Dragon Ball Z is an anime that seems like it was designed for video game adaptations with characters that can charge their Ki to power themselves up and engage to aerial martial arts battles against intergalactic foes and cheating death through the magic of Dragon Balls. There is no shortage of games spawned by this franchise across the console generations, handled by several developers with results of inconsistent quality. Arc System Works, known for the BlazBlue and Guity Gear series, are at the helm of Dragon Ball FighterZ, which sounds like the ideal studio to create an anime based tournament fighter. This is a title that we’ve been anticipating since we took our first look at last summer and now it’s time to see if it measures up to our expectations.
Dragon Ball FighterZ begins with the player taking control of a chibi version of Goku inside the world that serves a hub for all the different game modes. There is a brief introduction of how everything works and then its off to explore what’s on different parts of the map, where the player walks to different NPCs to select which game mode they want to play which include Arcade, Local Battle and Story Mode. There’s also a shop where players can spend the in game currency Zeni on Z Capsules or connect to the online store and not too far from that there is also an old timey TV setup to watch replays of your greatest battles and harrowing defeats. There is a warp function to travel to whichever section of the lobby the player desires if they would rather save the time and or have trouble remembering which area is which game mode.
Z Capsules are containers with random items, these are things like stamps to line up with online greetings, titles or different chibi characters and color schemes to walk around the lobby or avatars for online play. These are basically loot boxes, since whatever is in them seems random. The contents don’t seem to have any bearing on anything that matters in the game, and Zeni is easy to earn so it doesn’t look like players will be scrambling to get enough Zeni to afford them. There is special coin currency, Premium Z Coins, that is earned when the player randomly ends up getting a duplicate of an item they want, making loot boxes a part of the experience but in a noninvasive way. At the time of this review it doesn’t appear that real money can even be spent to purchase Premium Z Coins, though that could change after launch.
Local Battle is the mode for when you’re hanging out with your friends and there’s a couple options for this mode. If you just have one buddy over, standard versus battle is just what you’d expect it to be, two people going at it with their teams of three fighters. Tournament mode is for groups of three to sixteen people, though if less than three people are present the computer can take over some of the teams. This mode supports online and offline play, as no fighting game would be suitable today without online matches.
Arcade mode is also what you’d expect it to be which is what it has been in every fighting game since the dawn of time, though it has its own way of making it unique. There are three paths in Arcade, which are Snake Way Course, Extreme Gravity Spaceship Course and Hyperbolic Time Chamber Course. These paths vary in how many battles there are, which are respectively three, five and seven. Each battle is a three on three team match with no special boss character at the end, though the difficulty gets a noticeable increase with each progressive battle. Depending on how well the player does determines who their next opponent will be as each option has a branching opponent path and the player can go up or down a level or stay on the same plain based on their rank. Completing each path unlocks a hard version of it, and completing the hard versions with an A or S rank can unlock Super Saiyan God Super Saiyan versions of characters like Goku and Vegeta, which one can infer the progression of power based on hair color goes from black to yellow to blue, with blue being the strongest.
Story Mode is an area where Dragon Ball FigtherZ shines in connecting the game with source material. The first of the three story arcs begins where the player has somehow inhabited Goku’s body, much to the irritation and confusion of Bulma. Beerus and Whis show up and offer some explanation about Goku being possessed for lack of a better term and a bunch of clones are running around causing all sorts of mayhem. Oh and Cell and Frieza are back too so they’re probably making their own contributions to this whole mess. In between cutscenes, the player has to move across a grid and get to the boss of the level before they run out of moves, so strategically planning a route to engage in all the battles the player wants is crucial, especially since some battles with some nice bonuses may pop up along the way. The story begins with Goku, or more accurately Goku’s body possessed by an unknown soul, fighting alone but allies can be acquired by meeting certain conditions in the story, either through regular story progression or through rescuing them after defeating one of their clones. There are several battles scattered throughout the Story Mode map that serve as training battles, allowing players to get the hang of the finer points in the battle system.
Goku, Yamcha and just about everyone else that ends up getting aboard Bulma’s plane is drained of their Ki charging powers, but the unknown soul (aka the player) is able to tap into this power, so the soul just moves from body to body. This conveniently makes it so each team member can fight and also provides a convoluted but also logical explanation as to why the fights have to switch between one active team member at a time while the others chill on the sidelines instead of just having an all out free for all brawl. This unknown soul traveling between bodies is not the strangest plot device that’s been in the Dragon Ball universe, so despite this plot point existing soul-ly as a means to explain the fight mechanics it actually doesn’t seem out of place. The characters that are in each battle gain experience points to level up which raises their health, and winning battles sometimes gives rewards such as items that cause health regeneration or increase attack, which the player can have three equipped at a time and the benefits are shared with all team members. The level gaining and item collecting gives this a minor RPG quality. The story mode is quite substantial, especially for a fighting game.
Given the history of Dragon Ball video games covering the gamut of quality, despite the hype surrounding Dragon Ball FighterZ, it’s only natural to be apprehensive about how good the game might actually be. After spending a significant amount of time with this title, the final verdict Dragon Ball FighterZ is fantastic. Dragon Ball Z battles are ridiculous in the best possible ways and somehow Dragon Ball FighterZ is able to replicate the otherworldly pugilism the franchise is know for. The plot of the story mode and the animated cutscenes feel like they could be part of a new saga in the Dragon Ball universe, despite being obviously designed to move along a video game as opposed to just something intended for binge watching. The cutscenes look like they could have been lifted straight from the anime, which honestly we would have expected that in the past console generation but the actual gameplay graphics boast the same high quality level of animation. The characters charging up their power levels and recklessly throwing Ki blasts at each other is a nice touch to make it feel like an authentic Dragon Ball experience and charging Ki powers up the meter at the bottom of the screen that can be used for special attacks.
The level of care that went into recreating the essence of Dragon Ball Z is matched by work that went into making this a fun fighter with good game mechanics. The three on three battles where players can call in other team members for a quick assist attack or swap out the active combatant when the health bar gets too low for comfort is the same formula we’ve seen in Marvel vs. Capcom games, but I dare say Arc System Works may have bested Capcom at their own game. The battles are frenetic affairs that are probably fought in equal parts on land and on ground, with a control scheme that is designed where it’s simple enough a newcomer can stand a chance button mashing but an experienced player can turn fighting into an art form. The 21 available characters at launch are all familiar Dragon Ball Z characters like Goku, Piccolo, Vegeta, Majin Buu, Krillin, Android 18 and several others, and each one plays as a unique entity. Super Saiyan Goku handles different than Goku Black for example and Kid Buu can be an extremely powerful character if you take the time to learn how to control his unique moves. As a nice touch to capture the level of power these fighters have certain stages have destructive finishes, where the losing combatant is mercilessly flung through several buildings or a mountain.
Dragon Ball FighterZ is a rare gem in a sea of licensed games. Several licensed games, including many Dragon Ball based ones, are mediocre at best but fans of the source material can deal with the glaring flaws because of their own fandom. Dragon Ball FighterZ has excellent gameplay mechanics and successfully captures the Dragon Ball spirit. Dragon Ball FighterZ is not just a must-play title for gamers who love Dragon Ball Z, but also for the fighting game community as a whole. Playing against friends either locally or online is probably the main reason most people will want to get this, but the Story Mode provides plenty of substance where people who prefer gaming to be a solo experience won’t feel cheated. The year is just getting started, but the bar for fighting games has been set very high for 2018.