I played One Piece Odyssey on a boat

This week has been full of firsts for me. Not only did I get to play the upcoming RPG One Piece Odyssey, but it was the first time I can say I got to play a game on a boat. 

I headed out to San Diego, California last week to join other members of the press to play the first few hours of One Piece Odyssey. (Travel arrangements were made and covered by Bandai Namco, the game's publisher). I can’t say I’m the world’s biggest fan of One Piece, I’m not caught up with the manga or anime, but I do enjoy the fun pirate shonen series quite a lot. 

I’ve played a handful of the One Piece games and movies, and while I don’t think many of the former have blown me away they’re pretty enjoyable for shonen tie-in media. One Piece games largely feature action gameplay, with the latest we’ve gotten being Pirate Warriors 4. When Odyssey was announced, it caught my attention. The world of One Piece is a melting pot of tone and genre, so capturing it in the video game medium has been a bit challenging. I never thought a turn based RPG would be such a good fit for this series until I truly got my hands on it, but I think fans who have been waiting for a One Piece game to be more character focused might be in for a treat.

After settling into my hotel in San Diego (a beautiful city by the way, big fan), they took us to the Star of India, a boat which has now been converted into a museum. They let us demo two segments: the opening hour and a small bit exploring the city of Alabasta. Taking place after the series’ time skip, Odyssey finds the Straw Hat pirates crashing on the island of Waford. They lose their powers, which is charmingly represented by the team being set back from level 40 to level 1. After meeting two original characters to the game, Lim and Adio, they set off to repair their ship, regain their abilities, and set back out on their journey. On the way, it appears that they’ll have to revisit several iconic areas from the series.

Main development of the game was handled by studio ILCA. They’re primarily a support studio, but their resume on RPGs is rather impressive. One of the names on that list caught my attention was that they helped work on Dragon Quest XI, one of my favorite games of all time. Fans of One Piece who have played that game might immediately perk up, because it seems like the two share some DNA in-game feel. I don’t mean to imply that the comparisons are 1:1, but it seems like there was definitely a lot of inspirations taken from DQ11. 

One of the immediate things I noticed is an increase in voice acting compared to many One Piece games. While there isn’t full VO, most of the story scenes in the opening segment were voiced by the beloved Japanese cast that have brought the characters to life for years. I think voice acting in JRPGs can do a lot of heavy lifting for story cutscenes even if their presentation can feel stilted, and Odyssey benefits heavily from this. We were told that a big focus of the development team was this increase in voice acting, which was perfect for a story driven RPG. Having just picked the manga back up to prepare myself for this press event, my favorite part so far has to be the interactions between the main cast. The dialogue and writing felt up to the standard, and plenty of lines managed to make me grin while I played this slice of the game. 

The gameplay is what I’ve been most interested to get my hands on, especially if it’ll be the main point of interaction with the game. They told us the expected game time was around 40-60 hours (depending on how much side content you complete), and that’s a lot of time for an RPG combat system to keep the attention of players. The style is certainly there, with some great UI that adds visual flair. Overall, I think we were shown a good foundation that I hope the rest of the game continues to build on.

Fights take place on a series of grid like areas, with every character and enemy fitting into a Battle Type that play into a Rock-Paper-Scissors weakness dynamic. These three are Strength, Speed, and Technique. Power beats Speed, Speed beats Technique, Technique loops back around and beats Power. I’d say the combat system is fun, yet simple. Every character learns a series of skills on top of this, and some have their own quirks to using them in battle over others. Zoro and Robin are speed types, but I noticed that Zoro has a higher chance for his attacks to cause Bleed on enemies thanks to his Katanas. The area system doesn't seem just for show, with critical attacks being able to knock an enemy out of an area and into another group to damage them all. There are random Dramatic Scenes that play out in fights to keep things interesting, like Usopp being surrounded and changing your party dynamic up as you dash to rescue him. Doing so in a timely fashion even lead to a higher EXP reward at the end.

You’re allowed to have four party members active in a battle, and can switch out with any of your reserve crew each turn if you feel the situation calls for it. I’m unsure if this was because I was just in the opening hours, but I did feel fights leaned a little on the easy side. I was interacting with the mechanics as expected, but didn’t know how much that was even necessary. Battle animations certainly appease and are anime accurate, but part of me worries when the game will show its full hand. Hopefully, not too soon.

We didn’t get to see a lot in terms of character building, but what was there seemed easy to understand and interact with. Character cubes can be found in the world to level up battle skills, which are based on iconic attacks from the series. What I did find novel was that these cubes can be rolled back at seemingly any point and reallocated. I always find it difficult to commit down an upgrade path, so this works great for decisive people like me who want to experiment with play styles and new skills. There’s a big focus on the cast, and using traditional RPG mechanics to let them flourish. Camping with your buds and crafting gear are mechanics you’ll interact with often in Dragon Quest XI, for example, and they managed to include them here with a cute One Piece spin.

Outside of combat, you have traditional exploration scenes that will connect you from one story beat to the next. They made an excellent choice to not make this not solely The Luffy Show, but gave each Straw Hat meaningful ways to interact with the environment. Luffy himself can use his stretchy arms to bridge gaps and swing, Nami can find secret money drops, Zoro can destroy obstacles, Usopp can use his slingshot to destroy far off objects, and more. Not anything groundbreaking, but it's the little details that matter and I think this was a great idea. One thing I felt was odd is that since battles are exclusively initiated by running into enemies, the Straw Hats don’t actually get to use their unique fighting styles to smack monsters on the field. I don’t think this is necessarily a dealbreaker, but this bit of added feedback adds a lot to beginning turn-based RPG encounters.

If I were to voice another worry here, it would be that most of these segments felt a bit linear. Granted, I understand that the opening served mainly as a tutorial for the game’s mechanics, but there were a few moments that felt underwhelming. The intro has you explore the beach the Straw Hats shipwreck on, and the areas that follow feel like corridors. However, the Alabasta City segment introduced the Bounty Board for side quests, which implies that the later chapters will open up significantly. But my worries lie mainly in level design outside of cities. There’s something about running on a cliffside, seeing enemies off on a beautiful beach below, but noticing that according to the map you can’t actually go down and go there. I think the environments are all around quite good to look at, which let me down ever so slightly that there were places I just couldn’t go. When you add the slow run speed and a sprint that feels like it should have been the normal movement speed, dungeon crawling can also just feel a tad clunky. I hope future areas open up a lot more, but I’ll have to see when I get my hands on the full game.

I’m not sure what we can fully expect when One Piece Odyssey pulls into port January 13th, 2023. Based on the slice I’ve had a chance to play, there are good signs. Odyssey might not fully capture the attention of hardcore RPG fanatics, but I don’t think its trying to. Accessibility seems to be the focus, to try to appeal to as many One Piece fans as possible even if they aren’t typically fans of turn-based RPGs. I’m excited to see how the full game will play out, and I think they’re onto something here. While I’m not entirely sure it’ll change the game, with the strong focus on story, characters, and cutscenes I think this game will have a lot to offer for a section of One Piece fans that haven’t felt very represented with the games released so far. The taste of the game was filling, enough to quell any sea sickness that came from the rocking of the room caused by the waves.