I‘m not ashamed to admit that Jump Force — a fighting game starring heroes from the beloved Shonen Jump manga magazine — is an extremely jarring game to look at, especially at first.
That‘s true from the very beginning of the game’s first demo, available on the E3 2018 show floor. Bandai Namco’s latest comic book crossover is not what I’d call a faithful reproduction of the defining styles of Dragon Ball, One Piece, Naruto and other favorites. Unlike previous Shonen Jump fighting games, Jump Force sees the developer transposing favorite manga characters from their black-and-white pages into our real world, with new designs to match.
That means that, for example, One Piece hero Monkey D. Luffy's stretchy body is now rendered as if he was a real human being. What this means is his wide face and bizarre proportions have been attached to a remarkably buff, even lifelike body.
It’s odd, but this “photorealistc” aesthetic is a crucial part of the development process, producer Koji Nakajima told Polygon.
"This idea of taking something that is 2D and making it into something that’s a very realistic illustration is something that we’ve never done before,” explained Nakajima when we asked him about the game’s distinct visual style. ”This was a huge challenge that we were going to take on as part of celebrating the 50th anniversary.”
Shonen Jump indeed turns 50 years old in 2018, although Jump Force won’t be available until sometime next year. After half a century, Bandai Namco has decided that it’s time for manga characters to live in the real world. There’s a reason for this; Jump Force’s story starts with a major event that forces the Shonen Jump world to collide with Earth. The only people capable of saving both are the magazine’s classic manga heroes.
What this amounts to is a bunch of stages meant to resemble places like New York City’s Times Square and the Matterhorn. Each one is fully 3D, meaning characters fight one on one while running around the entire battlefield. Players have a team of three characters that they can switch out on the fly, similar to the Marvel vs. Capcom series or Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm games.
Somehow, using these hyper-realistic characters on a similarly familiar stage makes the dissonance slightly less odd to look at. Most importantly, it felt satisfying to beat up Dragon Ball villain Frieza with Goku, Naruto and Luffy in turn; unleashing those furious punches and special attacks feels good, and each fighter moves and attacks in unique ways. Although the demo’s roster was limited, I found all six playable characters to be fun and distinct enough to try out. And with a story mode setting up the context for this stylistic collision, perhaps I may even come to accept a style that strays so far from the beautiful art that defines each of the manga currently known to be represented in the game. (Jump Ultimate Stars, the Nintendo DS fighting game classic that also stars a huge number of Shonen Jump characters, continues to stand out to me because of its wonderful, manga-styled art direction.)
I still have concerns about how much time it’ll take to really get acclimated to that art style, but Nakajima is optimistic that fans will find the game equally reverent to the source material and the new visual aesthetic.
“Did you notice that in Times Square, the God Tree from Naruto was there?” he told us. “I hope you sort of notice those aspects, where the real world stays like New York, but you have things from the manga series like the God Tree from Naruto just thrown in there. That’s how we sort of recreate the fused world together.”