One Piece: Romance Dawn is a lot like a pirate without a peg leg, eye-patch, or bottle of rum. It’s just…well, lame. This RPG is a confusing, bare bones adventure that's slightly more enjoyable than getting stranded at sea. It eschews much of what makes the anime so beloved and attempts to fill that void with bland gameplay systems and dialogue that's difficult to parse. Considering the wealth of source material, Romance Dawn feels like a major misfire.
Where did it all go wrong? To start, the story is told mostly through in-game vignettes that overlay text bubbles onto stills from the much-loved anime. These are long, drawn-out affairs that confusingly pull from parts of the show, and because the narrative isn’t grounded by any voice-acting, it’s never 100 percent clear who’s saying what. The scatterbrained presentation makes it difficult to wrap your head around what's going on even if you're paying attention.
Once you’re through the awful dialogue sequences, though, you’re just in the eye of the storm. Romance Dawn attempts to work in a half-baked RPG system and make the 3D action more than just a turn-based slugfest. It doesn't entirely succeed. Battling involves taking up to three of your crew into the fray and pitting them against the varying scalliwags you’ll encounter. As with most JRPGs, you can attack, use abilities or items, guard against incoming damage, or run. You get a set number of action points--the combat’s way of telling you how many moves in a combo you can string together--to use per turn, and by stringing enough combos together you gain TP that unlock special attacks. The system is never explained all that well (whether or not the three dozen “tips” count as a tutorial is your call) and action points are easily squandered while you’re trying to figure the combat system out.
Though it's rarely exciting, the combat does have some redeeming qualities. Positional strategy is of some importance, and you can move characters around to better line up attacks or avoid penalties. I found the most enjoyable part of gameplay was the ability to bounce an opponent off a wall by using one of your character’s super-charged moves, netting you an item bonus for the effort. It’s this fleeting sense of joy that carries the combat at its dullest moments, but after about eight or nine hours even this thrill will subside.
To make matters worse, battles get extremely frustrating as the game progresses, as enemies refuse to play by the same rules your team must adhere to. During brawls with some of the series’ toughest cutthroats, when one of my team members needed to run across the battlefield to help out a teammate in trouble, he was penalized for overextending on the next turn. When enemies did the same thing, however, they were immune to the same consequences, giving them an unfair advantage--it felt like rubbing salt in an open wound.
The bland battles might be more manageable if you were given an interesting world to explore, but even here Romance Dawn stinks like three-day-old fish. You’ll hop from island to island on a series of missions where the environments range from bland shrubbery to bland, brown stone caves. It all starts to look the same after only a few hours, and the similar-looking baddies, uninteresting treasure chests, and predictable save points that populate each map are just as repetitive as the environments themselves.
There are more systems at play here, but they’re ultimately too shallow to matter. An item crafting and skill tree system allow you to strengthen your characters and their combos. These upgrades seem great on paper, but without more than a handful for each character, there's little here to sink your teeth into. And even if you do, you'll hardly be rewarded for your efforts.
At best, Romance Dawn is a no-frills JRPG that relies on an almost photographic memory of the anime to enjoy. At worst, it’s a boring, monotonous slog through a universe you never feel like you belong to. If I hadn’t already sunk 20 hours into this adventure and were given the choice to do it all over again or take a long walk off a short plank, I’d take my chances at the bottom of Davy Jones’ locker. Do yourself a favor and watch the anime instead.