Here’s some fun, nerdy trivia: although upcoming fighter Jump Force is, in part, a celebratory project to mark the 50th anniversary of Weekly Shonen Jump, the legendary manga anthology actually debuted in 1968. It wouldn’t go to a weekly publishing schedule until 1969 though, so the count just about works in Bandai Namco’s favour.
In the five decades since, Japan’s most popular manga publication has been the home to hundreds of iconic characters, from the internationally renowned likes of Dragon Ball’s Goku to cult favourites such as Fist of the North Star’s Kenshiro. With Shonen Jump’s output typically focused on action series, an epic-scale crossover fighter is the perfect way to mark the magazine’s golden anniversary. Enter Jump Force.
Boys' Club Bust Up
Playing a preview build at Bandai Namco’s London HQ, the first thing that stands out is the hearty roster. There are 40 Shonen Jump heroes to get to grips with, plus a customisable player character that you’ll be able to take into battle as a team member. With a lineup balancing familiar faces from One Piece, Naruto, and Bleach alongside classic characters dating back to the 1980s, there’s huge variety to be found in how you build your teams.
With such a hefty number of characters, one immediate disappointment is the absolute dearth of women. Yes, Shonen Jump is considered a boy’s title, but it’s still got plenty more female fighters to choose from than the measly three who appear here (Rukia from Bleach, Kaguya from Naruto, and Boa from One Piece). Hopefully, DLC might redress this imbalance - it’s shocking that even Naruto’s Sakura is absent.
The customisable avatar character could be the most interesting wild card in the game, with a moveset that can be tailored with attacks from seemingly any other character. Want to combo a Rasengan from Naruto with a Yu Yu Hakusho Spirit Gun and Dragon Ball’s signature Kamehameha? You can - along with dozens of other specials. That diversity should ensure unpredictable online battles, as players explore the multitude of possibilities on offer.
Gender disparity aside, characters fall into four broad classes - attacker, defender, health-type, and technical-type. At higher levels, players may want to consider more balanced teams, but it’s easy enough to jump into a match with a trio of personal favourites and hammer out a few attacks to get the gist of the game’s mechanics.
At a glance, the fighter - developed by Spike Chunsoft, the studio behind 2015’s similar Jump crossover J-Stars Victory VS - is a tag-team brawler, with players picking squads of three to take into battle. However, there are a few tweaks to the model that make Jump Force stand out - for better and worse.
What struck me as one of the strangest choices is only having one health bar for the whole team. Expecting something like Tekken Tag or Marvel vs. Capcom, I was taken by surprise at winning the first round after taking down only one opponent. It can add a bit of a tactical element, trying to juggle around your chosen trio to take advantage of their unique moves while only having one 'life' between them, but it also results in what feels like slightly truncated fights.
Oddly, Jump Force somehow manages to feel both button-masher friendly and overly complex in its controls. Face buttons deliver basic attacks, while holding down R2 (on PS4, the version we played) allows you to charge energy for specials. You’ll also have to hold down R2 to use those specials, with one of four unleashed with a coordinated tap of a face button - but those same face buttons can be used to activate quick counters or a throw in the midst of a scrap. Toss in a dash move on L1, letting you zoom across arenas in true action manga fashion, and it starts to feel like a lot to keep track of.
Some of the more tactical fight controls annoyed too, with dodging and blocking feeling more like luck than skill. It’s worth noting that preview build was not final code though (and a Day One Patch was confirmed), so those factors could be improved in the finished game.
If there’s one thing Jump Force excels at though, it’s spectacle. There are frequent flourishes throughout whenever a special move connects. Whether it’s Piccolo’s Special Beam Cannon blasting opponents clear across the stage, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure’s Jotaro Kujo summoning his Stand avatar to fling opponents around for him, or One Piece’s Luffy streaking across the screen with his rubber-limbed punches, Jump Force is packed with the exuberant energy that action anime excels at.
This is elevated further when characters activate their "Awakened" mode after charging a related gauge, unlocking devastating super attacks ripped straight from their respective anime series. Some heroes even gain form changes when they Awaken, but in a nice bit of attention to detail, only where the source material allows for it - so while Vegeta, Goku, and Trunks turn Super Saiyan, Kenshiro just rips his shirt off.
There are inconsistencies to the aesthetics though, in both characters and arenas. For some of the classic heroes, Jump Force is the first time they’ve ever appeared in 3D, and they don’t transition well. Others, like the Dragon Ball or One Piece casts, suffer seemingly random texturing to skin and clothing, and a preponderance of disturbingly glassy eyes. A uniform look, ideally cel-shaded, might've worked better here.
Arenas are also visually divisive. For the most part, they’re well-imagined and atmospheric, with just enough destructibility to make the most of the awe-inspiring special moves which characters will be tearing them up with. However, with real-world locations juxtaposed against anime settings - Jump Force’s story will see the anime multiverse crashing into the 'real' world - the cast can feel out of place in the spaces they’re fighting in. It’s not a deal-breaker, and the weirdness of it all may grow over time, but it always felt slightly jarring to be pummeling anime heroes in Times Square or around the Matterhorn.
Behold, my final form!
That story mode, untouchable in the preview build - along with the attendant combat tutorials, customisation nuances, and RPG-lite character progression it looks to bring with it - may do the overall game considerable benefit. In a best case scenario, playing through it will either explain away any seeming inconsistencies, or better still, train players to understand the quirks that annoy when diving straight into pure combat. It was clear from the character selection screen and experience gains after each fight that there’s a lot more to explore in Jump Force than its three-on-three battles alone would indicate.
It’s worth keeping in mind the audience for this, too. This isn’t a fighting game for the Tekken or Soul Calibur crowd so much as it is the more hardcore anime and manga fans. Those players will adore the deep dive into Shonen Jump history that’s on offer here, with familiar faces from massive hits like One Piece joined by niche figures such as City Hunter’s Ryo Saeba or Dragon Quest: The Adventure of Dai’s eponymous sword-swinging hero. Fans deserve more than just fan service, though - and with the Jump Force set to drop on February 15, it feels like a lot is resting on whatever that Day One Patch may deliver.
Want more punchy, brawly goodness? Check out our picks for the best fighting games to play right now!