The Dynasty Warriors formula of straightforward, unproposing action games focused on providing maximum variety of characters at the expense of complexity is a natural mix for large ensemble-cast action franchises, indeed probably a more appropriate fit than the mythologised Chinese history they usually cover. A simple system of light and heavy attacks, short combos and special moves to be used on large numbers of chaff enemies with a few heavier bosses mixed in communicates effectively super-hero combat, and provides a genuine sense of power for the player. Moving away from realism into more cartoonish settings suits a game based around thoroughly unrealistic (and indeed to a degree abstracted) and gamist combat; superheroes and mythic figures can fight thousands of foes and win. Thus is One Piece Pirate Warriors 2, based on a long-running comic and cartoon series based entirely around bizarre superheroes fighting larger-than-life supervillains and hordes of disposable thugs, guards and other such workaday opponents.
Obviously, any licensed game is predominantly marketed to those audiences already familiar with the property licensed; quite often the games focus on retelling key events from the series or film to give the player the sense of being a part of the series. The wider the scope of the game – the more events it attempts to retell – the less satisfying this can be. The Dynasty Warriors Gundam games do not have the variety of mechanics or assets to successfully recreate all the events they base levels on, for example. However Pirate Warriors 2 takes a more accessible approach. It calls itself – from the outset – a “Dream Story”, a sidestory to the main progression of the source material. Thus, theoretically, it is a self-contained narrative which a new player could enjoy; the presence of a comprehensive library of information about the series’ concepts and characters provides context for what is happening which may lead a player to leap into the series itself. What is more, the between-mission text provides enough context of the ongoing series plot both to situate it chronologically within the wider story, but also to educate players who may not be up to date on it. Thus the game does everything possible to be accessible to non-fans while also maintaining a story based well within the continuity it focuses on. It is not, however, entirely successful – without the level of knowledge about the characters that a fan of One Piece may have the character interactions – and indeed fundamental parts of the main storyline which rely on characters acting out of type – are less immediately appealing. Ultimately Pirate Warriors 2 is a game for fans, but one which tries harder than most not to exclude non-fans who may be drawn by the aesthetic.
Since most Dynasty Warriors games are mechanically very similar – a series of territories must be captured by defeating sufficient enemies, and each battle ends with a boss fight or some objective to complete – the factor which keeps players returning is the constant incremental mechanical change – the minutiae of game design which refine a successful and entertaining formula. In some licensed games in the series, these changes move far from the norm to better evoke what is being represented; the Saint Seiya entry had more elaborate boss fights and linear levels to provide an experience more like the series it was based on. In the case of One Piece, these changes are about emphasising the knockabout, cartoonish setting and the visual diversity which makes the series itself appealing. The level assets are much more varied than most games – not simply in layout, but aesthetically – whereas a core Dynasty Warriors game will have a large number of indistinguishable Chinese fortresses, the first few levels of Pirate Warriors 2 go from tropical jungles to volcanic wastelands to a haunted house. Similarly the enemy grunts are much more diverse; there are two or three models of enemy for each “skin” applied (fish-people, zombies, sailors and more), and then different weapon and equipment combinations among those enemy types. These add nuance to the combat while keeping it simple and accessible; enemies with gas grenades, cannonballs and shields all fight differently, while the miniboss enemies bring yet more weapon options and fighting styles to the table. Also notable is how – evoking One Piece‘s love of superpowers even for its bit-part villains – some of these minibosses will have their own “Style” special moves, requiring the player to do more than simply flail at them.
This cartoonish aesthetic, in fact, goes a long way to solving a problem inherent to the franchise – the lack of weight and contact to the combat. One Piece is a cartoon in the classic sense, where falling great distances and throwing spectacular punches just leads to people comically going flying more of the time – actual violence and weighty combat is the preserve of dramatic moments of climax rather than the norm. To give this sense of knockabout, mobile combat, the characters’ movesets in Pirate Warriors 2 are much less precise and controlled; combos tend to move the player around a lot and drag in enemies. It is thus much less a game about slogging through large numbers of enemies in static set-piece battles but one about mobile characters charging ahead to knock down their foes and carry on. This is reflected in the missions, too; few rely on capturing territories (a process much slowed down in comparison to most Dynasty Warriors games) as much as taking down minibosses or reaching points by breaking through the enemy army. One of the perennial problems of the franchise, mission requirements which do not immediately make sense or require significant backtracking, still remains – although many objectives can be failed without needing to restart the level, with them more tied to secrets than required to progress. In a game marketed for its story – as an all-new chapter of One Piece – this more forgiving level structure is welcome. Indeed, there is much less grinding to be done than in many games; this results in an overall shorter game, but one which similarly does not become boring.
Overall, the complaints to be levelled at Pirate Warriors 2 are complaints that can be levelled at any Dynasty Warriors game – minibosses can stun-lock the player and prevent them from acting, mission requirements can be difficult to work out and arbitrary and the graphics are simplified to allow large amounts of enemies on screen. Yet the choice of property on which it is based – and the use of a highly stylised graphical style evoking the source material’s zany characters and expressions – somewhat mitigate the shortcomings. The combat seems uncontrollable at first, with player movement very fast and combos having significant travel distance inherent to them, but this is clearly a feature around which the levels have been designed and so it can make for far more varied and interesting combat. It is, however, hard to open-handedly recommend it to anyone; One Piece fans will find far more to like in it than non-fans, and the stylisation can be a divisive visual look.