One Leap Shy of Greatness – Jump Force Review
Developer: SPIKE CHUNSOFTFor anime and manga fans across the world, the name “Shonen Jump” means a lot. Shonen Jump has been around for decades, and has been the home of the most successful anime/manga properties in history. Dragon Ball Z, One Piece, Naruto, they all share Shonen Jump as their home. 2019 is the 50th anniversary of Shonen Jump and last year at E3 Bandai Namco announced an ambitious crossover title that brought together the worlds of Shonen Jump and smashed them into our world with a spiritual successor to 2014’s J-Stars Victory VS entitled Jump Force. For the past year, we have seen characters from over a dozen franchises enter the fray, and even 2 betas to test out the game’s online functions. Everything we had seen and heard so far from Jump Force looked promising, so it is unfortunate that the full release of the game does not live up to those high early impressions.
The best thing about Jump Force is still what was good about it all the way back on the E3 show floor, the combat. An upgraded and more streamlined version of the combat from J-Stars Victory VS, Jump Force has a very simple control scheme, only utilizing a handful of buttons. You can throw, super dash, charge up energy, call a partner in to perform an assist attack, and everything you would expect from an anime arena brawler. When your character takes damage you can unleash their awakening mode and use their Ultimate attack which does a ton of damage. It is fun seeing each character’s awakening mode, as they are more often than not actual power-ups from their respective series. The Saiyans of Dragon Ball go Super Saiyan, Luffy unleashes his Gear 2, Naruto goes Biju mode, the Bleach characters activate their Bankai, etc.
There are also some great defensive options that add a more spacing and defensive focused element to battle not typically seen in these types of games. You can block like every other fighting game ever, but you can also press L1 to break away from the opponent while blocking or being hit and gain some breathing room to form a counter attack. But your opponent can follow you with L1 (which also acts as the super dash button), and long-range attacks can catch an opponent trying to guard break away. It creates a unique metagame on defense that forces you to think about when you try to break away and not just start mashing L1 as soon as you get hit. These defensive maneuvers are controlled by a circular gauge at the bottom corner of the screen which refills over time.
Combos are simple but can be expanded on once you gain mastery over combat. Special moves are done by pressing the charge energy button (R2) along with square, circle, or triangle that can cost anywhere from 1 to 3 bars of super meter (of which you have a maximum of 5). Learning to expand combos and squeeze as much damage as possible is very fun, and learning the maximum damage combo with your favorite character is a very rewarding experience. Which, remember, can be escaped by the opponent at any time by pressing L1. Thus creating another mini metagame in which you have to be mindful of your own meter as well as your opponent’s and decide when to commit to extended combos.
One thing about these types of games that is important to remember is that they are not meant to be competitive. Characters are broken by design and ridiculous interactions are the norm rather than an outlier, and this being the case combos can deal an insane amount of damage. While this is to be expected and is part of the fun to an extent, I would have appreciated at least a little bit more attention to game balance, as some characters are just too strong and can make the game borderline unfun to anyone not in the know. While this can be argued for most fighting games, the ease of controls and system mechanics makes this more egregious than a game like, say, Marvel vs. Capcom. Since this game, despite being 3 versus 3, has your entire team share one communal health bar, meaning once one character dies the round is over, makes matches end far too quickly after one exchange.
The netcode in Jump Force is shockingly well done and stable. Playing multiple hours of online matches, I didn’t encounter one horrendously slow or laggy match, which is bizarre when you consider this is still a problem for more “traditional” fighting games like Street Fighter or Tekken. The only major complaint I have about Jump Force’s online is that for some inexplicable reason there is no “rematch” button when you finish a match. This is such a basic concept that I can’t fathom a reason why it wasn’t included.
Which brings us to the rest of the things in Jump Force that don’t work. Which is sadly most of everything else. The story mode is bare bones and basic even by crossover game standards, and the biggest appeal of games like this, namely seeing characters that would normally never meet interact with each other, is severely dampened by the fact that half of these interactions aren’t fully voiced. Add to this that the main character of the story is a custom character you create in the beginning who stays silent for the entirety of the story (because of course they have to) and you have characters either silently interacting with each other, or interacting with an inexplicably mute comrade. For the few well-done character interactions, like seeing Jotaro of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure and Kenshiro of Fist of the North Star spar with each other, or Kenshin of Rurouni Kenshin challenge Zoro of One Piece to a sword duel, this makes everything fall flat. Plus the boring and generic, even by anime standards, villains don’t help either. The ending of the game showed some promise by going a bit meta, but not nearly far enough to make it truly interesting. Despite how cool it may seem to make your own anime protagonist, I would have much rather controlled an already established character through the story to avoid all the awkward interactions that take place.
Even the graphics are all over the place. There are times when characters look great and the Unreal Engine realism is stunning to look at, and other times where characters look stiff and janky. Which is once again hindered by the lack of full voice acting, leaving characters looking AND acting awkwardly.
While your character can go on missions to obtain new costume pieces, special moves for your custom character, and experience to level up, it all feels moot when the costume pieces are just accessories other characters already wear, and bits from characters that didn’t make it into the game. Sure you can make Kuwabara from Yu Yu Hakusho in the game, but it feels empty because you aren’t really playing Kuwabara. Pale imitations can only take you so far, and there isn’t much desire to completing costume sets when the end goal is to just look like another already playable character.
Therein lies the truly frustrating aspect of Jump Force. It is always one step away from being truly great in every fashion. The fun and frenetic combat is hampered by lack of balance, the fantastic online is hampered by a lack of a basic rematch function, and the Story is hampered by not giving these characters room to breathe and be themselves. Despite how fun the combat is, it is hard to recommend this game to others when its most basic appeal is lost in translation. A few more months in the oven and Jump Force could have been something truly special, and worthy of celebrating 50 years of the world’s most popular manga. As is, Jump Force is a mediocre story bookended by fun combat and a great, if not limiting online mode. Sad as it may be to say, Jump Force is the very definition of a game that should be picked up when it goes on sale, as at full price it is a tough sell to anyone but the most diehard anime fans. Who even then will most likely be disappointed by the lack of, well, anime.
This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.