Jump Force Review
A manga crossover that doesn't capitalize on its potential
Weekly Shonen Jump celebrated its 50th anniversary last year. The influential manga publication has not only spawned some of the most well-known Japanese franchises, but also entertainment goliaths across the globe. Series like Dragon Ball Z, which even my mother is aware of (though she calls it "that show where they float in the sky shouting at each other"), as well as Naruto and Bleach, to name just a few.
Developer Spike Chunsoft and publisher Bandai Namco have commemorated the milestone with a new game called Jump Force, a beat-em-up that calls on heroes from across the JUMP world to save little old Earth. If you're familiar with Spike Chunsoft, you'll know them as developers of several of Shonen Jump properties, including One Piece: Burning Blood and J Stars Victory (which you might call Jump Force a spiritual successor to). Bandai Namco, of course, have had Dragon Ball in their stable since time immemorial. So, you've got two companies that certainly have the chops to execute a game like this. But the proof of the pudding is in the button mashing.
Before the fists start flying, however, it's nice to know what you're fighting for. In Jump Force, the JUMP world and Earth are merging, unleashing villains from Shonen Jump to invade our world. To combat this, we break out the heroes - Goku (from Dragon Ball), Luffy (One Piece) and Naruto (from, well, Naruto). Split into three forces, Alpha, Beta, and Gamma, and under the guidance of Director Glover, they must lead the effort to save the world from the evil Kane.
Kane wields a power that instantly reminded me of the Tesseract from the Avengers movies. It's a small cube that has the power to infect and turn heroes and villains into mindless brawling zombies under Kane's control. You, the protagonist, have managed to break free of this hold and have the ability to remove the cube from other possessed characters (and add them to your fighting roster). The Jump Force brings you under its wing to help fight against Kane and his underlings.
Instead of taking on the persona of an iconic Jump character, you instead create your own. It's basic stuff - you pick a nickname and choose from a Dragon Ball, One Piece, or Naruto focused fighting style - which are mostly superfluous. Then, after a brief tutorial, you're booted into the homeworld “hub”. This hub is a place where you accept missions, shop, interact with NPCs, check events, and so on. It is split into a central plaza, with branching pathways that lead either to Director Glover's command room, or one of the teams' areas.
Shortly into Jump Force's campaign, you even get to battle. While there are several different stages, they all take place within a 3D battleground. Typically, you roll out with a team of three different heroes and fight across devastated versions of Earth, focusing on locales like Paris and New York, as well as travelling further afield to places such as Dragon Ball's planet Namek.
The game's mechanics are rather simple. You have a light and heavy attack. The former has more hits for less damage, while the inverse is true for the latter. These moves can be held to execute a power blast than can knock back your opponent and break their guard, opening them up for an attack. If your opponent is swatted away, you can zip after them and deliver another series of strikes - up or down. You can also grab your opponent and launch them around the arena, which is useful against those who continually block, or to set up combos.
Where Jump Force's combat shines is in its special moves. The game recreates icon moves like Goku's kamehameha; Boku No Hero Academia's Deku's Detroit Smash, and Naruto's Rasengan excellently. It's awesome watching Deku's fist crash into a foe's cheek, with the cool slow-mo to really hit home. The whole reason you're playing a game like this is to recreate those over-the-top special moves and they're fantastically realized.
Your defensive arsenal allows you to block incoming attacks. If you time it right, you can zip behind your opponent and catch them unawares. Flicking the stick in a direction while guarding lets you strafe jump from side to side, or you can hold a shoulder button to dash. Due to the large space of the arenas and generally short attack range, you may find yourself forever dashing or using the distance to charge your power meter. You charging animation is a double-edged sword. While your special meter increases, the aura obscures your view, obfuscating your foe's actions.
And you'll want to keep that power meter charged if you want to pull off all those fancy special moves. There are 3 general special moves. For heroes, they're a static list. However, you can swap in and purchase new ones for your created character. Special moves generally fall into a few categories. Ranged/projectile attacks, like Goku's aforementioned kamehameha or Yusuke Urameshi's Spirit Gun attacks are pretty much mandatory. Because you're constantly putting so much distance between yourself and your foe you need something that can hit them from afar, or that can be used on the counter from distance. There are dash moves that will lock-on to an opponent at a certain distance and unleash a combo.
Finally, the biggest weapons in your arsenal are your Ultimate Techniques: Spirit Bombs, All for Ones, Final Flashes - basically the bombastic, battle-ending skills that are the most powerful. Like special attacks, they're fantastically realized. While they only activate once you've lost around 50% health, they're not a guaranteed hit and can still be blocked/dodged.
Characters still have one more trick up their sleeves: Awakenings. Dictated by a gauge that slowly fills in battle, you can activate this ability that supercharges your character at 50% and 100%. The coolest part of this gauge is how it will transform certain characters, like Goku into Super Sayian or a Bleach character into their Bankai form. While a nice aesthetic touch, it conveys that sense of giving everything as the battle swings out of your favour.
So, that may seem like an overwhelming list of abilities and techniques, but it's all fairly intuitive to grasp after your first few battles. The big question is - does all that make the combat enjoyable?
Well, Jump Force's combat is like that giant cake from Under Siege that a Playboy model jumps out of - outwardly aesthetically appealing but ultimately hollow. All those flashy-looking and iconic special moves don't address the fact that the base combat is a repetitive bore. Perhaps due to the roster of characters and job of combining them into one martial universe, there is no diversity outside of special moves. Characters don't differ in speed - Blackbeard from One Piece, who is massive and towers over others like the relatively diminutive Deku, does not trade power for speed.
Every character feels identical aside from attack animations and that, despite capturing their respective styles, doesn't truly differentiate them. For a brawler, this has to be a cardinal sin. All there really is to fall back on are the different special moves that are, again, merely costume changes for a handful of moves. The latter point would be perfectly acceptable if there was a stronger core to the combat. As it stands, you're just looking for openings to hammer the light attack button because the heavy attacks have too much of a windup to be truly effective.
There's no way of mixing up combos to set up more complex juggling attacks. Though you can switch characters in the middle of combos and fire off a special move, Jump Force presents a limited way of attacking. It lacks the depth of similar titles like Dragon Ball Z Xenoverse of which it apes so much. It would have done much better looking at a game like Street Fighter that manages to elicit complexity from a relatively small pool of moves.
When challenging enemy AI, I found they rarely wanted to approach me, and would always wait until the second I rushed towards them to launch their attack. That, or they'd spam counter attacks and hit their ultimate moves the nanosecond you dodged. After a while, every NPC battle broke down into: guard, wait until they approach, high-speed dodge, combo, special. Rinse and repeat.
Taking on other human opponents in Online Battles offered a slight break from the monotony. You can challenge them in friendly or Ranked Battles. At least in these modes, battles became a lot more frenetic and more closely emulated the hyperactive exchanges torn from the pages of the manga that inspires them. I was forced to stagger my story progression with online battles so I didn't completely lose faith in the AI-controlled combat.
Outside of rather bland AI battles, you have a tedious mission structure. The majority of the time, you will be visiting the Mission Counter to accept tasks. These range from Tutorial Battles that reiterate lessons you have already learned, to Free Missions that let you farm for Gold, Shards, new moves, items, and clothes. Key Missions are those related to the story. Sharade are pieces you collect, of varying shades, that can be used to power up character abilities that you can equip. These can give boosts to certain stats, like attack, or can lower the stats of your opponent.
The grind-focused approach is evident through the Free Missions. You're encouraged to keep playing through them for their random-drop rewards, but it's contingent on the fact you really want that fingerless glove in a colour you're never going to have your character wear. Gold rewards are rather pitiful (around 300) on lower levels, when the cheapest clothes and are abilities start at nearer 2000 Gold. The grind is real. The problem is, because combat's not particularly fun, it became a chore far too quickly. Jump Force attempts to combat this through mission-centric objectives, like completing a mission in a certain time or not taking an excessive amount of damage, but it's not enough to engender fun.
I managed to dismiss the rather pitiful Gold returns because there was not much I wanted to purchase. This was especially true of clothing items. What is strange is that the developers didn't seem to understand that, if you were buying Jump Force, you are familiar with its series. These characters are as colourful and bombastic as the world they inhabit. So, why would I want to spend my hard-earned Gold on a thousand colour variations of jeans, tank tops, and boots? Where's all the cool, crazy clothing? Well, it's either not there or gated beyond higher levels (well past 20+). Even then, it's so drip fed so as to force you to keep playing.
Another issue is the structure of an item's cost. There is no gradual price increase. It's a flat rate (special moves are around 3K and ultimate around 7K). It's the same for clothes, too. The majority of people I saw zipping around in Online Mode didn't look like a motley crew of manga-inspired heroes but people who've been launched naked through a charity shop. And the game is awfully restrictive in just how you can combine clothes - Ichigo's robes can't be paired with hand items or boots, for example. So, you may purchase a cool new item and find you just can't wear it with your outfit.
After giving up on how to dress my hero, I continued with the game's “story”. Missions are delivered in mostly static cutscenes, from the likes of Director Glover or one of the heroes in the roster. Cutscenes are often unintentionally hilarious. Characters will shout at each other through text boxes. There was an incident where Blackbeard was beaten, then one character in my team shouted “Quick - He's getting away!”. Blackbeard then just casually turned and walked out of camera shot.
Every story battle plays out nearly the same: mission preamble, fight the antagonist over a couple of rounds, “retrieving cube”. Rinse and repeat. What little story is injected into the lifeless corpse of a narrative doesn't take advantage of the entire premise of all these iconic heroes in one place. Another wasted opportunity is the world and design itself. The hub area is so bland and grey. While there are smatterings of iconic imagery like capsules from Dragon Ball or Luffy's ship from One Piece, it's like sticking a sparkler in mud. The worlds these characters inhabit are so colorful and varied, but here we're stuck on boring Earth. You may visit places like Dragon Ball Z's Namek in a few missions, and it's a welcome distraction before you come crashing back down.
The loosely realistic rendering of some characters just looks creepy. While Naruto and Boku No Hero Academia's art style relies on more realistic proportions and designs, Dragon Ball Z and One Piece does not. Goku, Vegeta and Trunks remind me of the Goomba antagonists from the failed Super Mario Bros. film - they're all hunched, with muscled shoulders and tiny heads. I could have come to terms with individual art styles for each series rather than the haunted homogeny Jump Force settled on.
The same blandness affects the game's audio design. The hub melody becomes annoying and I barely even registered each stage's soundtracks. The menu system is a chore and often slow. The game's issues with loading are apparent every time you mistakenly hit the Customize Avatar option and have to wait a few dozen seconds for the screen to appear. On a base PlayStation 4, framerate while traversing the hub tended to tank, as well as in some cutscenes. I also found that if I left my character idle for a certain amount of time, the game would crash and I'd have to restart.
The biggest problem with Jump Force is that it has a tendency to remind me of other, better games. Games that utilized a number of different characters from diverse properties more effectively, with more engaging combat, and a more satisfying core gameplay loop. What we have here instead is a weak story, repetitive combat, and a shallow mission system. Aside from the occasional cool move to execute, it's a wasted opportunity to celebrate some fantastic franchises.