There is perhaps no brand more suitable for a crossover fighting game than Shonen Jump. Juggernauts like Dragon Ball, classics like Fist of The North Star, and hit contemporary series like My Hero Academia are not only huge, significant properties, but they all share a fundamental component: fighting. Putting Jump characters together in a fighting game isn’t the same as Marvel vs Capcom or Smash Bros., wherein building a moveset around characters like Duck Hunt Duo or Phoenix Wright is an art in itself; these characters were built for it from the get-go. It’s a foolproof premise, so why are all of these games always so terrible?
Despite the combat of Jump Force only really making up about a third of the game’s play time, it’s presented as the primary gameplay system of the game, so let’s start there. This is another anime 3D arena fighter, pitting teams of 3 head-to-head. While only one fighter on each team is active at once, they each share one health bar, so the strategic tagging in and out that defines these systems in most tag-team games simply doesn’t exist here. Team members can use a special move as an assist, but really this is a game where you can change characters in the middle of a fight for no real reason rather than an actual 3v3 fight. Which character you’re playing as isn’t too important, anyway. Though some characters do animate in amusing ways – JoJo characters project their stands ahead of them to fight, Yugi summons his cards to battle, cool stuff like that – they all function identically.
With light and heavy attacks, each being able to be charged up, grabs, and special moves, there are a few options for attacking here. There’s room to mix and match attacks, but the thing is, the more creative you try and be, the less success you’ll find. Mashing the light attack button for a lengthy combo can take off a massive chunk of an enemy’s life with super low risk of interruption or counter-play, whereas nearly all other attack strategies are far less damaging, and much less consistently hit. The game seems to know that a single hit landing practically ensures a 20-hit, 40% health combo, so AI opponents will block nearly always. The result is a game of zooming up to your opponent and mashing light attack, throwing them if they’re blocking, and repeating. Special moves are usually just different types of energy beams or harsh blows, but because nearly everything can be blocked completely, and even your strongest ability is likely less damaging than a light combo, they don’t play into the strategy too much. The repetitive, uninteresting combat is only further hurt by the mindless enemy AI. As the difficulty rises, they stay just as stupid, but hit very, very hard. This means that victory feels like a lucky run in which the baddy didn’t manage to lock you into a combo until death, and failure never feels like an accomplishment.
A lot of anime games are like this, though; mashy and straightforward. Though few are as thoughtless as Jump Force, the saving grace of something like the Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm games, for instance, is the flashy, exciting presentation. I might get tired of the combat, but their reverent depiction of the source material means I can always enjoy the spectacle of fights and appreciate the cool designs. In Jump Force, neither the way it plays or the way it looks is in any way engaging.
Manga and anime are often contingent on their art and designs more so than even their characters or stories. The stylish fighting, cool weapons and crazy special abilities are definitive of nearly all of the properties included in Jump Force, and that all comes down to how they’re presented. In this game, matching the aesthetic of each series isn’t just a task they failed to achieve; it’s something they didn’t even bother attempting.
Because the narrative revolves around the Jump Worlds being brought into reality (or, more realistically, because generic, low-quality realistic textures and assets are surely cheaper and easier to implement than anything artistic), the characters and settings of Jump Force are supposed to match the real world. Instead, they look like stiff plastic dolls with uncharacteristic textures all over. To keep to an easy example, Goku’s gi is made up of realistic, thin fabric that unnaturally sits in such a way to emulate the character’s design. His eyebrows are rectangles of short fur. His hair is made up of what look like little rubber pipes, and the flat part of his hair on the back of his head is, I guess, rubber cornrows. His face, like all characters, doesn’t emote or animate beyond his standard battle expression, so even when he’s getting along with his friends or joking around, he’s rocking those stern, angular eyes. It isn’t representative of the original art, which inherently conflicts with a realistic aesthetic, and it isn’t adapted to a different style. It’s just built out of bits and pieces that simply look bad.
The special attacks and powers are similarly presented. The realistic lightning-style look of energy beams and sparkly particles of teleporting might be marginally more believable than the stark lines and colours of the actual things, but that means that things not only look less like their inspiration but dull in general.
I mentioned earlier that fighting takes up about a third of the game. There are a few other significant components of Jump Force, each of which drags out the game in frustratingly dull ways. Much like the Dragon Ball Xenoverse games, Jump Force is something of a light RPG, seeing us play as a custom avatar, levelling up and collecting gear and items. Conceptually, this is so exciting for a Shonen crossover game. In execution, it’s a drag. The story is little more than a loose justification for setting up fights, though having Light Yagami and the Death Note play a significant role in the plot is, honestly, a really cool idea. The narrative plays out in atrociously boring ways, however. Mostly, it’ll be two or three characters in a room having a slow conversation, repeating the same thoughts every other character has been stating for the entire game. Literally dozens of cutscenes, each upwards of four or five minutes in length, are the exact same thing occurring with characters swapped out. This doesn’t qualify as entertainment. It’s closer to cruelty.
Here’s the kicker, though. Jump Force has a hard time loading its plasticky, unpolished assets. Thirty seconds is a pretty quick load for this game, and upwards of 60 seconds is common. That’s bad, of course, but it gets worse. These screens are constant, sometimes occurring multiple times within one mindless cutscene for the sake of plopping the braindead models in front of a different stagnant background for a minute.
When you’re not fighting or doing something else while you’re waiting for dialogue to end, you’re wandering the Jump Force base to start battles, upgrade characters, and buy items and outfits. This is a big, open area, and boy is it empty. Walking from one side to the other can take a few minutes of poor running animations, and you’d best get used to it. Missions are triggered at various points across the area, marked by exclamation marks. Only, these markers are only visible when nearby the NPC in question, meaning that running between each of the four sections of the map just to see where you can actually do something is one of the most significant pieces of the game. This isn’t exploring, interacting, or really anything, it’s just holding the stick in a direction. It’s equal to a main menu with hundreds of blank options that must be scrolled through between each actual function.
Earning new gear for a Jump themed RPG character and equipping cool pieces of armour and weapons from various characters is yet another appealing prospect. Progressing up in the ranks and earning stronger, more iconic costumes would be a dream come true, but that’s not what we have here. Instead, outfits are purely cosmetic and are merely bought from a merchant with your abundance of currency. While few exceptions are unlocked through side quests, basically this means getting the gear you want is a matter of browsing each vendor and taking your pick: no progression, no carrot on a stick to aim for, no value.
Jump Force doesn’t just fall awfully short of its potential, but it fails to be fun, engaging or rewarding in any way. Combat is simple and repetitive, the story is uninteresting and told in an incredibly boring way, and the visuals fail to capture the essence of their inspirations. Beyond these annoyances, the considerable fraction of the game spent just on loading screens, plus the amount of time needed to mindlessly walk from one side of a bloated map to another feels outright criminal to charge for. Jump Force is an infuriating game, forcing the player to waste as much time as they spend playing, and degrading several excellent, beloved properties to mindless monotony.