Dragon Ball is a series that perfectly encapsulates the definition of a phenomenon. Akira Toriyama successfully took his tales of heroics and larger than life superpowers and basically conquered the world. His storytelling style had obvious influences on Western comics as well as those of his homeland. The art style is so distinctive that even someone who knows nothing of the series can identify a character as being from the franchise at a glance. Spanning manga, anime and a metric crap ton of games, there is no denying that the franchise is as prolific as it is popular. It can also be dense, with a newcomer not knowing where to begin to get the best introduction as to why it remains so popular. A JRPG that tells a different tale should be a good place to jump in. After all, it wouldn’t spoil anything and the genre is typically packed with exposition, allowing for characters to stretch their stuff and show off why they became so popular. This was the mindset that I, as said newcomer, took as I entered the world of Dragon Ball Fusions.
The plot starts off extremely simple. The player made character and (s)his brother search out the seven fabled Dragon Balls in order to make a wish. After finding the last one on the ground next to a bush, the dragon is summoned forth. The wish is made: have a martial arts tournament to see who is the strongest fighter. As a side note, this set up was mentioned to a friend versed in the universe. His response: “Why couldn’t they wait a day or two? There’s always a new tournament.” Anyhow, their wish is granted and the siblings are whisked away to a new world where exactly that tournament is happening. In order to participate, though, they need to create a team of five fighters. So, they depart to build a team from over one thousand playable characters.
The game can be effectively broken up into two parts, overworld travel and the battles. The overworld locomotion is rather fun, in actuality. The player character is quickly given free range to fly from location to location, threading the needles through spires and buildings, and given unlimited use of a speed boost to ensure that it doesn’t get tedious. It does take a bit of acclimation to master the controls, but it isn’t exactly arcane. During these portions, players can hunt down battles that can be fought in an attempt to capture fighters in a Pokémon-like fashion, or engage in various quests, like clearing an air course in rapid order. Not all of the content is the most engaging, but the vast abundance assures that people who love this world will have reason to stay for awhile.
Ample credit must be given to the battle system for trying to go outside of the box and make use of the license. Teams are set up in an arena of varying shapes. Use of these arenas require smart use of each character’s traits. First, there is a rock-paper-scissors type system, where a hero specializes in power, speed, or technique. Correctly setting the power hero of the correct adversary is vital to success.
There are also different moves that can be used. When going for a melee attack, the hero swoops in and must select an angle of attack. The receiver can try to guess the angle to block, mitigating the damage. Right there is a problem. JRPGs do involve the luck factor for things like critical strikes and whatnot, but this system removes even the illusion of proper strategy. Taking a guess is not fun when trying to close out an overlong battle. On offense, it’s best to either choose the angle that would knock the enemy into a teammate for extra damage or push the foe out of bounds for a ring out. The guessing game can be ignored by using a Ki attack that does direct, if lower, damage. These require a form of mana, though, and must be used in moderation.
There is also the titular fusion system. After investing some time into the game, the ability to smash two characters together to make a destructive new one, at least temporarily. This can dynamically change the outcome of close battles, as well as lead to some…interesting appearances of the characters. Far from being a novelty, this aspect is one of the more intriguing elements of the game, one that will hopefully be ripped off wholesale for other RPGs. So, Gohan and Trunks can be merged to create a more powerful character. (Trohan? Gohunk?) Additionally, should the player have enough resources, it is possible to completely dominate an entire battle by fusing all five team members together. This basically acts as a win button until some of the more annoying later fights that require specific actions to win.
While the gameplay components are scattershot in their quality, one thing could have tied this all together to create a great experience: the story. A great yarn would both show why these heroes are so popular and give existing fans something to be excited about. For all of its flaws, One Piece: Burning Blood managed to do this by using the story mode to show off the humor, pathos, and singular style that the franchise has to offer. I walked into that one knowing nothing, and walked away a fan, starting the anime series up on CrunchyRoll. This was in the confines of a fighting game. As an RPG, Dragon Ball Fusions should be able to tell an intriguing tale that would entertain someone without a clue. The genre itself started with paper and pencil precisely to allow for storytelling. Sadly, the adventures found in Fusions are a confusing mishmash of nonsense.
This could be as a result of too many characters. One can’t grow attached to a hero when there are hundreds of others to use, but the size of the cast of known heroes is somewhat handled by putting the narrative focus on the player created character. A larger portion comes in the form of sloppy writing. To avoid spoilers, take the plot set up as an example. It makes no sense to find a sacred artifact like a Dragon Ball sitting on the ground, out in the open, next to a bush. This narrative hole is created in the game in that a late quest involves finding them again, except this time they are well protected. Taking the time to explain the difference would have made a difference. Other plot elements are never explained, expecting the player to roll with it. Using that same friend as a sounding board, I explained some elements that happened later in the game, showing pieces from the game itself. His confusion matched mine.
Despite all of the complaints, there is some inherit value to Dragon Ball Fusions. The battle system, while not great, is creative and captures the feel of an anime. The plethora of heroes means that fans can create a team with nothing but their favorites and journey through the tale. The length and breadth of things to do will give anyone who enjoys this an incredible amount of value. Taken only on its merits as a game, though, and there are some noisome elements. A battle system that places heavy stock on guessing and a story that makes no sense means the experience can be a slog. In trying to finally gain an understanding of a fandom by playing Dragon Ball Fusions, I have found myself even further alienated.