licensed video games are usually a bit of a gamble. After all, they’re more often than not little more than advertisement for whatever property they’re representing, than they are games in their own right. There are exceptions, however, with some licensed games – such as Duck Tales on NES and Goldeneye 007 on Nintendo 64 – being fondly remembered. Going a step further, there are some franchises that seem to segue into the video game medium with a sense of consistency. Star Wars would probably take top honors in that department (its combining of fantasy storytelling with science-fiction settings, as well samurai and western influences would make it a strong candidate for video game transitions even without its insane popularity to consider), but other franchises have proven to have a decent amount of reliability in the video game department as well. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has proven surprisingly versatile, with successful RTS titles, movie tie-ins, and original games to its name. But perhaps no other franchise in pop culture that didn’t originate as a video game is better suited for the medium than Dragon Ball.
Dragon Ball – and more specifically, Dragon Ball Z and subsequent installments – are more or less just about a bunch of super powered beings duking it out, firing lasers from their hands, blowing up planets, and making the occasional bad joke. The original series had a lighthearted plot, but once things got into ‘Z’ territory, it really did amount to little more than which musclebound hero/villain could cause the biggest explosions by powering up. And it was (and is) awesome!
Combine its colorful and charming nonsense with the fact that the franchise seems to find countless ways to resurrect deceased characters, and Dragon Ball really does start seeming more and more like the video games that were around at the time the manga was at the height of its powers. It’s no wonder that the series has produced a number of beloved fighting games (as well as dipping its toes in the waters of other genres, to much less consistent success). Sure, not every Dragon Ball game has captured the brilliantly stupid mentality of the manga/anime, but there’s probably never been another franchise in pop culture that openly lends itself to the fighter to the extent of Dragon Ball. And Dragon Ball FighterZ, the most recent entry in Dragon Ball fighting games, might be the best realization of the series’ transitions to gaming yet.
Dragon Ball FighterZ comes from Arc System Works, famous for their fighting franchises Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, and replicates much of those series mechanics whilst melding them into the Dragon Ball universe.
It’s a match made in heaven, really. Arc System Works’ fighting mechanics blend effortlessly with Dragon Ball’s action, and the adoption of Arc System Works’ established cel-shading makes Dragon Ball FighterZ a visual treat, giving the game the look and feel of actually playing an episode of Dragon Ball Z.
The game also takes inspiration from the Marvel vs. Capcom series, with players selecting a team of three different characters to partake in battle. The roster is comprised of a (mostly) all-star lineup of characters from Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Super: you have the obvious Saiyan characters like Goku, Vageta, Gohan and Trunks; classic villains such as Freiza, Cell and Majin Buu; fan favorites such as Piccolo and Krillin, and newer characters like Beerus.
The three-person setup is well utilized, with switching between characters (or calling one of them for some backup) working smoothly. Better still is that the mechanics as a whole have an “easy to learn, difficult to master” feel to them. Everything is smooth and fast-paced, and in a breath of fresh air for a competitive fighter like this, the combos are pretty easy to pull off and chain together, without being so easy as to make matches feel completely one-sided to whoever can land the first combo.
Matches can also be refreshingly lengthy for a game of this genre. If you have two players of similar skill level going at it, you can have a good, long match that looks and feels straight out of the anime. The mechanics of these matches are also surprisingly deep, despite their accessibility. Players may find certain moves can prove vital at any given moment, and its easy to imagine different people basing their strategies off different aspects of the game’s mechanics (some players may prefer to use their built up energy meters to teleport around enemies and chain combos out of it, as opposed to using said energy on more traditional character specials).
One questionably included element to battles shows up – somewhat ironically – in the forms of the Dragon Balls themselves. If players can land a combo of seven hits, they’ll “unlock” a Dragon Ball. If they can do this seven times during a match and obtain all seven Dragon Balls, then proceed to hit one more seven-hit combo, they’ll summon the dragon Shenlong who will grant them a wish (revive a partner, receive full health, etc.). The problem here is that – not only is the method of summoning Shenlong kind of awkward – but if you actually manage to pull off all these combos, your opponent will likely almost be defeated anyway, making the bonuses obtained by Shenlong feeling like they give you an unfair advantage when your opponent is more or less already bested. It’s fun that they tried to actually implement the Dragon Balls into the game, but you can’t help but feel that, with how they’re utilized, they may as well have been left out.
Though Dragon Ball FighterZ boasts several different modes, most of them fun, one of the game’s other notable shortcomings is its story mode. This story mode sees the introduction of a new villain character, Android 21. 21 is more or less a combination of other DBZ villains (sharing many abilities with the similarly named Androids and Cell, as well as the ability to turn her enemies into sweets, which she then consumes to gain their power a la Majin Buu). Android 21 is gaining in power, and soon threatens the entire planet. Meanwhile, the usual Dragon Ball heroes are losing their power, with their only way of regaining their full strength being to link with a wandering soul (the player) who keeps traveling from character to character.
Now, I’m not going to fault the story mode for its plot. This is Dragon Ball, after all, and any DBZ fan can tell you that roughly 87% of all the show’s dialogue was about someone increasing their “power level,” and the remaining 13% was focused on how hungry one of the character’s was at any given time. I don’t exactly expect Shakespeare, here.
The problems with the story mode lie in its bloated nature, repetitious battles and cutscenes, and insultingly easy difficulty. The story mode is spread out between three different stories (one through Goku and company’s perspective, one through the classic villains’ points of view, and one that shows Android 21’s side of the story). While that’s all fine in concept, these stories end up overstaying their welcome by quite a bit. Perhaps the length wouldn’t be so noticeable, if it weren’t for how it becomes really redundant really quickly.
Needlessly long cutscenes repeat the same plot points ad nauseam. The story introduces “cloned” versions of characters to give it all some length, which is understandable. But you’ll quickly find that these fights have no variety, and never really seem to pick up on difficulty (throughout the entirety of one story mode, I never even lost a single character, let alone a match). There are some fun ideas at play, like the ability to level up the different characters and gaining equipable bonus as rewards (extra XP, boosts in health and special attacks, etc.), but it’s hard to care too much when your opponents barely ever fight back.
The story mode features three primary match types: tutorials, which reward extra points for using specific moves; fights, which are exactly what they sound like; and boss battles, which will advance you further into the story when completed. Don’t let these match types fool you, however, as none of them end up feeling different or more difficult than the others (even the moves the tutorials require quickly begin recycling themselves). Because of these many shortcomings, the story mode ultimately feels like the most boring way to play Dragon Ball FighterZ, and by a good margin.
On the bright side of things, this is a competitive 2D fighter, and multiplayer was always going to be where Dragon Ball FighterZ shined. And for the most part, shine it does. Once again, the fighting mechanics are both accessible and deep, and more importantly, they make for a whole lot of fun. Tie them together with the beautiful and fluid character animations, and I really can’t stress enough how the game feels like you’re playing an episode of the anime.
I did use the words “for the most part,” however, and the caveat here being the unreliable and sometimes confusing connection issues when playing online. I have yet to experience any particular issues in a match itself, but more often than not, the game will find and drop several matches before I find one that I actually end up playing. Additionally, after a few matches you might find yourself having to suddenly select a different server to connect to, and in perhaps the most egregious example of connection issues, it took me several tries and a 20+ minute wait just to spectate a match.
Even with the online problems and lackluster story mode, Dragon Ball FighterZ still manages to outshine its shortcomings simply because of how much fun the core gameplay is, and how well it captures the essence of the show. Once you find a good opponent, you’ll likely find yourself transfixed by the action. Even if you’re watching a friend play, the visuals alone are something to behold. In terms of being a Dragon Ball game, Dragon Ball FighterZ is as good as it gets. If some of the kinks can be worked out either in updates or in an eventual sequel, its power level might be over nine-thousand!