Platforms: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC

When I first saw One Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows announced, my first thought was “oh great, another unbalanced anime tie-in fighter,” and it is, but there’s something that sets it apart from any random Naruto or DBZ fighter that you may have played in the past. It owns the fact that it’s an unbalanced mess. This is the world of One Punch Man, where powers and abilities make no sense and the entire conceit of the series is that the main character can defeat anyone with one punch. A Hero Nobody Knows embraces that absurdity, and in the process creates a neat proof of concept for a single-player fighting game, even if it is more than a little rough around the edges.

A fighting game where you win in one punch

The very first thing Bandai Namco showed off about A Hero Nobody Knows was how they were going to interpret Saitama, the titular One Punch Man, into a fighting game. Their solution was to make this a three on three team fighter, and if you picked Saitama on your team, he would always show up late to the fight. He would be placed on a timer and if you did well in battle the timer would tick down faster. Survive until the timer hit zero and his overpowered glory was all yours to control, ending the battle in one attack.

It’s a gimmick, but it’s an interesting one. It quickly wears out its welcome in versus mode, but then again you aren’t playing this in versus mode. Heck, the game specifically locks out versus mode behind a bunch of single-player quests. It makes it clear right off the bat that this is a fighting game you are playing for the single-player campaign first and foremost. Any sort of versus options are more of an afterthought.

A hero fighting for fun

In the single-player campaign, you play as an up and coming hero looking to make a name for themselves in the hero association. In the world of One Punch Man, there are tons of unknown heroes out there at low ranks, so this feels refreshingly plausible, as far as fighting game plots go. You slap together your character using a character editor and head out to do some good and maybe become famous along the way.

Just don’t plan on making a hero that is too complex. The character editor isn’t particularly good. The only good thing about it is that it lets you design both a base character model, and a model for your “powered up” state, which does let you live out some anime fantasies. Unfortunately, it’s all downhill from there.

Most parts are just re-used from other characters in the game. Women look exactly the same as men but with two awkward breasts strapped to their muscly chests. You only get 3-6 options per category when the game starts and extra options are unlocked at a snail’s pace. I was 10 hours in and I still looked like I did when I started the game. Pacing is, in fact, A Hero Nobody Knows’ biggest problem, but more about that later.

No one fights alone

This is a fighting game, but it’s a pretty barebones one. You only have two attack buttons, and they don’t really function like they do in standard fighting games. Instead, the controls are more similar to Dynasty Warriors, with your light attack triggering a canned combo and your heavy attack triggering a variety of combo enders based on when you push it. There’s no ducking, no mix-ups, no special stun states aside from certain moves that break your guard. It’s as basic and button-mashy as you can get.

And you know what? That’s OK, because fighting isn’t really the focus of this fighting game. Teamwork is. That one mechanic that brings in Saitama in versus mode is a mechanic that you will see in nearly every battle in single-player mode. You’ll frequently be put up against villains and monsters that can wipe you out in a few hits, and your job will be to hold out just long enough until another, more powerful hero can come in and save the day.

The neat twist here, is that there are lots of different heroes that can come help you. Maybe you’ll end up seeing a One Punch Man character like Mumen Rider or Amai Mask. You can even befriend these characters out of battle, raising their social support ranks in a sort of Persona-lite mini-game to raise their chance of showing up in battle.

More likely, you’ll end up being paired with another player. Yes, you’ll be able to play with other players’ characters, using their customized moves and stats in your fights. This is probably the coolest thing A Hero Nobody Knows has to offer. The very fact that so many battles have objectives other than “kill the enemy” is interesting enough, but add to that the ability to take a tour of the general player bases personality, gameplay style, and aesthetics just by completing missions and you have a formula for a real fun time. You can even see these players running around the hub world between matches, and you can send friend invites and chat with ones that have helped you out in the past. I already made quite a few new PS4 friends since the game’s release, just through this feature.

Keeping up with the pace of battle

However, bad pacing comes back to ruin this otherwise interesting experience. You see, between every major story battle the game is padded with a ton of grinding. You’ll have to raise your “contribution” rating, which shows what an asset you have been to society, by taking on opponent after opponent in more straightforward “kill the enemy to win” battles. These fights just aren’t fun because the general fighting of One Punch Man: A Hero Nobody Knows isn’t fun. Just like the property it’s based on, the fun here isn’t in the fights but in the way characters interact. The dev team went out of their way to make not fighting, stalling for help, so much fun, and yet you’ll still be forced into fight after boring fight between any battle that actually lets you stall until Saitama gets there.

Unfortunately, these battles are constructed the same as any other, which is to say they are totally unbalanced and button-mashy. Enemies feel entirely random. Some can kill you in one hit and others are pushovers. Whether or not you receive support from another character is also random, and whether or not they are better than you is supposedly based on an “appeal” stat that you can raise, but feels random nonetheless. Not to mention, most enemies are just re-used versions of the same monster model over and over again. Most of the time they don’t even recolor it! It’s just not fun.

There are some non-battle quests to take advantage of, but they aren’t really what they advertise. There’s only two things you can do in A Hero Nobody Knows: fight and run around. So if these sidequests don’t involve a fight, which makes them functionally identical to the grindy main quests, then the most they involve is talking to someone, running to another place, and talking to a different person.

Even then, the sheer personality of A Hero Nobody Knows kept me coming back for a good 15-20 hours before I started questioning the overall pacing. At hour 10, I only had a choice of three fighting styles to choose from, and I had no impetus to switch since I had been using my original fighting style so long and it was leveled up the most. The game even outright tells you not to switch around fighting styles, and instead focus on just one. So since it takes hours and hours to get new fighting styles, you’ll never end up trying them because you will ALWAYS end up power-leveling the fighting style you started with. This continued on for several more hours. By the time I had finally given up the ghost, I only had five fighting styles to choose from.

Speaking of fighting styles, A Hero Nobody Knows is pretty blatant about re-using its fighting styles and animations. All psychic characters have the exact same moves. Every tank top character has the same move-set, which is also the move-set of Puri Puri Prisoner. The actual roster of characters with a face has a bit more variety, but you won’t gain access to it until many hours in since you have to play the single-player to unlock the roster itself.

Still a low rank hero

You know, I probably could have even forgiven all of this as growing pains for a game that tried something innovative, but there is a lot more wrong with A Hero Nobody Knows. Frankly, it just lacks polish.

For example, framerate fluctuates wildly in the hub world. Some areas will run at a smooth 60FPS while some will dip below 30 with some pretty ugly stutter. It feels like the game is constantly chugging to catch up with player actions. I would routinely run to a quest location to talk to an NPC only to find that the NPC hadn’t loaded in yet, which meant I had to stand there like an idiot, waiting two feet away from my destination, until the game told me “OK we loaded everything, you can talk now.”

Heck, even talking is glitchy. Sometimes the font size compresses as it types out past a text-box margin. Then the rest of the text remains squeezes for the duration of the conversation, making you squint just to read it even though half of the text box is still empty!

Then there’s the voice acting which is alright… when it exists. Ninety percent of the game is unvoiced, with the remaining 10 percent basically being rehashed lines from the anime. It’s just astounding how so little care could be put into a game with such a high-profile IP as One Punch Man.

I wanted to like A Hero Nobody Knows more than I did. There were moments of sheer brilliance. When you face off against Carnage Kabuto with Saitama and any input you press makes him jump back in fear? That was great! The first time you tap Saitama’s light attack and see enemies in front of you explode or fly off into space? You feel both excited and hollow, which is exactly how Saitama feels in the series. Bandai Namco actually did a fantastic job of interpreting the One Punch Man IP as a video game. They just didn’t make a very good game around that interpretation.

If you are a fan of One Punch Man, I can see you getting some enjoyment out of A Hero Nobody Knows. Just being able to put a self-insert character into the world of One Punch Man is amusing enough. However, you won’t get much enjoyment out of this title if you are looking for a competent fighting or action game. You’ll get tired of its samey quests and grindy gameplay, and it’s moments of brilliance won’t be enough to keep you playing.

It wasn’t enough to keep me playing. I played for a good long while, longer than it takes to complete most single-player experiences, and I didn’t even unlock all of the game’s modes. There’s just too much padding and not enough content, though I wouldn’t mind seeing Bandai Namco try again with a sequel, because there is still some real potential here.