One Piece Odyssey is a particularly impressive game for one reason in particular: You don’t need to be a fan of One Piece to enjoy it. So often anime tie-in games consolidate the main anime plotline to an extreme degree, just so the developers can squish some form of it into a game. When they do that, the only people that can enjoy (or often even make sense of) the “retelling” are existing fans. I’ve played enough One Piece games to know that One Piece is no exception to that rule.
But I like One Piece, so for years, I have continued to play them, hoping that a game like Odyssey would eventually come along. I’ll never be able to get into the anime because there’s no way I have enough hours of my life left to actually watch it all. However, I like the art direction, the characters, and the personality of the property. A lot. I wanted to be involved in One Piece in some way. All I needed was something like One Piece Odyssey, which lets me enjoy the stuff about One Piece that I do like, without it feeling like I’m missing 90 per cent of the stuff I need to know to actually get along with it.
The game is quite metatextual in structure. Most anime tie-in games are slavishly beholden to their source material. They’ll take an arc, season, or block of episodes and look to retell the story of those episodes in the most faithful way possible, while also making them interactive. In some cases, it works. Arslan: The Warriors Of Legend, for example, did a really neat job of putting in small cut scenes between the big battles to explain what was going on, and then playing out just like every other Musou game does. Koei Tecmo has long mastered the art of having battles play out true to a particular historical or fictional narrative while leaving players in control of the flow.
Most game developers aren’t fortunate enough to work with a property that matches as well as Arslan and Musou do. In most cases, anime tie-ins drag players by the nose through a set plot, and it’s both restrictive and, for people who have actually seen the anime, naturally predictable. Existing fans are already aware of how things will play out. One Piece Odyssey does things differently, though. It starts off with the crew, deep into their adventure, shipwrecking themselves on a mysterious island. There they meet an enigmatic character that, first, steals all their powers (so you’re dropped from level 40 back to level 1), and then helps them to gain their powers back by travelling back into their memories.
However, because the circumstances of the team are now different, and memories are never perfect, their memories are no longer guaranteed to play out exactly as they originally experienced. Thus, you’re reliving the past exploits of the team, but the developers have allowed themselves some creative freedom to throw some curveballs at you. They take full advantage of that to parody, subvert, and change bits of those original narrative arcs, and do so within the context of an all-new story. See? Metatextual deconstruction – a simple version of it, to be sure, but more than I was expecting coming in.
What this means is that players that are not as familiar with the specific stories of the One Piece gang aren’t as likely to be missing context. You’re able to enjoy the characters, their antics, and the settings, without feeling like you need to watch the anime to fill in the gaps that the game has overlooked in the name of efficiency. Meanwhile, veterans of One Piece can enjoy playing spot the difference and seeing their favourite locations and plots play out in a different way. It’s a genuinely inspired approach to the problem of anime-licensed tie-ins, and it also makes One Piece Odyssey perhaps the most accessible that One Piece has been for a very, very long time.
I was also delighted by just how traditional the gameplay is. One Piece Odyssey is a turn-based JRPG, that doesn’t do anything particularly innovative with the genre. Like other great modern turn-based JRPGs, such as Dragon Quest XI, Yakuza: Like A Dragon, and Persona 5, the developers use the landscape, animations, and speed of the user interface to make for an elegant, easy-playing and snappy kind of game, but one that feels proudly old-school to play. Enemies have strengths and weaknesses against types of attacks (operating something like the Fire Emblem weapons triangle – each “type” is strong against one thing and weak against another), and each character is therefore effective at countering only certain kinds of enemies. You can only have four characters in battle at once, but you’re free to shift them in and out at will. The result is a fluid, flexible, and fun little system, and one that allows you to use all your favourite characters and gives them all a chance to shine.
I will say that it’s a little too easy for its own good, though. This isn’t necessarily because it was designed to be easy – you get the sense that the developers really wanted to test players and make them use every ability they have access to – but unfortunately, they’re too generous with level-ups. This is because there are “special battles” that occur far too frequently. Those special battles do throw tough enemies at you. However, if you complete a simple condition like defeating that enemy before it knocks one of your characters out, you get a massive boost in experience points earned. Simply by taking advantage of these simple combat tasks and making sure I took on each battle that I came across, I was consistently a few levels overleveled by the time I got to a boss or other critical moment. I didn’t necessarily care because I was having too much fun with the systems and characters. However, I did get to the point where I wasn’t really thinking much as I pushed my way through dungeons and tackled the bosses.
What saved me from drifting off to sleep sometimes was the energy. Everything about One Piece exists in a permanent state of hyper-exaggeration. This applies to the character designs themselves (and I just know there are going to be eyes rolling over characters like Nami and Nico Robin and the way the camera captures them), as well as the enemies, the plot key points, and the sense of humour. One Piece is very much a juvenile boy’s manga and anime, and that is part of its appeal and charm, but that also means that sometimes it’s a sensory overload of colour and over-the-topness. Some might find that tiring after a while.
There are also areas where you can see that it’s not quite as refined as a Dragon Quest game (to name a JRPG that is similarly traditional and is also fond of over-the-top, comedic aesthetics). The enemy variety is perhaps a touch too thin, and palette-swapping is too aggressive for a title released in 2023. The world is impressive from an art direction point of view, and those times you climb to higher ground the world spans out impressively (and colourfully) before you. But it’s also deceptively small, and when you actually get to the crux of it, there’s not that much to do beyond following the breadcrumbs of the main narrative. Side-quests are the traditional sort found in JRPGs, and while the brief narrative digressions are often fun, they’re also not overly engaging. Developers are getting better at hiding the budgetary limitations of anime licensed games, but once you break past the smoke-and-mirrors you will realise that you’re not playing something made with the production values of Square Enix’s top-flight games, not the experience and heritage of the best-regarded B-tier JRPG developers like Gust or Nihon Falcom.
I had a wonderful time with One Piece Odyssey. The best way to summarise it is as a breezy, easy-playing JRPG that you can knock off over several weeks and a few solid sessions. The developers have crafted something blissfully over-the-top and funny, and done One Piece a grand homage to celebrate its 25th year. At the same time, they very cleverly figured out how to make a 25-year-old anime as entertaining for newcomers and those not familiar with Luffy and the crew as it is for those who have watched every single episode. That is some incredible work.