I used to rush to the library to read Shonen Jump magazine.
It didn’t matter whether I’d already read the issue or not. I needed to visit the Shonen Jump universe, where I could gorge on the adventures of characters like Luffy and Naruto.
Now, it’s Shonen Jump’s chance to hop into our universe. Bandai Namco Entertainment partnered with Japanese developer Spike Chunsoft to release Jump Force, a 3D fighting game featuring 40 characters from across the Shonen Jump universe who are fighting across our own reality.
Regrettably, for all the grandeur that comes with the fantastical seeping into the realistic, Jump Force is as thin as the pages the magazine is printed on, and as artificial as a pre-order collectible statue.
Style over substance
The game’s story is a transparent excuse for its setup: Some megalomaniac wants to merge our world with the alternate realities of the Shonen Jump characters and rule as the “One True King.” I’m instructed to select one of three teams, led by Goku, Luffy, and Naruto, respectively, and head into battle. My own custom character is a silent protagonist, and I’m able to create my own list of attacks from the different characters and worlds to match my fighting style.
I then use this team to fight “Venoms,” revived humans corrupted by an essence called the umbras core. The Venoms fight alongside well-known villains, like Frieza, Blackbeard, and Toguro, and act as minions to the more powerful evil characters.
I’m auto-locked onto the enemy in front of me, and I can choose a light or heavy rush attack that will usually snap to the enemy, although these attacks would often cause me to swing wildly at the air. Any energy blast will similarly fire in the direction of the enemy, who can sidestep to avoid the attack. This will make sense for fans who have played other anime-inspired fighting games, even if the execution feels simple and often clumsy.
The fighting can also be clunky due to the lack of dedicated combos, and the heavy use of particle effects can make the battles themselves hard to follow. I don’t have any way to cancel attacks against opponents, and all these issues contributed to a game that was easy to pick up and play without ever becoming actually enjoyable or feeling strategic.
I mashed a lot of buttons when playing Jump Force, and I was rarely punished by doing so. Rush attacks operate kind of like the combos I’m used to from other fighting games, but I only need to tap the rush attack button to string my moves together.
Tilting up or down on the left stick varies these rush attacks, but even that only introduces the option of maneuvers that hit my opponent up or knocks them down. There is little difference in these choices, as opposed to fighting games with varied combos or ideas like sidestep attacks.
I can also charge special moves, like Goku’s Kamehameha wave or Naruto’s Rasengan, to deliver extra damage. These systems aren’t very deep, and the novelty of recognizable characters fighting each other wears off in a matter of hours. Jump Force takes the basic mechanics of fighting games and grinds them down to their basic elements.
And even these basic ideas and systems fail to work as they should. I can’t consistently connect with grabs, but the AI isn’t smart enough to capitalize on my mistakes when I miss. Special moves, including Sasuke’s Amaterasu (executed by holding the right shoulder button and Square/X, Triangle/Y, or Circle/B), and ultimate attacks like Goku’s Super Spirit Bomb (performed by holding the right shoulder button and X/A) almost never connect at the end of rush attacks, which can make it futile to chain combos together.
I have two other characters with me in every battle, but we share a single health bar, and the AI isn’t smart enough to vary its strategy depending on who I bring in. Swapping out my character is fun at first, but it rarely matters in the course of the match, making the entire mechanic feel meaningless. I’m never forced to outgrow my strategy of hammering way at the attack button.
I gain experience and gold upon completing various missions, and I can then learn new special and ultimate attacks at various upgrade and shop stations littered in the hub world. I can upgrade my ability skills and J-Skills, which are modifiers that supposedly strengthen my specials and ultimates, and purchase clothing and one-time-use items to change my look or give myself a slight advantage in battle, respectively.
But leveling up doesn’t give me any noticeable improvements. My health and strength ratings might have increased, but I still deal the same amount of damage and lose the same amount of health in battle. Jump Force is a slugfest, and the predictable AI means that the leveling system becomes a matter of watching numbers that barely feel connected to the game move up with time.
Jump Force’s art design is beautiful, and the differing styles of each world involved in the crossover are grounded by the realistic setting of the background environments. But something looks off when I stop to look closer at structures, debris, and character models. It’s all too perfect.
Blades of grass stretch almost as high as Izuku Midoriya’s waist, and each one is stiff and perfectly green. The character models are shiny, and remind me of well-sculpted action figures. Jump Force suffers from an uncanny sense of plasticity in its visuals; even damage looks like it was painted on, like the fake blood of a toy soldier.
The storyline is predictable and rudimentary, but the themes of self-worth and friendship click for me as a longtime Shonen Jump fan. It’s thrilling when Goku, Luffy, and Naruto root for my victory. The game delivers on this particular fantasy from my childhood, even if the narrative is about as simple as something I might have written at that age.
The narrative isn’t enough, however. The fighting game mechanics are too straightforward to hold my attention for long, and the computer-controlled opponents barely seem to be paying attention to my strategy. The leveling and item systems barely seem to matter. The story is comfortable, but offers nothing new. I also had issues connecting online to challenge other human players, but hopefully that’s an aspect of the game that will be explored in future articles.
The Shonen Jump universe is full of color, life, and creativity. Jump Force brings its iconic characters to our universe, but it leaves everything else behind.
Jump Force will be released Feb. 15 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” PlayStation 4 download code provided by Bandai Namco. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.