Bandai Namco was out in force on the floor of the exhibitors hall in Anime Expo 2018, putting up a booth featuring four of their upcoming titles including Code Vein, Naruto to Boruto: Shinobi Striker, My Hero One's Justice, and the highly anticipated Jump Force. I, of course, tried them all out and will be sharing my hands-on experience with you! Jump Force in particular has been drawing a lot of excitement since its cinematic announcement trailer featured at E3. Although far from the first Shonen Jump crossover fighter, this game undoubtedly the most ambitious.
As fans quickly surmised from early videos, the gameplay of Jump Force is extremely similar to open arena battle system of the Ninja Storm franchise, complete with similar combo structure and an R1+one button special ability menu. The most immediate difference between the two is that Jump Force is a lot slower. I’m still not quite sure what I think of that. The speed of Ninja Storm gave fights a ton of energy and made the arena space feel significant. Instead, Jump Force seems to be leaning into cinematics and a sense of weight and power with character moves. In that regard, they definitely succeeded.
I wasn't entirely sold of the visual style of Jump Force at first glance, but playing with it really shows how both realistic graphics and character movesets have been intentionally directed to convey this sense of power. Character collisions would satisfyingly split apart, forming craters, and kicking up dirt on impact with textures given a bit more love than the usual battle damage overlay that fades over a few seconds.
Charge attacks are new feature which serve the same purpose, performed by holding down one of the attack buttons. Each features semi-cinematics when you connect to add some extra impact to your heavy strikes. Functionally they seem to add a bit of mix-up to your wake-up game but, once you’ve been hit by one, it’s pretty easy to panic if you feel like you’re in a bad position to evade. While they do a ton of damage, the pure spectacle of connecting adds a lot of psychological pressure.
Ninja Storm’s replacement jutsus have been traded out with timed-block counterattacks, involving a more weighty blocking, or straight up no-selling, a hit and then hitting back. This seems like another trade-off of a sense of speed for power. While lightning fast teleporting matches exist in a good deal of the source material Jump Force pulls from, absorbing a punch with your pecs and launching your enemy away with a backhand has a charm all it own. A very intentional pause between block and hit was even added to give you a moment to contemplate what's about to happen to you.
Early comparisons to the Avengers, originally inspired by the damaged New York set piece and crossover element, seem even more apt after playing the title first-hand. Much of the game seems focused on spectacle, with it even keeping the overproduced Ninja Storm cinematics for ultimate attacks, with some of them unlocking powered up modes like Nine Tails Chakra Naruto. I can definitely see why they went with the more realistic CG appearance.
Although the visuals and feel are on-point, my concerns come in with some of the game mechanics. Despite the 3v3 match structure, you only have one assist button, picking the next character on rotation and automatically swapping them in after their assist is complete. Basically you can’t choose who will assist and you will swap with that character when you use them. That said, assists are extremely powerful, appearing next to your opponent rather than yourself which make them valuable interrupts, especially with the inclusion of charge attacks.
Then there’s the match structure. Although you have three characters, they share a single health bar. The fights were also a single round. Once one of your characters is defeated, you lost the match. This is a strange decision on its own, but even more bizarre given just how much damage all the attacks do. The power doesn’t stop at the visuals. All attacks do a HUGE amount of damage. I personally experienced some fights that lasted maybe 10 seconds just because of a few solid hits. Some fights feel like they’re over before they even started, which probably didn’t feel good to everyone who had been waiting in line to play.
With no release date yet announced, it’s safe to say the build we tried out is definitely far from the finished product, featuring only six characters; Naruto, Sasuke, Luffy, Zoro, Goku, and Frieza across two available stages, the open field next to the head of the Hokage statues and the blasted city. It’s hard to accurately sum up my experience since I there’s a good chance the build we played either hadn’t completely fleshed out character transitions or, more likely, had intentionally shortened battles to keep the line moving. If not then, well, I hope you’re able to change the number of rounds in settings.
I can definitely report that I had a ton of fun playing the game. The emphasis on huge attacks and a cinematic fighting style made the game immensely satisfying after a brief experience. Ninja Storm was similar in that regard, but continued play began to reveal cracks in the game mechanics and balance while you got diminishing returns from the spectacle once you’d witnessed everyone's ultimates. I hope Spike Chunsoft is putting just as much effort into balance and play as they obviously have in fanservice. If that’s the case, assuming the matches are a bit longer, and this game could easily by a megahit.