Right now, I think it's safe to say that out of everything on the market around the entire world, One Piece is my favorite currently-running comic series (the anime's also pretty cool, too). You'd think I would be freaking out all over this review at the chance to have played a huge One Piece game that focuses on the story, but that's only partially true. One Piece: Romance Dawn for the 3DS does a fair number of things right, but it does enough wrong that it's not an immediate must-buy.
Starting with an unsually long, unplayable prologue, One Piece: Romance Dawn covers the story from Luffy's childhood with Shanks to the Paramount War at Marineford--a whole lot of material. Don't get me wrong, it's awesome watching Shanks show Luffy what being a real man's all about, but when you spend twenty minutes just tapping the A button, it gets a little frustrating. This could have been a good opportunity to introduce us to the battle system (maybe playing as Shanks, Benn and Yasopp), or let us explore around as a young Luffy. Fortunately, this kind of front-loads the game's real problem for you: if you can't handle a long cutscene, it's best to stear cleer.
Once the game starts, you're actually thrown right into the action with little to no explanation. I really don't mind this, but I know a lot of gamers won't enjoy it as much, since the battle system has some interesting nuances that aren't readily explained. You're going to spend a lot of time running through featureless corridors and fighting enemies (who don't put up very much of a fight), picking up random consumables and equipment, some of which can change a character's cosmetic appearance, like new headgear or Luffy's hilariously huge backpack of food. Enemies don't drop items often, so it pays to search every corner of the map for every possible pickup.
Now, I mentioned that the maps are pretty featureless and plain, and it can get kind of frustrating running around what seems like an endless maze that has a million back alleys, but exits (and doorways to boss fights) are helpfully pointed out with clear signs. It gives the game a refreshing old-school feeling--this is a One Piece video game, not a massive cinematic experience. Some segments will also turn into a long running fight, where you have to quickly do QTEs to choose the correct path, with wrong choices forcing you to fight enemies. I actually found these to be really good places to grind for experience, but eventually you'll just have to weave your way through a maze and smash down a door at the end just so you can get on to the next part of the story.
You're not only confined to the main One Piece plot, either--multiple pathways open up on the map, letting you wander off the beaten path and see what treasures await on unnamed islands out in the middle of nowhere. These islands don't throw any real challenges at you, and are just mazes with lots of standard enemy encounters, so they can feel kind of grindy. Sometimes, even the loot isn't worth it, but the few times you get a really good item can be enough of a hook to always check the side paths.
Battles are initially just with Luffy, but as you pick up more crew members, you're able to have up to three Straw Hats in your party fighting together. Each fighter has their own specific range, and stepping out of it will apply penalties to your stats, so sometimes you'll have to spend a turn just moving into range and guarding, setting everything up before you can attack with all three party members at once. Attacks are done through upgradeable combos, and you're encouraged to force enemies against walls to maximize the damage you're dealing.
It's a simple-enough system, but the reliance on using your environment factors in to major boss battles as well--when you're fighting Crocodile, for instance, you'll have to find his elemental weakness on the battleground to weaken him, and pick and choose the times you attack. Moments like this inject a lot of strategy and challenge into a battle system that can sometimes feel repetitive when you're mowing through armies of nobodies.
For those of you tuning in just for the story, Romance Dawn only somewhat works as a recap of the first part of the series. Smaller arcs (like the early story with Coby and Alvida) are quickly played out in a cutscene, and you won't get much of the series' character development--you'll run around town fighting mooks, then get a long cutscene before and after a boss battle playing out the more exciting parts of the story.
Even in its turn-based format, Romance Dawn's battles can be exciting as hell. It's especially satisfying building up enough AP to pinball an especially powerful boss between three Straw Hats, then finish with a barrage of huge special attacks. Some of the moves can be unimpressive (like Nami's early staff attacks), but soon you're going through Usopp's arsenal or brutalizing foes with Robin's grappling attacks, so there's plenty of variety between characters if you ever get tired of seeing certain combos.
One Piece: Romance Dawn isn't anything special on the gameplay front. It's a samey, by-the-numbers RPG that can get pretty repetitive at times. Its story skimps on some of the most emotionally-intense parts of One Piece, focusing mainly on the battles and the action (which are still awesome). But even with all that baggage, it has a fresh and occasionally rewarding battle system that can put up an impressive fight at times. Whether you go digital-only or you're lucky enough to find a limited-edition physical copy, One Piece: Romance Dawn takes you on a sometimes-bumpy adventure through the Grand Line.
+ Fast, fun battle system simultaneously encourages tactical thinking, patience, and controlled bursts of aggression
+/- Lots of story content and islands to explore, but it all kinds of blends together until it's time for a boss fight
+/- Uneven challenge--random mooks are just cannon fodder, while boss enemies can (sometimes) really fight back
- Cutscenes can be painfully long sometimes, especially in scenes that you should be able to play through