When Jump Force was unveiled at E3 last year, it was difficult not to be intrigued. Offering an eye-catching virtual celebration of beloved manga anthology, Weekly Shonen Jump, it looked to gather together fan favourite fighters from series like Dragon Ball, One Piece, Naruto and Death Note. In other words, this big-eyed brawler seemed primed to become the Super Smash Bros. of anime. It looked slick, new and satsifying and for anime devotees, it offered the chance to settle those age-old forum arguments once and for all. Could Naruto really lay the smackdown on Goku? Who’s the bigger bad between Frieza and Blackbeard? And er, wouldn’t everyone already be dead when Fist Of The Northstar‘s Kenshiro steps into the arena?
In other words, fanservice is the priority here. Rather than trying to beat Marvel Vs Capcom for complexity, Jump Force has a simple combat system that aims to appeal to fans who just want to have fun unleashing their favourite characters’ signatures moves. While there’s nothing wrong with prioritising fun over complexity, thanks to a few questionable choices in its execution, Bandai’s latest frustratingly fails at being either a great fighting game or a compelling piece of crossover carnage.
This sh*t just got real
Like last year’s Dragon Ball FighterZ , Jump Force is a 3v3 anime fighter, but there are some obvious differences. Firstly, this is a 3D brawler rather than a fighting game on a 2D plane. Secondly, while Goku and co may look familiar, this time they’re rendered in detailed high-definition – borderline photorealistic – from the bulging muscles and scarred chests to highly textured clothes that rip and scorch after a tough battle.
It’s a bizarre aesthetic choice that smacks of a live-action CGI movie pitch to Hollywood execs — a way of selling anime to people who don’t like anime. But regardless of what you think of the art style, it undeniably provides some jaw-dropping spectacle. Players who don’t know their quarter circles from their charge inputs can easily execute their Goku’s Kamehameha or Kenshiro’s Hokouto Shinken strikes, with just a button and the squeeze of the right trigger, while the most dazzling and devastating attacks are saved for those who’ve taken enough damage to be able to trigger their ‘awakened’ ability, such as Naruto’s summoning of Ninetails.
While you do need at least one full charge of your energy gauge to pull these off, simply holding down R2 will quickly let your fighter charge the gauge up. This means that dishing out what should be special, screen-filling abilities quickly becomes a bizarrely pedestrian occurrence, not a rewarding rarity.
Combat isn’t all just about offence though, given that these are all easily blocked by just holding down R1. There’s also advanced techniques that you can execute with a perfectly-timed button press to dodge an attack or evade a throw. Still, the emphasis is ultimately on spectacle over skill here, and amidst the chaos as the camera crash-zooms in and characters warp around another, it gets pretty hard to read all the action that’s unfolding on screen. Adding to the frustration is just how over-reliant the game is on using motion-blur to keep up with everything, making each fight feel as though your favourite anime had taken a tumble in a pot of Vaseline.
My anime hero academia
While the ‘big three’ — that is Dragon Ball, One Piece, and Naruto — dominate the line-up, filling up almost half the game’s 42-strong roster, that still leaves a decent variety of characters from other franchises from Shonen Jump’s history, from oldies like City Hunter to more recent hits like My Hero Academia, while two unlockable characters have also been created for the game.
Yet this doesn’t make up for the game’s woefully underwhelming female representation. Seriously, 50 years of Shonen Jump, and the best they can do is include four women?
The consolation is that you can at least create your own avatar – or multiple if you wish – which could go some way to addressing that imbalance. Beyond that, we imagine there will be many players just as excited to create an anime version of themselves fighting using Goku’s, Kenshiro’s, or hell, a mixture of any anime icon’s powers.
You can also spruce up your avatar in new threads, buff them with items, or have them ride around in a silly vehicle of your choice. But in contrast, the base where this all takes place lacks the same degree of personality. It rather has the look and feel of an underwhelming MMO hub, and even when you’re logged in online, the strangers milling around aren’t exactly much for interacting with, though they do make for a hilarious bunch when they’re all crowded around the same quest counter driving a boat.
This is where you’ll gather when you want to play offline or online matches, or otherwise participate in missions to either advance the story or grind for XP, gold, upgrades or other loot. In other words, it feels very much like an RPG (Dragon Ball Xenoverse in particular), but it’s all so much on the perfunctory side in terms of presentation that the developers might as well have just put everything in a basic menu.
The J-Force Sleeps
Bandai Namco has kept quiet about the Jump Force campaign in the lead-up to release, to the extent that it’s also blocked console owners from capturing any footage or screenshots of any story content. Sure, we hate being spoiled as much as the next person, but when you finally get to actually witness these cutscenes, you’ll wonder what all the fuss was about.
The plot is a seriously dull affair, which is more disappointing when you consider all the fanservice possibilities the roster offers. These larger-than-life personalities are wasted on tedious exchanges in between missions which follow the same formula, while you’re usually fighting in prescribed match-ups – sometimes not even in the 3v3 format of a typical match – played to just the best of one round.
Cutscene animations are especially lifeless if you can even call the mostly stiff poses animation. When each fighter is so faithfully represented and expressed on the battlefield, it’s as if their place in the overarching story was merely an afterthought.
It’s not helped by the fact that when you eventually get to the fight, you’re also subjected to loading screens that can last anything from 20 to 30 seconds before and after, and then you’re dumped back into the dreary hub to repeat the process again. When you think of the abundance of ideas in Super Smash Bros Ultimate, which also modified every fight, and does it all without the transitional flab, you know your time could be better spent elsewhere.
Fortunately, there are other missions you can choose from that are quicker to jump into instead (even if loading still takes just as long). At the very least, participating in non-story related missions allows you to gather resources to invest in your protagonist in more meaningful ways, even if that does just mean you can kit them out in something new to wear.
Is Jump Force Any Good?
As a celebration of Shonen Jump’s illustrious history, we expected more from Jump Force than just pure spectacle. But with its off-putting photorealistic aesthetic, underneath the hi-res razzle-dazzle is ultimately a hollow package and a shallow gaming experience.
The fighting itself can still be a fun and mad scramble that’s easily accessible for anyone looking to fast-track to Super Saiyan levels, and there’s definitely an appeal to creating your own avatar to join those ranks. Yet, if you want a faithful anime fighter that both beginners and experts can get stuck into, Dragon Ball FighterZ already delivered that last year. With all the potential here for celebrating 50 years of Shonen Jump, sadly at this point it seems that fans pining for a truly great anime crossover fighting game may just have to cross their fingers that Goku comes to Smash.