2019 is shaping up to the year of anime video games. It’s only March, but already two AAA titles have dominated sales and social media. KINGDOM HEARTS 3 broke franchise records by shipping five million copies, and Shonen Jump’s self-congratulatory release JUMP FORCE snagged the top slot on global sales charts. With the KILL LA KILL fighter, ONE PIECE: WORLD SEEKER, GRANBLUE: RELINK, FIRE EMBLEM: THREE HOUSES, and more on the horizon, this year looks to be the anime showdown of the decade.
It wouldn’t be wrong to assume JUMP FORCE came out of left field, but that isn’t necessarily true, either. It’s just the first game in the series to make it to our Western shores. In the mid-2000s, Shonen Jump produced two Gameboy fighting games—JUMP SUPER STARS and JUMP ULTIMATE STARS. They were awesome 8-bit side-scrollers, chock-full of manga favorites. And apparently, in 2014, there was a J-STARS VICTORY VS game for PlayStation 3. If you, like me, had eBay and were okay with perpetual confusion a la the language barrier, maybe you played these games too.
I’ll admit, I bought JUMP FORCE largely because you can play as Yugi Muto. YU-GI-OH! was my gateway drug into the world of anime, and it’s one of the few fandoms I’m still actively involved in. So when his character appeared in the reveal trailer, I didn’t need much else—that alone sold me. His play style is unique, managing to incorporate his dueling as physical attacks, and I knew I could have a lot of fun with his twin Dark Magicians. I mean, what can fists and swords do against the heart of the cards?
About to send some losers to the Shadow Realm
That’s not to say I can’t see the forest for the trees. JUMP FORCE is the ultimate crossover event for anime fans, featuring fighters from over a dozen series. The story is a fever dream (Umbra cubes? Venoms? Everything Frieza’s fault?), but then again, there was never going to be a coherent reason why the champion of a children’s card game would team up with ninjas and space-faring demigods.
Nor should there be. You don’t buy a game like JUMP FORCE for the story. You come to these games for the mindless, button-mashing action. It’s a spectacle, not a full-blown show. And honestly, it feels like JUMP FORCE embraces that principle, since it could care less about piecing together a plot. But what it does do really well, are the fights.
The arena mechanics are actually really engaging. I like the three-dimensional stages, and the unbridled range of motion you can explore. It’s not your typical 3-3 fighting game, and it shows. The matches are fun. And when you’re in them, you really do feel like you’re a part of the action. Like it’s really up to you to save the JUMP FORCE characters, and restore balance to the world.
Isn’t that what the experience should be about, anyway? The light-hearted nonsense, the absolutely extravagant clashes, and the terrible, cheesy villains? It’s all very anime, and, more importantly, it’s very Shonen Jump. Beyond all the glitches and the technical mess, JUMP FORCE captures the spirit of the comics and anime really well.
There’s something satisfying about ending an opponent with a giant explosion
Outside of the battles, however, things start to go downhill. For a long time I’ve wanted blockbuster, CGI remakes of anime classics; FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN, FINAL FANTASY: ADVENT CHILDREN, and GANTZ: 0 left huge impressions on me, and are great examples of how gorgeous anime characters can look when rendered in 3D. Since then, I’ve secretly hoped for remakes of my favorite classics, on par with the 2014 SAINT SEIYA film or our DreamWorks/Disney animated flicks, and JUMP FORCE seemed like the perfect answer to my prayers.
But now that the game is finally out, I want to slam the “go back” button. I will say, some of the characters actually look really good in 3D. Naruto and Ryo Saeba are probably the best, followed by Yusuke Urameshi, Rukia, and the cast of JOJO’s BIZARRE ADVENTURE. But more iconic characters like Goku, Luffy, Midoriya, and Yugi get shafted. The discrepancies between the various designs and styles actually work against the game engine. Cartoony becomes creepy, as their wide eyes stare back at you, unblinking. Instead of a soft, natural look, the skin of many of these fighters shimmer with a vaguely plastic sheen—almost like Barbie dolls. And their rigid clothes and capes defy the physics engine almost as much as their hair does.
What’s wrong with Goku’s arm? What the heck is Luffy’s shirt made from? And why can’t I look away?
I’ve said it before: Unreal Engine can make some absolutely gorgeous characters and environments. KINGDOM HEARTS 3 was a prime example of that. But JUMP FORCE is like the dark side of Unreal Engine. Sure, the backgrounds of each stage are photorealistic, but when you’re embroiled in a tough fight, you don’t really notice them. You see the characters. So, instead of focusing on the Golden Gate Bridge in the background, you’re noticing just how fake the fighters look.
Fortunately, the game also forces you to create and play with your own custom character. Which is great, because A) it fulfills otaku dreams of becoming a Shonen hero yourself and B) features plenty of options that can help you dance around the uncanny valley of CG anime. It’s not perfect—the game caps out the body metrics, especially on female characters. Your options are sexy, or… sexier. Which is fine, I guess. I’m just glad they didn’t think to program jiggle physics.
The dream team: my OC, Yugi, and Midoriya
JUMP FORCE’s technical limitations are most apparent in its animations. Character walk and run cycles are stiff at best, inhuman at their worst. It’s almost like a first-year animation student was in charge of the rigging and animation. Cutscenes are even worse. Many of them don’t incorporate much movement, or even any lip flaps to match voice lines. Texture packs, especially hair, are buggy, and will often malfunction in the middle of a scene.
All of the bugs and errors in JUMP FORCE are fixable—nothing that can’t be cured with a patch, a DLC, or some extra time in R&D. It’s just disappointing to see such glaring errors in what could (and should) be a solid AAA title. There’s just so much potential that was lost in the rush to meet this game’s global release.
But as much as I am bothered by the way the game looks, that’s nothing compared to how it sounds. I was really hoping JUMP FORCE would release with an English dub. Now, I’m usually an anime snob—subbed over dubbed, all the way. But I’m also a ‘90s kid. I grew up watching the 4Kids and Funimation versions of many of these shows. I’m used to Goku sounding a certain way—playful, tough, and masculine. So, you can imagine my surprise when I heard JUMP FORCE’s Goku for the first time.
Bet you didn’t know Goku’s Japanese voice actor was a woman!
Wherever you stand on subs vs dubs, there’s no denying the lack of an English audio track is a major drawback in JUMP FORCE. The outlandish, over-the-top voice lines are part of the culture and the experience of anime, especially in America. I miss the puns and corny one-liners. I miss the dramatic flair that the 4Kids and Funimation brought to these characters. And for a game like JUMP FORCE, designed to give its consumers a wholesome, nostalgic tour of Shonen Jump’s greatest hits… this small piece of sentimentality would have gone a really long way.
All of this being said, I’d like to circle back to the point that JUMP FORCE is insanely fun. With an ever-expanding roster of fighters, the game will only continue to evolve and improve, so there’s no time like the present to get lost in beautiful particle effects of the explosions, kamehamehas, and Detroit Smashes. As long as you don’t mind these classic characters looking, moving, or talking differently than you remember, watching them pulverize each other is a blast. If that’s too big of an ask, you might be better off investing in a Crunchyroll subscription.