Jump Force full review
Microsoft’s E3 2018 conference boasted a few great surprises, but one of the biggest reactions of the night went to the reveal of Jump Force, a new fighting game from Bandai Namco that pits characters from some of the most popular manga and anime series of all time up against each other.
Jump Force is a 3v3 arena fighting game that’s essentially designed to settle every single anime-inspired playground ‘what if…’ argument you’ve ever had. Could Goku beat Luffy? Would Naruto thrash Frieza?
You build a team out of characters from assorted manga series including big names like Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, One Piece, and Bleach, along with arguably less well-known fare like City Hunter, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Hunter x Hunter, and more. In total there are 40 characters in the roster, including two original creations (designed by Dragon Ball manga artist Akira Toriyama, no less) and a fairly simple custom character creator.
More characters - including Death Note's Light and Ryuk - pop up through the single-player campaign, but aren't playable themselves.The uniting factor is that they’re all from manga that were published in Shonen Jump, an ongoing Japanese magazine, so look to there to think what other franchises might be added down the line as DLC.
Sadly, what should be the game's greatest strength is actually one of its biggest weaknesses, as the character roster is shamefully lacking in women. Out of those 40 fighters, just three are women - Kaguya from Naruto, Rukia from Bleach, and Boa Hancock from One Piece - which is frankly embarrassing. Sure, the source material is somewhat limiting ('shonen' literally means 'boy') but the creators wouldn't have had to dig too deep to find another one or two women to fill out the ranks a little.
Jump Force adopts a simple, newbie-friendly combat style, with simple combos and quick access to some powerful moves: just hold the right trigger and hit a face button to pull off a move like Goku’s Kamehameha, blasting your opponent from across the stage without any need to memorise (or master) an eight-button combo.
Fill up your power bar and you can activate a super form - again, for Goku, think Super Saiyan - which gives you quick access to your ultimate super move. It’s all very easy to get to grips with, though between the throws, parries, and rapid movement options, there are hints at the sort of depth required to make this a competitive staple like FighterZ. The skill is less in pulling off tricky combos than in the subtleties of timing, and no doubt a whole meta-game will pop up around the different combinations of characters, elemental attack options, and more.
As you'd expect, you can switch between characters in your team on the fly, or have them pop in briefly for quick team attacks. Perhaps more surprisingly, characters share health and energy meters, which shifts the strategic dynamic. You're not juggling characters to manage their health, but simply picking the best one to pummel your opponent's current fighter of choice - or, more likely, the one whose absurd, over-the-top special attack you most want to see right now.
And those attacks are magnificent. Every character's trademark moves are represented one way or another, and this game gets their absurd power levels just right. Transforming Naruto into Nine Tails or activating Luffy's Gear Four is exactly as satisfying as you want it to be. There's a real sense of humour to some of them too - a personal favourite was City Hunter's Ryo crashing across the stage in a car to send enemies flying into the sky with some conveniently placed explosive barrels, only to whip out a six-gun and trigger the explosion in slow-mo.
Movement is totally free in the 3D arena, which keeps fights feeling dynamic, but the game seems to lock you on slightly when you fire off a special attack - or maybe just corrects your aim as long as you’re in roughly the right direction - which means big attacks are forgiving rather than fiddly, with no need to worry about precise aiming in the 3D space.
As for those stages, they’re oddly based on a mix of real world locations and settings from the series themselves. Real life locales include the likes of Times Square, the Matterhorn, and Hong Kong harbour, while fictional stages are drawn mostly from the biggest franchises featured here, like Dragon Ball Z and Naruto. There's some minimal destructability, but for the most part these are fairly flat environments to fight in.
It's when you step outside of the core combat that Jump Force begins to show its seams. The single-player story mode is an awkward disappointment, with glacial cutscenes - some voiced (by the original Japanese casts) and some not - that only ever seems fleetingly interested in imagining how characters from these diverse universes would actually interact with one another. You play through it as a character of your own creation, who also serves as your online avatar, with customisation options that drive most of the in-game economy.
Worse still is the UI - here embodied by a bizarrely massive and utterly empty hub world. When you're not on a loading screen you'll spend much of your playtime running across this empty space, or just fast travelling instead. Look, I'm not going to tell Namco how to make games, but if you've reached the point where you need fast travel to navigate what is functionally the game's menu, then it feels like something might have gone a bit wrong.
The core combat in Jump Force is infectiously fun, striking just the right line between depth and accessibility. It’s absolutely joyous thrashing Frieza with Naruto’s Nine-Tails, and Jump Force nails the silly spectacle that's made so many Shonen Jump series such perennial favourites.
The reduced emphasis on combos keeps things fast-paced and fun, positioning Jump Force as one of the more accessible fighting games - think Super Smash Bros. - but there's enough tricky timing and depth to the roster that there's still hope for some sort of competitive scene to sprout up around it.
The problem is that outside of the actual gameplay, everything else about Jump Force feels unfinished. The hub world is an utter disaster, the character creator feels flat, the roster is unbalanced, and you are almost guaranteed to give up on the story mode before you get to the end.