel as bad as leveling cadences and power ups are clearly tuned to avoid a push to grind up levels. The trade off is the aforementioned lack of higher challenge, but One Piece Odyssey can be wrapped in a cool 30 hours compared to other JRPGs that may ask 50-100 hours of your life for a single play through.
Systems only do so well in the case of a licensed title, these games live and die by their adaptation skills. In this case, ILCA may have done too good of a job. While the overall game is fluid and pretty, the models of known characters are so faithful that they sometimes feel stiff. The script is not bad by filler anime standards, and as usual the One Piece anime’s voice actors are on the top of their game. However, because the game really tries to replicate the vibes of the Straw Hats, you’ll hear a lot of iconic lines over and over again. Very rarely will the game not find a way to stop and ask you “Wow, One Piece is pretty great, huh?”
The DiCaprio pointing meme but replaced with Luffy
The primary way this manifests is in “Memoria,” a location in the game that takes the form of locations visited in the main series. While there are some attempts to change the scenario around, the efforts are small and avoid any thing that might cause a conflict that may require character writing for the most part. Narratively, this makes sense given that Memoria is the work of original character Lim. Lim steals the powers and uses that as a way to drive the Straw Hats along the course to reclaim their abilities. Even with that excuse, the choice to spend most of the game in basic recreations of existing areas is playing it the most safe possible.
This is hardly the first One Piece game to use existing content (hello, Unlimited World Red) but here it feels more egregious, because the team really seems to know their stuff. Waford, the location created for One Piece Odyssey, is both plenty interesting on its own and nests into existing lore in surprising and fun ways. Instead of being able to explore the possibilities of Waford though, One Piece Odyssey consciously decides instead to keep playing the hits via Memoria. Even the loose narrative needs begin to fall apart when it becomes clear that Lim possesses direct access to the One Piece wikia and isn’t afraid to use it.
Ultimately, Memoria is a side effect of the larger issue that rears its head when dealing with an IP adaptation. As noted above, oftentimes a licensed title exists more as an extension of the IP’s brand rather than its own creative expression. The end result’s success hinges much more on whether or not the game is “fun,” which in this context really means “did this remind me of the surface level feeling I have about this IP?”
Zen and the art of brand management
Wanting to “feel” the IP in a game isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can be reasonable to desire to “feel” like Spider-Man or a wizard as a form of escapism. For the licensed games that are truly revered or celebrated, there’s usually far more than a surface level imitation of the thing you like. Rocksteady’s Batman: Arkham Asylum isn’t just a game where you can “feel” like Batman. Instead, the entire game was crafted from making an effort to translate the source material using the language of games into its own take. The best of these efforts create their own enduring takes of the IP in question by building something cohesive to itself while maintaining a strong understanding of what makes the property compelling. You can “feel” like Batman not just by doing some Batman cosplay, but having mechanics and narrative that fits right alongside him. Doing things like this is a delicate balance, consider how jarring Batman Arkham Knight is to see how easily that balance can be disrupted.
In One Piece Odyssey, there are genuine glimpses of something really special. Moments where the game isn’t just giving off the vibe of watching a couple of episodes of anime on Toonami late on a Saturday but push more into the themes and emotions that make One Piece something fans adore. Waford and its inhabitants do not get nearly enough focus, but when they do get attention they feel much more close to Oda’s work than many attempts in games before. Yet, they’re not specifically derivative or rub against the tenants of the series. ILCA really had the chance to perform the balancing act well but instead of chasing their more inspired yet risky ideas, they chose to stay hiding in Oda’s shadow.
Exploring takes courage
With all of the effort put into understanding One Piece’s canon and developing a satisfying battle system around Oda’s absurd pirate crew, it’s disappointing that the overall experience falls into the same pitfalls of other anime adaptations. It feels like it’s out of fear: either of not being able to live up to the material or of Bandai Namco is too afraid to release a One Piece game that doesn’t catch up folks who aren’t following the main story. If the reason is the latter, it is a baffling choice, given how much of that story left on the table. Instead of being adventurous with its own ideas, much more of the game is about reminding fans of the good times they’ve had before, but lacking the quality of Oda’s long-term world building or the anime’s fluidity. Memoria jumps over less climatic story moments, but that means the events that are shown are lacking the satisfaction of seeing this story play out.
Despite these shortcomings, my genuine hope is that One Piece Odyssey is a real success. In a perfect world, ILCA would be given a chance to make a follow up that takes more risks. Constantly, I found myself begging for that game even as I generally enjoyed playing. One Piece Odyssey is fun and does represent aspects of the series well. From that angle, it is a successful work of brand management. I just think that this title had the potential to be even more than it is, and both One Piece and the fans that love the series deserve that.
Featured images ©EIICHIRO ODA/SHUEISHA, TOEI ANIMATION ©Bandai Namco Entertainment Inc.
One Piece Odyssey - 6/10