Review: J-Stars Victory VS+

Jump, known as Shonen Jump in the USA, has been publishing some of the finest manga ever produced for over 45 years. Iconic characters like Naruto, Goku, Ichigo and Luffy each made their debut in the pages of Jump, and Spike Chunsoft’s J-Stars Victory VS+ brings them and a ton of other familiar faces together in a brawler unlike any other in a celebration of the weekly magazine’s 45th anniversary. It sounds like a ready-made success, but unfortunately the Japanese developer has squandered this golden opportunity with a handful of poor design decisions.

J-Stars Victory VS+ was originally developed for PS3, and it shows. The game looks good on PS4, enjoying a consistently smooth framerate and crisp visuals, but it’s simply not cut from the same cloth as games developed solely with current-gen hardware in mind. Even so, the hand-drawn origins of each character are lovingly honored in their designs, impressively adapting models originally drawn in two dimensions into gorgeous 3D fighters. The localized version of J-Stars Victory VS+ also features the original Japanese voice cast, making the entire experience feel significantly more authentic.

Battles take place in fairly large 3-D arenas pulled straight out of Jump’s fabled stable of manga. They’re surprisingly detailed, but they get destroyed so quickly during combat that you never get to enjoy the familiar sights and landmarks tucked away in each one. Part of this is because there are so many characters fighting at once in each battle; players pick a primary character, a secondary fighter, and a third supporting character before each brawl, stuffing the arena with so many combatants that the individual battles feel much less significant. Spike Chunsoft fails to offer any compelling reason for so many characters to be on screen at once, and it ends up feeling like a chaotic street fight rather than the intense and memorable clashes each fighter enjoys in their series of origin.

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It’s special to be able to take control of your favorite manga and anime characters and lay the smack down on other legends, but it’s nowhere near as satisfying as it could be. Combat is frustratingly bland, and fails to produce the epic, awesome encounters one expects when they imagine heroes like Goku and Himura Kenshin trading blows. J-Stars Victory VS+ fails to distinguish its admittedly impressive roster, making each fighter feel nearly identical to the last. There are of course a few notable exceptions, and a handful of refreshing support character attacks, but for the most part one character’s moveset is just as shallow and unremarkable as the next. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still cool to unleash moves you recognize from the source material — there just isn’t enough variation to maintain that initial feeling of elation long past the first few hours.

Unfortunately, J-Stars Victory VS+‘s campaign doesn’t help much in that department either. It’s an uninspired and prolonged journey that has players moving between familiar landmarks from each series in a quest to become the greatest fighter of them all, and once again completely squanders a golden opportunity for an interesting and worthwhile crossover narrative. Alas, the writing is trope-laden and stilted, completely failing to do justice to the complex and memorable characters Jump has been a home to for over 45 years. The adventure is at least a decent length, spanning five or six hours, and players can enjoy it from the perspectives of four different teams of characters. Regrettably, Spike Chunsoft’s lazy design decisions rear their head here too, as each campaign plays out exactly like the last, and switching from one team to another means you’ll have to start over from scratch. Choices like those make the package feel much more like a cash grab than a celebration of the incredible history of Jump, and that’s a little heartbreaking as a longtime fan.

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If Spike Chunsoft had leaned harder into the manga roots of its roster, playing up the action, sound effects and personalities that fans look for in their favorite series, J-Stars Victory VS+ may well have been a more notable game; It would have at least made the experience a more unique celebration of the source material. Adopting a gameplay model more akin to Super Smash Bros. (which the Jump Ultimate Stars game on Nintendo DS actually did to great effect) would also have been beneficial, as the arena brawler setup, while visually attractive, actually made the combat experience much more frustrating than it needed to be. The fact of the matter is that despite Spike Chunsoft’s efforts, each of J-Stars Victory VS+’s most iconic characters is more fun to play with in their own games, and that’s a little embarrassing.

At the very least, however, J-Stars Victory VS+ is commendable for the breadth of its roster. Characters from series far outside the mainstream get their time in the spotlight alongside powerhouse properties like Naruto and One Piece, which will make Spike Chunsoft’s shallow brawler almost worth the price of entry for die-hard fans. It’s nice to see supporting characters from each series pop up here and there as well, providing a few extra moments of fanservice and valuable motivation to see the uninspired campaign through to its conclusion. Even so, it’s sad to see so little made of such a promising crossover opportunity, especially considering how remarkable each of Jump’s individual properties are. It’s a passable effort, but Spike Chunsoft missed the mark with this one.

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Closing Comments:

J-Stars Victory VS+ fumbles what should have been a glorious, celebratory experience. It’s combat is banal, its design is overcomplicated and its presentation is completely halfhearted. Even so, there’s a lot to be said for the pure fanservice of J-Stars Victory VS+. It’s disappointing in comparison to other manga-inspired fighters, sure, but it’s also the only place you can make your manga crossover dreams a reality, and for some that may be all they really need.