Bandai Namco seem to be on a bit of a roll as of late, at least where their adaptations of popular Shonen series are concerned. Back in February, they gave Naruto a fitting send off in Ultimate Ninja Storm 4, and now, they’re once again taking gamers on a voyage to the Grand Line in One Piece: Burning Blood.

Taking the super-powered pirates of Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece and creating a fighting game around them is a complete no brainer. Each of the series’ distinct and vividly drawn characters are already brimming with the kind of personality you’d find in the likes of Street Fighter or Guilty Gear, and they already have the prerequisite crazy combat abilities gifted to them by the various devil fruits they’ve ingested, or by virtue of simply being a little bit badass (such as in the case of Sanji, Zorro, and Nami).

There have been a few attempts at it before, most notably Fight for One Piece on PS2 and the Gigant and Carnivale! series, which were more akin to Smash Bros. or Power Stone. Yet Burning Blood stands apart from these previous attempts to adapt the phenomenally popular anime and Manga in to a fighting game as it takes the combat mechanics, and the manner in which each character fights, seriously, creating an accessible but nuanced brawler that will appeal to newcomers and fans of the source material alike.

Burning Blood has a similar feel to Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm with fights using a similar kind of rock-papers- scissors system with quick, normal attacks besting guard breaks, while guard breaks demolish your foe’s defenses, and blocking nullifies normal attacks. The basics are fairly straightforward, but toss sidesteps, heavy guard breaks, special attacks, and aerial maneuvers, unity chains, support characters and devastating ultimate attacks and things become just a tad more complicated, interesting and, indeed, thrilling as a result.

The Straw Hat Pirates latest foray into the gaming world is surprisingly deep at times. This is due, in part, to the variety of fighting styles present in Burning Blood’s robust roster of playable characters. Each combatant has their own unique special moves and fighting style, so much so that even the character variants feel distinct. This is probably best shown in Luffy. The two years younger version of Luffy is a lot nippier and relies more on dodging and countering than his current version, who is more of an all-arounder with much stronger basic attacks.

My favorite character though has to be Ivankov, whose combination of heavy hits and bizarre specials are a sight to behold. Also there’s just something instantly appealing about playing as Tim Curry’s Frankenfurter in everything but name.

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Naturally, each character has their own strengths, weaknesses, and quirks that need to be mastered in order to best utilize them in battle. However, you won’t be taking one character into the fray (though that option exists if you would like to), but instead fronting a team of three. Much like Namco’s Naruto slugfest, Ultimate Ninja, Burning Blood focuses on 3 vs 3 fights, allowing you to tag in and out on the fly, using other teammates’ abilities to break combos and push the advantage. Though, sadly, there are no special combination attacks for specific teams.

With such a large and diverse roster, properly balancing every character is by no means a small task, which is why it’s almost understandable that One Piece has a few minor balancing issues, with certain characters capable of juggling opponents until they are defeated and others just feeling a little over powered compared to others. Unless this is worked on, I seriously doubt that we’ll ever see Burning Blood being played at a tournament level. But it’s not enough to spoil the fun fighting with your favorite band of misfits from the show. Though playing online against one of the buggers that have found these exploits is always a drag.

On the whole though, battles in Burning Blood are incredibly fun affairs. Attacks have a genuine sense of weight and impact, connecting with a satisfying “thwack”. Thumping an opponent, and then seeing them spiral uncontrollably into the distance before leveling some part of the scenery as they careen into it is a joy to behold. It’s this sense of spectacle that makes the combat feel truly special. Cinematic swings of the camera, outrageous ultimate attacks, and humorous knockout animations make Burning Blood almost as much fun to watch as it is to play, by capturing the look, feel and tone of the series big set piece battles perfectly.

Though the basic mechanics are a lot of fun, sadly, Burning Blood’s story mode isn’t quite as compelling as it should be, retelling the events of The Paramount War (which fans watching the dub in the UK haven’t quite gotten to yet) from the perspectives of Luffy, Ace, White Beard, and Akainu. Though it faithfully and comprehensively recreates the events of one of One Piece’s grandest and most chaotic battles thus far (from every possible angle including the villains), it is let down by random spikes in difficulty.

Luffy

As you progress across the map, each stage comes with its own specific objective. Though most are simply either defeating an enemy, or surviving against a group of them for a specific amount of time, what muddies the water somewhat is that the strength of your opponents varies wildly from stage to stage. Some feel overpowered for no particular reason other than to artificially extend the game. Sure, Akainu and the other Admirals of the Marines are supposed to be the biggest bastards on the seas, but in a fighting game, you need balance at all times otherwise it ceases to be fun. Only being able to chip away at your opponent’s health bar, while they can lay you out with a single lengthy combo just isn’t fun and feels like an attempt to forcibly lengthen the relatively short campaign.

Annoyingly, this mode is the means by which you unlock most of the characters and even the other game modes. Being forced to play Paramount War (though the first couple of stages serve as a useful tutorial) is a bit of a bugger when you just want to launch into the games’ other features.

Fortunately, though, it only takes a few stages of Paramount War to unlock the other modes, including a shop which allows you to purchase additional characters with in-game currency. Unlocking everyone isn’t cheap though, and the quickest way to make money is (you guessed it) to play through Paramount War.

Outside of this story mode there’s also Wanted VS Mode that has you play bounty hunter as  you take on teams built around different themes (eg Straw Hats, rival characters, etc.) for in game currency, with the potential bounty you can claim increasing in line with the difficulty of the challenge. There’s also the normal free battles that let you fight either against AI or in local battles against another player.

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For those wanting to take your skills online, Burning Blood has two modes to get stuck into. The first is a standard online battle mode, consisting of the usual ranked and casual match types, with leaderboards to climb and records to pour over (if that’s your thing). Pretty standard stuff. The second mode – Pirate Flag Battle – is a lot more interesting. Here, players pledge their loyalty to one of the many pirate factions from the series and take part in a war in which the end goal is to try and take over the most islands and ports spread across a vast map.  To do this, players and other members of their crew battle their rivals in online duels with the winner claiming territory or weakening its defenses a little if they lose.

It’s a neat concept and the idea of knowing that you’re helping your crew take over the landscape bit by bit is rather cool. However, in practice, I have found it to be somewhat unbalanced as since there is no limit on the size of each faction, unsurprisingly, most players want to join Luffy’s Straw Hats, making them a vast empire that has claimed most of the board through strength of numbers alone.

It’s also highly dependent (like most online modes) on building a community of players that continually engage with it. While it was pretty lively at launch, just a week on it appears that most players have moved on, and actually fighting another human being (in my experience at least) has become the exception rather than the norm. That said, if you can’t find a human opponent the game will pit you against the CPU rather than just kick you out.

Bright, beautiful, and bonkers in equal measure, One Piece: Burning Blood is bound to put a smile on the face of fans of the series. While it may not be balanced enough for tournament play, its solid gameplay systems and surprisingly deep combat make it a game fight fans will enjoy as well. Though the campaign is a slog at times, and it may not be the best game based on the series (that honor still belongs to One Piece: Pirate Warriors 3), Burning Blood is still a well-crafted adaptation that is worth welcoming aboard.

One Piece: Burning Blood was reviewed on PS4 with a copy provided by the publisher.

Developer: Spike Chunsoft | Publisher: Bandai Namco |  Genre: Fighting, Anime | Platform: PC,PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One | PEGI/ESRB: 12+/T | Release Date: June 10, 2016 (PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One) June 20, 2016 (PC)

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