When you think of Shonen Jump, what springs to mind? Is it Naruto’s quest to become hokage? Luffy’s search for the titular One Piece? Perhaps it’s the grandfather of shonen manga itself: Dragon Ball. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of Weekly Shonen Jump magazine, these characters and more have been brought together, fists and Kamehamehas flying, to protect Earth and the Jump Worlds in Jump Force.
With its impressive roster, Jump Force immediately boasts a huge amount of appeal for fans of the genre. From classic series like Dragon Ball to more recent hits such as My Hero Academia, there’s a total of 42 characters to play as from 16 different franchises. Some series have a much stronger showing than others – there are five characters from Naruto, whereas Midoriya is alone in representing My Hero Academia – and there are certain character choices that I can’t help but feel make little sense. The omission of Sakura from Naruto’s roster strikes me as odd, given her prominence and suitable fighting style, and the cast of Gintama – a hugely popular WSJ franchise – is absent entirely.
With the lucky 42 that did make it, however, there’s a hefty variety of playstyles for players to choose from. Bleach’s Ichigo, for example, is an exceedingly fast fighter, but his special moves don’t do a great deal of damage. Choose Gaara, on the other hand, and you’ll be sacrificing speed in order to charge up devastating, wide-range attacks. Basic moves, called Rush Combos, don’t tend to have a great deal of variety to them; mashing the one button without a care in the world will let you pull off a fairly hefty chain of blows. If you manage to enter Awakening Mode, possible once you’ve taken a certain amount of damage, your enhanced abilities will almost certainly bring fights to a swift end.
It’s in each characters’ special abilities that combat shines. All the iconic favourites are here, from Midoriya’s Detroit Smash to Goku’s legendary Kamehameha. I wasn’t particularly impressed by Jump Force’s animation style (more on that later), but there’s no denying that these moves look incredible when executed. Beam and wave attacks like the Kamehameha and Getsugatensho speed gracefully across the stage towards their target, leaving brilliant destruction in their wake. When I summoned Naruto’s Nine-Tailed Fox companion for his ultimate move, I couldn’t believe how stunning it looked.
Outside of these impressive spectacles, however, combat tends to fall flat. The game’s tutorials and loading screen tips throw a lot of terms at you – Chases, Rush Combos, Escapes, et cetera . . . – but it all amounts to very little during an actual fight. The AI is painfully lacking, often content to stand back as you charge up your Ability Gauge (used for your special moves), which the game warns you will leave you perilously open to attack. Instead, I’ve invariably been able to fully charge my Ability Gauge while my opponent runs back and forth in the distance, doing nothing.
That’s not to say the combat isn’t completely without depth. It’s very satisfying to dodge the full extent of an enemy’s Rush Combo with a well-timed Escape, and landing your own flurry of stylish blows before ending things with one of your character’s specials has a flair to it that other fighters could only dream of matching. Ultimately, the problem comes down to the nature of the fights themselves. Even the toughest storyline boss battles can be dealt with in as little as 30 seconds. When you’ve learned the basics, it’s almost disappointing how swiftly you can defeat your opponents.
Outside of battle, Jump Force is a baffling mix of awkward design decisions. Admittedly, I’m always a sucker for games that let you design and play as your own avatar, but here it seems like it was implemented solely so that character-specific dialogue and cutscenes could be skipped in favour of more generic exposition. Your character can wear outfits and use attacks from any of the featured series, but what’s the point? I don’t speak for everyone, of course, but I’d buy a game like this to play as the iconic characters, not a mute, dead-eyed imitation of them.
The story itself is fairly basic, neither outstanding nor terrible. It’s simply there. With each mission, you visit the director of Umbras Base, the game’s hub world, to be told that some new evil is attacking somewhere, and that you and the other heroes must go and defeat this enemy. Before all this, you’ll have joined one of the three teams – led by Luffy, Naruto and Goku – but that has little bearing on the story. You’ll face the same generic enemies, with the occasional Jump character in there as well, and your allies in these three-person fights don’t seem to differ based on your team. At its best, the story drags; at its worst, it’s outright tedious.
The aforementioned hub world is awkwardly large and devoid of anything interesting to do. Clearly built to facilitate player interaction while you’re online, it becomes a vast empty space if you decide you want to play offline, where you won’t have to see dozens of conspicuously Kakashi-esque players riding around on the back of Gamakichi. Actually interacting with other players is done via a selection of emotes. If you’re feeling confident, you can also challenge them to a battle.
I can’t help but feel like Jump Force would have benefited from a more traditional menu system. Having to visit one vendor to buy new abilities then run elsewhere to play a CPU fight gets tiring very quickly. You can fast travel across Umbras Base, but the distance between most points of interest is both far enough to make walking tedious and just short enough that it’s equally annoying to have to sit through a fast-travel loading screen.
Speaking of loading screens, they are everywhere. Almost everything you can imagine doing in this game comes with at least one lengthy loading screen. Cutscenes can take a good 20 seconds to load, sometimes making them shorter than the loading screen itself, and fights take a similarly long time to begin. Even talking to vendors, whose primary purpose is to sell you new clothes, pauses the game for a good five seconds. As a one-off occurrence, that’s nothing significant, but Jump Force is so poorly optimized that you’ll spend more time waiting for fights to load than actually participating in them.
As I touched upon earlier, I also wasn’t particularly fond of how Jump Force looks. It’s not ugly to look at by any means; the level of realism and detail is actually quite impressive to see in motion. The issue is that the style simply does not suit some of the characters. Goku and Midoriya, for example, look fine. No complaints there. Others, like the One Piece cast, do not fit the style at all. My impression of Luffy is of a cheerful, easygoing hero, but here he bears an expression that is somehow both soulless and furious. It’s unsettling, and characters from other franchises – particularly Bleach – look wholly out of place in this style.
Odd-looking characters aside, Jump Force is the epitome of style over substance. Actually finding a worthwhile and engaging battle, and then watching the arena be devastated by such overwhelmingly gorgeous attacks, can make you forget about the game’s shortcomings for a while. But then it’s over, and you’re back in the hub world with its awkward animations, threadbare content and a notification icon telling you to get on with a story that simply isn’t interesting. Don’t be fooled by Jump Force’s impressive roster; there’s little else there but disappointment.