Today, One Piece Odyssey launches, a classic JRPG about taking control of the Straw Hat Crew as they go on an adventure in a new land with an original story. Or rather, a somewhat original story. Bandai Namco has advertised it as an original story, but at the same time it is offering up what the game calls “Memories,” which allows you to revisit islands and story arcs from earlier in the series and experience iconic moments from the series with some revisionist twists. As a result, One Piece Odyssey is yet another anime-based video game that just can’t escape the chains of its source material.
Normally, video game adaptations from popular franchises are allowed to have a little leeway when it comes to creating unique and original stories. From the Arkham series to Star Wars, from SpongeBob SquarePants: Battle for Bikini Bottom to GoldenEye 007, there’s a certain expectation that video game adaptations will take some liberties and lift elements from the source material in order to make a quality video game. What works in one medium won’t necessarily work in another one after all. However, the vast majority of anime video games seem to buckle at the mere mention of telling a wholly original story and use the source material as a crutch to justify their existence.
It’s not that I’m opposed to anime video games telling abridged versions of their stories. Once in a while, it’s fine, but there reaches a point where you’re sick and tired of reliving the events of the series. This is especially the case with One Piece because of how long it has been around. Take the Alabasta arc. That arc is generally well regarded by fans and features some iconic moments in the series, but I played through those moments in One Piece Grand Battle, Grand Adventure, Pirate Warriors, Romance Dawn, and many, many games. It’s not original anymore if you’re going through the same locations but with characters that weren’t present there now commenting on the action.
The reason why One Piece and most other major anime like Naruto and Dragon Ball Z rely heavily on source material for video games is fairly simple: Why waste time trying to write an original story for a one-off video game if stories from the manga are already completed? At first glance, fans just want to see those key moments animated and made playable. We want to play as Goku as he battles Frieza on Namek in the longest five minutes ever recorded. We want to take control of Naruto as he wallops Gaara in the Chunin Exams. And for One Piece, who doesn’t want to try to save Ace from his ultimate fate at Marineford? But do we just want to keep experiencing these moments in perpetuity? Not only that, when the game markets itself as having an original adventure, do we even want those classic story beats present?
Anime fans also have a weird relationship with original content that wasn’t directly created by the original author. That’s why One Piece Odyssey, last year’s One Piece Film: Red, and the upcoming Netflix series have made it a point from the moment they were announced to stress that series creator Eiichiro Oda is involved in some capacity with the production. His involvement offers an air of legitimacy. There’s a greater discussion to be had with the relationship between non-canon productions / original content and the story as created by the author, but the long and short of it is that most anime fans willingly ignore non-canon plot points due to the deviation from the source material. There are several lists dedicated to detailing how to avoid “filler” episodes in anime just to get back to the original story.
Is One Piece Odyssey filler? Undeniably. It’s not going to advance any of the events that are taking place in the manga and is just meant to be another adventure for the Straw Hat Pirates to go on. The issue I have with it is Odyssey tries to have it both ways, teasing the involvement of Oda with the game’s original story, only to then heavily advertise previous storylines as being playable. To make matters worse, it’s a JRPG, so there’s an expectation that this is going to be a several dozen-hour journey that I’m going to be on, with several of those hours dedicated to stories that I already know from front to back.
It would be one thing if this were in a fighting game. In those, reliving key moments from the series is expected, and they’re pretty blatant about their overall purpose. Select your favorite character from the series, watch the characters beat the tar out of each other, and recreate those key moments yourself. That’s how Dragon Ball Z operated for the better part of several decades, just pumping out fighting game after fighting game with shinier graphics and different gameplay styles, yet still telling the same story. If you wanted to play those games, it would only take you a handful of hours, and then you could play around with the different modes and create your own dream matches to entertain yourself. But when those story beats were recreated in a JRPG like Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, the results were decidedly more mixed when it can take as little as 30 hours to experience them.
Am I saying that One Piece can’t have a mix of original content while paying reverence to the manga? Not at all. It can be done. You can have a One Piece video game with a long-form original story that has plenty of fan service and uses the plot of the manga to help inform the plot of the game. I know this because it exists and it’s a pretty solid game.
Back in 2008, One Piece: Unlimited Adventure released on the Wii, and it features an original story that recreates key moments from the manga in flashbacks in order to inform character decisions and help to explain the history of the island that Luffy and his friends wash up on. Iconic characters from the series make appearances, but they’re blatant recreations and used as a defense mechanism for the island, having these fake versions try to defeat our heroes in order to prevent a monster from being revived.
Unlimited Adventure, for all of the criticisms I could throw at it for its other shortcomings, nails the balancing act between original story beats and referencing established ones. At least from what we know about Odyssey, those moments come across more as pleasing the base, teasing moments and setups that we’ve experienced before, just with a few minor changes. So what if the rest of the Straw Hat Crew were present at Marineford, an event that originally only Luffy was there for? It feels hollow. It comes across as content to pad out the game because the original story and premise they came up with isn’t enough to sustain itself.
A demo for One Piece Odyssey released January 10, a mere three days before launch. Producer Katsuaki Tsuzuki stated that the demo wouldn’t include any of the Memories teased in the marketing, and I don’t know if that’s inherently a good or bad thing. I’ll probably give the demo a whirl just for the sake of it, and if the gameplay grabs my attention, I may pick the game up at some point. But it’ll be at a point where I’ll be more open to re-experience One Piece’s gargantuan story on my own terms rather than because I’m forced to.