UK REVIEW--Collectibles have long been a staple of video games. Traipsing around picking up coins, notes, and rings--we've all done it. Normally, these jaunts into collect-'em-up territory are designed to complement the game, grant additional bonuses, or improve your chances. In One Piece: Unlimited Cruise, most of the time they are the game. Sure, the game has combat and exploration and bosses, but unless you collect every rock, grass, mineral, lizard, or insect you can get your hands on, you won't get far. It's kind of difficult to base an entire game on a side activity, and much like the original Wii version, this 3DS port does little to keep things interesting. Plagued by tedious to-ing and fro-ing, this plodding trek has very little to offer even the most diehard One Piece fan.
Despite what the game's title suggests, this isn't the entire Unlimited Cruise saga. It was split in half for its original Wii incarnation, but the Japanese 3DS release of Unlimited Cruise rectified things by including Treasure Beneath the Waves and Awakening of a Hero on one cart. That isn't the case here. Instead, this European release contains just the first episode, along with a boss-rush Survival mode and Marineford Episodes, which are a series of arena fights based on the anime's Marineford plot arc.
The good news for One Piece fans is that Unlimited Cruise really nails the characters and the vibe. The main mode offers nine playable characters, including series protagonist Monkey D. Luffy, the daring swordsman Zoro, the skeletal Brook, and Chopper the reindeer. All the characters are nicely modeled, and the dialogue, albeit rather sparse, is spot-on, being charming, lighthearted, and funny. It's a shame, then, that Unlimited Cruise's overall story is utterly forgettable, with Luffy and crew exploring islands and overcoming ordeals (read: bosses styled on classic One Piece enemies) with the promise of "a present" at the end of it. They're accompanied by Gabri, an unusual creature who exists to eat items and convert them into points, which are required to unlock routes and progress between bosses.
The plot exists as a flimsy device that has the main characters trekking around, collecting hundreds of different bits of junk, and then feeding them to Gabri or using them to make a variety of arbitrary things. The game has no qualms about frequently asking you to traipse around the same bit of land, collecting pickups. In fact, it positively revels in it. Items are needed to create bridges, cannons, ladders, explosives, and plenty more. They're needed for feeding to Gabri to accrue GP, which then has to be spent on construction. They're needed to make healing items, and they're needed to make items that are required to collect more items. Sometimes you find yourself at an impasse, with a character's item-creation level too low to develop the thing you need. Then, you're required to create other things to level up, whether you need those things or not.
The islands you explore are largely bland, unimaginative places. There's the beach/forest area, the desert island complete with the odd dinosaur bone, the frozen ice island, and the island with the obligatory volcano. They're often confusing and mazelike, with the unhelpful map frequently failing to point out that many of the paths are one-way. Shortcuts can be unlocked by, predictably, gathering a ton of items to create more items. The problem is, for a game that focuses so heavily on exploration, the areas aren't fun to explore. They're filled with awkward, fiddly jumps, which frequently see your character bouncing off a cliff edge. There's a general feeling that the environments haven't been designed with character movement in mind, and while the game doesn't punish you for plunging headfirst into chasms, such falls are still an annoyance when there's such a reliance on trekking about looking for things.
Getting in between you and the collectibles are a bunch of mud monsters, pirates, zombies, navy officers, and the occasional venomous plant. Most of the enemy types require the same approach to defeat them, although some fun can be had with the combat--when the camera is behaving itself, at least. The nine playable characters, for the most part, have noticeably different styles, and you unlock more moves for each character simply by using them in combat. Luffy uses his rubber limbs to perform fast, far-reaching kicks and punches, Robin attacks with magical hands from below, and Usopp is a ranged fighter, using a slingshot to dispatch foes. Messing around with the different characters is fun for a while, although some of the attacks (dash + regular attack, for example) can be fiddly to perform, or the combo simply doesn't register.
Perhaps the neatest aspect of Unlimited Cruise's combat is the Break Rush ability. Whenever you enter combat, lists of button commands appear on the bottom screen. Performing all of these without being knocked down rewards you with a Break Rush. This lets you attack with more power and causes each enemy defeated with a Break Rush attack to drop an item, health, and stamina pickups. While collecting items is pretty much par for the course by now, building up your combo to reach Break Rush adds a little bit of variation to the combat, which is otherwise quite basic. The downside to Break Rush is that it can often cause a severe drop in the game's frame rate if too many enemies are present, and while the frame rate drops are short-lived, they can still be annoying. Further, the lock-on function doesn't come in handy often and is rather erratic, being prone to snapping out of lock-on even a short distance away from the enemy.
As well as the hordes of regular enemies, there are a bunch of boss battles. They're generally your reward for accessing an area by way of items, and defeating them rewards you with orbs that let you feed more items to Gabri. There's a neat range of One Piece enemies here. They're presented as simulated challenges the pirates have to overcome, rather than involving the actual characters, and therefore the game features appearances from across the One Piece plot arcs. The boss battles aren't fun and usually become a war of attrition as you chip away at each boss's massive health bar, while your characters take the brunt of the attacks since the dodge command rarely works properly. The fight against Gekko Moriah, for example, is infuriating because you're assailed by bats every time you get too far from him, and he spends the entire fight clumsily walking against the arena wall. To make matters worse, only some of the characters' attacks connect with him, making this one of the more frustrating fights.
The main story mode is a slog, and the Marineford Episodes mode doesn't fare much better. It has you entering into a series of arena fights and completing different routes through the plot, each focusing on a different set of characters. Some of these fights consist of inoffensive battles against either a single boss or waves of enemies. These are fine at first, but they can become frustrating later on, when the combat system can't keep up with the increased difficulty. The other type of mission sees you having to survive within a time limit; you must run in a circle around the outside of the arena, avoiding attacks. They're pretty easy to pass, but they're not much fun. Often, these missions put you in control of an excessively slow character and involve nothing more than holding a direction for a minute or more, narrowly avoiding attacks as you gently plod around.
At least there's something of a story to keep you entertained here, although it's a bit patchy in its delivery, told through brief dialogue exchanges. There's the occasional rolling cutscene, and these can be quite problematic. The game is fully voice-acted, but the voice acting is only in Japanese, and the subtitles are tiny, blurry, and difficult to read. Coupled with the 3D effects, which are otherwise excellent, this can be a bit of an eye strain, and a lot more thought could have gone into the presentation, especially given that unless you're a Japanese speaker, reading the subtitles is mandatory to follow the plot.
There's also a Survival mode. This offers perhaps the best level of One Piece fan service, with 45 different One Piece characters available to play as. Here, you can tackle either 200 regular enemies that appear in waves, or a boss rush of 50 consecutive fights. It's a lengthy mode, but one that favours quantity over quality. The novelty of playing as some of the more unusual One Piece characters soon wears off, since the mode is so repetitive and long-winded. Some shorter, more-enclosed combat trials could have mixed things up a little, but in the spirit of the entire game, such quick-fire fun is absent.
This entire package is a shame, because a One Piece explore-'em-up adventure could easily work well. The character charm and endearment is here, but the rest of the game lets that aspect down. It's a good-looking game, sharp and crisp in both 2D and 3D, but it's one that's centered around repetition and monotony rather than fun. Given just how tedious the first half is, it's hard to lament the absence of the second half, and also very hard to look forward to its inevitable release. While One Piece: Unlimited Cruise SP may initially provide brief entertainment for longtime fans of the license, it's a voyage best avoided.