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Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Review: One Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows (Sony PlayStation 4)


Review by Clark A.

Saitama, the eponymous One Punch Man, has journeyed from homemade web comics to full-fledged Jump magazine releases to gloriously animated works. His next stop poses a dilemma: how do you incorporate a character that wins in a single blow into the video game medium, let alone in a fighting game?

Saitama shatters records in any physical contest (unless it involves swatting mosquitoes). He needs no grueling training arcs; he’s as threatening in chapter one as chapter 100. Previews of A Hero Nobody Knows showed it would incorporate amusing mechanics to make him playable, such as the weaker version of Saitama from a dream sequence in the show’s first episode. In multiplayer mirror matches, Saitama damages himself whist simultaneously being unfazed his own attacks. Through mechanics designed around being comedic, Spike Chunsoft harnesses the personality of One Punch Man better than many anime properties. It falls well short of being a meticulously crafted game, but the developers deserve credit for incorporating the source material well.

It’s not shocking that One Punch Man exploded in popularity from its conception. It doesn’t matter that it was a self-published web manga by a young, unknown author simply called ONE online. The series’ title immediately sparks the imagination and makes audiences ponder just how you’d write an ongoing story around an invincible superhero without it growing stagnant. Upon reading, it’s clear that Saitama is plenty bored himself. The ensuing blood geysers and eyestalk yanks are balanced by a contemplative everyman protagonist dealing with the reality of “perfection”.


Equally crucial to its success is ONE’s wit, expressed through unrestrained character designs and the world’s juxtaposition of the mundane with the awe-inspiring. The world’s strongest hero is a bald man concerned with paying the rent and grabbing groceries half-price from his local convenience store. Confrontations with villains feature delicate but effective commentary, humanising over the top villains whilst tackling national talking points like unemployment rates. Through Saitama’s fellow superheroes, we witness more traditional shounen action bouts. This enables the series to celebrate decades of conventions and toy with them on a whim, particularly the mental transformations these heroes undergo when they meet Saitama. The most shining bastion of justice is a C-rank bicyclist who is regularly pummeled into oblivion, not his potent S-class superiors. Simply put, the series is comedic but has a legitimate story to tell.

With One Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows, Spike Chunsoft has gone its usual route of adapting an anime to be a 3D arena fighter. The PlayStation 4 houses several of these outings from the developer and even more under publisher Bandai Namco’s umbrella. Much like last year’s Jump Force, players are immediately thrust into designing their own hero characters. You join as a new recruit in the Hero Association, working your way up from the bottom rung. This is yet another way to sidestep the problem of the player wielding Saitama’s tremendous power unchecked and it extends throughout the whole game. Given that much of the manga and anime center on the dozens of characters at the Hero Association, this is a logical design choice that allows the players to experience the world through a more volatile lens.

The character creation starts out appallingly limited with more options opening up as you progress through the game. Many categories feature only three or four rudimentary options such as sunglasses and a clown nose. However, this is a thematic choice that plays into the appeal of Saitama as a character and the series’ general approach to character design. It also underscores the treatment of low-ranking heroes that society belittles. The creation tool itself is solid, boasting many options for accessory placement and colour choices.


The paltry selection is cumbersome in that you can’t plan out your character’s direction in advance without research, but thankfully the game allows you to alter attributes usually set in stone like height and skin tone freely. Considering the bizarrely casual methods by which regular humans become crab monsters in One Punch Man’s world, your hero’s sudden tweaks aren’t that inconsistent with the lore. The Hero Association bestowing the player with a silly name is a nice nod to Saitama being nicknamed Caped Baldy. You can come up with your own hero name too but that’s no way to immerse yourself. In time, your hero will look the part.

When your avatar is ready to roll, the game presents the immediate goal of clearing story missions as well as a long-term one: increasing your Hero Rank from C to S. The latter entails completing fighting missions or the more humdrum package deliveries in the overworld. Saitama’s blatantly erroneous hero rank slowly increasing from C class throughout the show facilitated gags, commentary on hierarchies, and social growth for an isolated character. Here, the ranking system is about archetypical growth in power. There’s nothing wrong with that but it makes the prospect of a game where you play as Saitama himself all the more tantalising.

During missions, you’re not always going it alone. You receive aid from other heroes, a design choice that better immerses your original creation in the world by fighting alongside ONE’s delightful cast. In terms of character selection, this particular game focuses on the anime’s first season. There’s a respectable crew of heroes from C to S rank as well as iconic villains like Lord Boros. Some non-playable characters such as King appear in the overworld or during special events, so there’s plenty of fan service for them even if your favourite didn’t make the cut. The question is how often Saitama appears in his own game.


As it turns out, Saitama’s contributions to the plot will be predictable to anyone who has read the series but especially those who watched it. As you’re completing objectives, you’ll get periodic emails about the appearance of powerful villains and then square off against them. The goal of these faux-boss fights is to dodge for a certain amount of time until Saitama bails you out. Your avatar is incorporated into the plot of the show, aiming to become the disciple of this unknown hero alongside a certain cyborg named Genos. Because you experience a story you are irrelevant to from the outside looking in, though, they can come off as watered down sequences lacking the context that made them hilarious in the first place. Surefire gags that would be easy enough to implement are conspicuously absent. As such, if you haven’t seen the show, this game doesn’t do a great job of endearing you to the title character. He truly does come off like A Hero Nobody Knows.

On the other hand, it is immensely satisfying to return to these impossible bosses later as your avatar character and clean up the mess yourself. Your character levels up throughout the game, learning new fighting styles increasing stats according to the player’s preference. They’re insanely powerful foes and contextualise Saitama’s strength for the player firsthand. That’s some story to gameplay integration I can get behind, not to mention a feature the anime and manga will never have.

When the story strays from the anime’s plot points, its direction is hit or miss. The humour is guilty of going on autopilot, borrowing existing gags from the series and repackaging them. Throughout the series, an endless barrage of villains monologue about their origins then flaunt their superior traits only to be reduced to bloody pancakes that supply their own syrup. I chuckled at several of the new backstories here, such as a man who bulked up for five years to impress a woman then turned into an evil muscle monster. The problem is there’s little emotion expressed through their stilted performances as 3D models. You don’t always get voice acting either, so there’s an underlying repetition that makes them less entertaining than the anime or manga equivalents. At least there’s the lovable loser hero, Lecture Man, who breathes personality into tutorials.


What’s more interesting than the story itself is how the developers incorporated aspects of ONE’s world into the gameplay mechanics. I’ve already mentioned how there’s meaning behind the character creator and other design choices, but there are more features that step outside the scope of your average arena fighter. The ability to customize the layout of your apartment is a nice nod to Saitama’s humble lifestyle. There’s not much to do there alone in terms of interactive items, but I appreciate the concept and would like to see it revisited in future One Punch Man games. Whereas collecting accessories makes you look more like a hero, slowly decking out your humble abode makes you more of a human. Raising your social strength with famous heroes means they will show up at your house, a nod to Saitama’s increasing number of visitors (particularly in season 2 and beyond). If there’s any iconic location in One Punch Man, it’s not a war torn battlefield but Saitama’s pad for the distinctly pure moments that take place there.

Because many of the more elaborate locations in the show are throwaway in nature, I’m of two minds about the overworld. It is better and more cohesive than the one featured in Jump Force, but I’d still hesitate to call it necessary here. It mashes together several locations from the anime such as the marketplace and Hero Association Headquarters. My reason for enjoying it has more to do with the gags and Easter eggs than empty streets waiting to be filled by online denizens. Its practical uses do not offset its size.

Much of the game seems padded out with context-barren objectives and fights against generic monsters and thugs for the sake of adding hours of gameplay. I appreciate the ones that present unique scenarios or challenges such as fighting while being poisoned, but I would have curtailed the sheer number of them. Instead, add some amusing dialogue for the hero characters that references interactions from the show or tell some kind of story with each one. Some might say having a custom character on a journey from rags to riches justifies their extended use, but they mostly come off as locks for accessories. Disappointingly, the game forces you to do an arbitrary number of sidequests in order to progress at times. This comes across as a lack of confidence in the core material rather than an artistic move. In the same vein, there’s plenty of superfluous walking from point A to point B to be done when a menu screen prompt would have sufficed (particularly since you’ll hit multiple loading screens getting there).


Unfortunately, the game’s central arena fighter combat system is far from the genre’s finest. It follows the same formula of games like My Hero: One’s Justice with simple to learn button commands for dashing, punching, kicking, blocking, and ultimate moves. That’s all good, but it’s noticeably less tactile and responsive than comparable anime games on the PlayStation 4. For a title based primarily on an anime with fights that end in the blink of an eye, combat feels unexpectedly sluggish. Most actions feel slightly or majorly delayed, be that punching and grabbing or just lying on the ground. The time windows for unleashing combos is similarly broad and contemplative, leading to particularly punish-heavy, one-sided scenarios for the one in control. The computer’s lackluster artificial intelligence makes fights extra exploitable due to the delays.

The main character roster exudes personality so there’s delight to be had in using Tatsumaki for her ranged psychic powers as she levitates around the field. The avatar characters mostly work off variations of existing styles the core characters use such as the mechanical armory of Metal Knight and “standard” but deadly martial arts of Silver Fang. When it all comes together just right, A Hero Nobody Knows offers a pleasantly personal way to experience the show. Ultimately though, I can’t envision a competitive scene forming as of this writing without considerable patches. That feeling isn’t helped by dubious online modes where you’ll want to max out your avatar before playing or resort to one of the unbanned behemoths.

Having said this, I still walked away impressed by the potential of the combat system for future anime games. Instead of straightforward tag battles, heroes will typically join you mid-fight. You can watch them running toward the battle in a corner of the screen and influence their speed based on your performance. The hero arrival system is a terrific idea for this subgenre, drawing on the anticipation shounen action shows use to build up the arrival of an ally in a tight situation. One Punch Man does this constantly with Saitama, but it’s a shounen action staple you’ll see everywhere. Throw a variant of this system into anything from Dragon Ball to Fairy Tail to Bleach and they’ll probably be better for it. Instead of choppily interrupting story fights with loading screens and dialogue boxes, this affords fresh and fluid storytelling opportunities.


Besides that system, the battlefield offers its own brand of flexibility. For one, there are items that spawn on the battlefield. They’re not particularly thematic in nature but they bestow a character with attributes like power, defense, or health. Aside from their tendency to favour one player of the other, I appreciate this addition. Besides this, occasional threat warnings will flash on the screen to foreshadow dynamic stage hazards and events. When it works to enhance the shounen action aesthetic, A Hero Nobody Knows makes strides. There’s balancing work to be done, but the ideas themselves manage to elevate an often mediocre experience beyond some of its contemporaries.

Most of my criticisms of A Hero Nobody Knows are vestigial ones inherent when borrowing the formula of other anime arena fighters published by Bandai-Namco. I own about a dozen of these and I’m not here to chastise a game for not being something it isn’t. If it’s going to ape the style of existing ones, though, there are obvious ways to polish that formula. It’s not just in the weaker fighting fundamentals I mentioned earlier.

Let’s bring up another key factor of One Punch Man’s success as a franchise: its presentation. ONE’s original web manga began with a functional if crude art style but radiated with ambition to the point that Eyeshield 21's artist wanted to remake it. After pulling a few strings, One Punch Man became one of the most detailed, eye-grabbing series in Jump magazine history. When the time for an anime rolled around, the esteemed studio, Madhouse, took Murata’s overall aesthetic and gave it breathtaking art and animation. When J.C. Staff took over for season two, its interpretation met backlash. Trying to match either the Jump manga or Madhouse in the video game space was a tall order. The closest this game comes is during the opening trailer, which shows a genuinely strong montage as uplifting rock music blares and threatens to recapture the vibes of season one. The ensuing game is a budget title, which would be perfectly fine if A) the art style was highly expressive like the original or B) the game wasn’t constantly getting unstitched.


In short, this game’s lack of polish won’t do its reputation any favours outside the circle of immediate fans. Characters in cutscenes are rigid, landscapes are choppy, the overworld stutters, load screens are persistent, basics like a main menu and a retry button during battles are absent, and ear-piercing English audio mixing right from the title screen did not endear me. None of these make the game unplayable and are ripe for future patches, but they do indicate the game needed more time in the oven.

The game serves its purpose as yet another anime arena fighter just fine, but it feels like a game One Punch Man is cleverly stitched onto an existing format rather than built for from the ground up. Seeing how this is the franchise’s console debut, a more stylish concept might have stolen the gazes of wayward eyes. I give the Spike Chunsoft full cards for adding a couple meaningful mechanics that speak to the core appeal of shounen action shows, but said design choices would function outside the arena fighter genre as well.

For all these criticisms though, it’s a structure that works and has been tweaked to leverage the One Punch Man property in some interesting ways. The developers could have gone further with them but there’s no denying the game screams “One Punch Man” in subtle ways other anime adaptation games might neglect. If future games are going to work within a similar budget, I’d just like to see the developers double down on the depth of the combat system and enhance the storytelling or, ideally, take a more experimental route that is more about Saitama’s life. This game showcases enough undercooked ideas and stems that could fill a One Punch Man game where you really do kill any villain in one punch. It could be compelling for reasons more in line with a simulation game than a 3D fighter.


One Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows is aimed firmly at the target audience of games such as Jump Force. It finds subtle ways to translate One Punch Man’s comical lore into gameplay but forgets to polish the central experience before padding it out with filler. There’s a respectable degree of fanservice here, but little to see for casual fans. The silver-lining is in the anime aesthetics, which make the game worth a second glance for those on the fence.  



- Clark A.
Anime Editor


Review: One Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows (Sony PlayStation 4)
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