The great thing about Japan's entertainment industry is that it quite often seems like the people making it are completely out of their minds. Case in point, Shonen Jump's One Piece, a manga-turned-anime that is all the rage in Japan and has seen a few not-so-great fighting-game translations in North America. This isn't the place to get filled in on the epic 430-plus chapters of the manga series--but to put you in the right frame of thought, a little boy chases his dream of worldwide acceptance and recognition, there's some non-FDA-approved fruit involved, face faulting is played out in barbaric proportions, and the world's most inoffensive pirates go about their business. It's nonsensical by nature, and developer hand uses this backdrop extensively for its party game based on the series, One Piece: Pirates Carnival. Unfortunately, the minigames themselves aren't that great, and more often than not, the overabundance of Monkey D. Luffy and his crew drag on an otherwise interesting design like an anchor in the mud.
You can have it all laid out for you in a tutorial, but Pirates Carnival's primary mode of play is far easier to comprehend on a hands-on basis. On that note, the One Piece-themed minigames are bundled up in an overarching game that somewhat resembles Reversi (or Othello, for you sophisticated types), played with four players instead of two. Pirates Carnival is best served as a party game, and up to four human players can jump in and take control of any one of the current Straw Hat Pirates, sans Franky. However, solo play is also an option, and you can select up to three CPU players on four different difficulty settings. The initial square board comprises 25 panels, with each player calling one corner home. After battling it out in an initial minigame to see who controls the center panel and goes first, each player takes turns flipping panels to reveal variously themed One Piece cards, which have a corresponding monetary value. Panels come in four different varieties: minigame, event, captain, or davy back fight. Minigame is the most prevalent variety, and flipping one of these gives you a choice of three minigames to compete in. The winner of the game takes control of the panel, regardless of who flipped it. Event cards are freebie panels, and they usually come with a beneficial side effect, such as commandeering one of your opponent's panels or giving you an extra turn. Captain panels have the highest value and are actually twofers, with the catch being that they are a three-on-one game. Davy back fights let you contest a panel controlled by an opponent, potentially letting you make off with the sweet booty hiding underneath. The Reversi element factors in when you surround an opponent's panel or panels with your own, effectively letting you plunder an opponent's hard-earned winnings in true piratical fashion.
Even though many of the minigames skew toward the absurd and get massive style points in that respect, their core mechanics lack the depth and variety necessary to give them any substance. One of the more enjoyable minigames involves skydiving 10,000 meters to land on a tiny boat in the middle of the ocean, with an octopus acting as parachute to measure your descent. It isn't overly complex, as you'll only be using the thumbstick to aim your descent and one button to unfurl the octopus, but it creates a highly competitive situation and is utterly ludicrous in its presentation. However, most of the other minigames only share this one's simple control scheme. In fact, a large portion of the minigames can be controlled with just one or two buttons. In one sense, this could be good, because it stays away from overly complicated controls for these short games. But in another sense it is bad, because a lot of the games end up feeling very similar from one to the next, and they have a tendency to devolve into button-mashing affairs, though there are a few decent timing-based games. Plus, even though there are supposedly 30-plus minigames in the package, you'll have access to only about two-thirds without having to undergo some hardcore frustration unlocking other boards, which isn't exactly ideal for a party game. And even then, you tend to see the same minigames appear time and time again, so the variety that theoretically should be here simply isn't. Plus, you'll have easy access to only three boards, all of which are square, which seems to miss the opportunity of adding a unique twist to the Reversi strategy.
Aside from the lackluster minigames, Pirates Carnival has several frustrating elements that further run it aground. Board games can swing in and out of your favor in an instant, and it's possible to lose the game even though you've won the majority of the minigames. Losing on a lucky draw of a no-contest event card when you're squaring off against difficult opponents to unlock a new board can be annoying, to say the least. Luck also plays too large of a factor in many of the minigames, and again, it can be infuriating to lose a crucial panel in such a way. Also, despite being able to select the difficulty level of your opponent, the overall difficulty level seems to be more dynamic than static. For instance, it is entirely possible to get inexplicably trounced by an easy opponent if you're leading the board by a healthy margin, and harder opponents will occasionally lighten up if you're well behind in total panels. However, regardless of whether you're winning or losing big, at least once per game the board will instantly change hands, so the Reversi strategic layer tends to lose a lot of its appeal.
Pirates Carnival delivers big-time on the fan service, but the frequent interruptions kill the pacing of the game. Namely, voice work has been crammed in to the brim. The English-version voice actors deliver their shtick in context with which character revealed which card, and it's actually quite impressive considering all of the various permutations that are available. Most minigames are also prefaced by fully voiced short intro cutscenes or hand-drawn manga-style stills, all featuring the same gratuitous amount of face faulting that One Piece is known for. Graphically, the game features a mix of the aforementioned stills and cel-shaded animation, and the crew appears as caricatured sprites in the minigames, which all look decent enough. Also, Luffy's exuberance apparently extends to each board's backgrounds, as windmills and small islands defy their facticity as inanimate objects and bounce with mindless glee. It's really quite perplexing.
The downside to the extensive use of the license here is that it really drags down the pace of the game. Between Luffy making claims to the pirate throne, a rules-explanation screen, Buggy the Clown brandishing his cutlass before a minigame, and a loading screen, you're in for a lot of sitting and staring, waiting and wishing to just do something. Add in that most minigames are in the neighborhood of 60 to 90 seconds max, and there's proportionally very little gameplay in the board game mode as a result.
In a party atmosphere, Pirates Carnival will occasionally offer the kind of fun that causes people to absolutely freak when they lose in a tight match. A party atmosphere will probably go a long way in making the game's quirky sense of humor a bit easier to swallow, as well as helping you overlook some of the game's ho-hum minigames and agonizing pacing. However, the minigames lack the depth necessary to keep the game entertaining for very long. And though they have a lot of character, none of what's here is particularly compelling or enjoyable. In fact, without the board game premise, you really won't find a strong reason to go back to any of these games just for playing's sake. And that's where Pirates Carnival ultimately fails.