One Piece: Romance Dawn is an odd, unbalanced bundle of great potential and awkward execution. This, like One Piece: Pirate Warriors that came before it, focuses on retelling the story of One Piece prior to the Marineford arc. The events covered are mostly the same, so there’s still no Whiskey Peak, Little Garden, Skypiea and so on. Unlike Pirate Warriors, though, Romance Dawn is an RPG with a fighting system that is just as strangely balanced (or perhaps, unbalanced) as the storytelling is.
I believe what Romance Dawn excels at the most is in the cutscenes and dialogue. The translation is excellent, and I was actually impressed with how well most of the lines fit the characters. The redone cutscenes by Toei Animation are absolutely beautiful, although they may take some getting used to if you’ve rewatched the original animation lately. They’re more detailed and have more shading, and I can understand why the game wanted to redo the scenes.
It also helped that the scenes they chose to play out through the cutscenes were always the most dramatic and the most poignant of the series. All of the Straw Hat Pirates’ victories, the new beginnings, and the endings of the characters are shown in their full glory in the original Japanese voices rather than simply relying on dialogue to convey the emotion. This was easily my favorite aspect of the game, simply because it was also my favorite part of the anime.
The other scenes, though, were not given such royal treatment. The “skit” format they used for the dialogue was stylized nicely with the popping bubbles and the jumping portraits, but that’s all they are. Portraits. The emotions of the characters rarely change to match the dialogue and there’s only so much simple sound effects, well-written dialogue, and hopping portraits can convey.
One early example of a scene that fell flat on its face is the first time you meet Zoro. During this scene, a rice ball is thrown to the floor and stepped on by one of the Marines (to simplify things a little). This scene would’ve been easy to depict. Perhaps show the image of the action happening like with a still shot from the anime. This isn’t unreasonable because Romance Dawn does so, sometimes, with other scenes, such as Zoro being tied up or Shanks’s rescue of Luffy. However, instead you get an irrelevant background with dialogue consisting of “No!” and “How could you!” without any other aids to know what is happening except for a quiet “crunch.” Adding insult to the injury is the lack of voices during these non-animated scenes. Honestly, if I hadn’t seen the anime, I would’ve had no idea what was going on.
While one can argue that storytelling without images is done all the time in drama CDs, usually there is at least some indication of what is happening. A “Why did you throw that on the ground?” perhaps. However, no such adjustments to the original dialogue were made, which is why I am firmly of the belief that Romance Dawn would be difficult for newcomers to the One Piece series to get into. Romance Dawn expects at least some familiarity with the main events of the game for you to fully follow what’s going on. If that’s the case, though, why would you need to follow the events if you already know what’s going to happen?
To the game’s credit, though, the it really does choose the best scenes to showcase. It doesn’t give you every scene—not even the buildup to many of the fights—but instead it focuses on the emotional ones that are best exhibited through the great animated cutscenes. It’s as though the game knew what it wanted to prioritize on, and so it slacked off heavily on all the other scenes.
The combat and exploration works pretty much on the same awkward balance. The exploration can be boring, but once I discovered the Run button, blasting through the winding maps proved to take very little time. The main problem with these areas is that exploring every nook and cranny can be very long due to backtracking, and this is made worse by the emptiness of the areas. The environments, while pretty, are one-dimensional and unchanging, and the corridors themselves are only filled with the occasional barrel, treasure chest, or enemy.
On the other hand, some areas put the game on auto during Grand Stream Actions. Here, your main character dashes wildly through an area while you follow the QTE on the screen to determine the direction you want to take. Usually, one will lead you through a group of enemies while another will have you avoid them. Ultimately, all paths lead to the same destination, but the speed of these events gives the slow-paced game (Slow-paced! One Piece?!) a much needed kick. I found myself wishing that every one of the exploration sequences were like this simply because that just seems like something Luffy would do.
The fighting, unfortunately, goes just as slow as the exploration, although it also mixes the usual turn-based formula up a bit. Instead of just choosing your attack, you are given the opportunity to position your character, which can lead to strategizing knockback blows and squeezing that extra item from the enemy when you knock him into a wall. The attacking itself is also fun and quick, with each button press leading up to a different attack that you can mix and match. You can also quickly scroll through the attacks with L and R, assigning different techniques to your ABXY buttons, which greatly enhances the speed.
No, the sluggishness in the battles comes from other aspects. Scrolling through menus is always a time killer, and there are at least two of these you have to pay attention to in battle. Romance Dawn is also programmed such that you have to pay careful attention to which enemy you’re targeting, so checking this also takes some time. And, perhaps worst of all, merely waiting for the time bar to scroll up to determine whose turn is next takes the most time of all. It’s a shame a fast forward button wasn’t included for the battles because this combined with waiting for enemy actions add up to a lot of waiting time on the part of the player.
I wouldn’t be so bothered if it weren’t for the fact that, again, One Piece is supposed to be a fast-paced series. The way the attack system works seems to support this, with characters whipping out one attack after another. However, it looks like there was again a lack of effort to streamline the rest of the battle to make it just as quick and snappy.
There are some other areas that add a much-needed twist to the game, though they are nothing new to the RPG genre. Each character can learn a different set of abilities as they level up—none of which make sense in the context of the show, but it mixes things up from a gameplay perspective. You can also use Skill Points you earn at the end of each battle to enhance your regular attack combos or to power up your techniques. Speaking of which, techniques are learned both through leveling up and through reaching a certain point in the story. This makes sense since some of the attacks are essential to the cutscenes and it wouldn’t make sense to learn them early.
There is also an item crafting system that is simple, but kind of fun. While by no means necessary, the game doesn’t give you nearly enough money to buy equipment. Instead, it focuses on giving you ingredients so you can craft stronger equipment than those you can find in shops. The catch is that these ingredients are usually dropped by enemies, which only happens when you smack an enemy’s face into a nearby wall. This means that strategizing where you position your characters actually becomes important. This balancing was something I liked—I think it shows that there was some thought going into designing this system.
In addition, you can unlock optional areas to explore by finding Treasure Maps. These places are long, arduously winding areas with a few treasures that may or may not be worth the huge amount of time you’ll be spending on them. Some of the places, though, contain a rematch with a boss you’ve already faced, and these can be fun if you want something more than the usual pirate standing in your way. I haven’t played nearly far enough, but I wonder if there’s a Boss Run area in Romance Dawn.
All in all, I enjoyed Romance Dawn, but I speak as someone who’s already seen (or read) One Piece. The game suffers from heavy prioritization of some aspects while leaving others in the dust. That said, at the very least I take comfort in knowing that the facets of the series it emphasizes are the ones that are the most impactful and characteristic to One Piece.
Food for Thought:
1. Reading the manual is essential (unless you want to play around with the buttons yourself). Romance Dawn doesn’t do hand-holding and provides very little explanation on what some of the controls and menu options are. I didn’t know I could run through dungeons until I got through at least 3 maps, and most of the options on the world map were Greek to me until I played around with them a little. There are tips that appear during loading screens, but they don’t appear nearly fast enough.
2. As you probably know, there is no stereoscopic 3D in this game.
3. The difference in animation style between the background images (when they appear) and the animated cutscenes is astounding. I’m not sure if Toei did both, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the background images were from the original anime.
4. Is it just me or does Nami’s portrait look a little flat and far too boyish…?