As a long standing fan of Dragon Ball Z but not a particular fan of fighting games DRAGON BALL FighterZ presents me with a conflict of interests. On paper the 2 sound like a perfect match, a fighting game based around an anime that is all about fighting. But history dictates a more cautious approach, where results are more often than not disappointing.
Since the games initial unveil at E3 2017, the outlook was on the whole positive. The games visual style was immediately captivating, a carbon copy of the original anime meticulously replicated into a video game. It looked fantastic then, and that has been carried through to the final product. The dedication from developer Arc System Works to not only replicate the style but to also make it feel the same is commendable. Character models exactly resemble their on-air counterparts, thanks in part to some excellent usage of cell shading to outline and highlight the muscular features so synonymous of Dragon Ball. Clever rendering techniques and delicate lighting also contribute to the illusion, where characters are purposely rendered less frequently than the backgrounds to better replicate the source material’s jerky animation. This, coupled with the game’s audio design – sound and voice acting is all derived from the original Japanese dub – comes together into a final composition that is at times indistinguishable from the source material, so much so that at times you’ll forget that you are playing a video game. I commend the dedication here, and the end result is it’s own reward for both fans and the developers a like. This is the best looking Dragon Ball title I’ve played to date, and it’s truly a visual treat.
However, appearance alone isn’t what makes a game – although there is a selection of people for which nothing else matters – and beneath the surface DRAGON BALL FighterZ is very much a modern fighting title. Players compose a team of up to 3 characters from the series’ large roster, which includes the majority of heroes and villains with only a couple of notable omissions, and battle it out in a selection of arenas to secure victory. Borrowing from other modern fighting titles, the game favours accessibility over hardcore appeal. There is no need to master an intricate set of per-character button sequences, instead a simpler common mechanism allows players to execute all characters moves in at best a 2 button sequence. The challenge is hence displaced into mastering chaining these basic moves together to create devastating combos. What it means is that for players like myself who are often deterred can instead easily enjoy the game, whilst those looking for something more serious can instead master the combo system to demonstrate their prowess with a controller.
This simplicity sadly doesn’t extend throughout the entire game, where instead the structure binding the game together suffers from the opposite problem of being barriers to getting into the game. The game’s central hub world, which serves as your portal to access the various play modes that the game has to offer, comes across as nothing more than a vehicle to support the games microtransactions. Menu design and navigation is another area that seems to serve little purpose other than to irritate, where players are constantly bombarded with popups, pointless confirmation dialogs and overbearing lists that sadly are fast becoming a hallmark of Bandai Namco games. The player doesn’t need to be told each individual step of the handshake between the client and the server, nor asked to confirm virtually every simple choice. It’s frustrating, as overall it comes across as nothing more than a sequence of hurdles that you must traverse before you can get at the gameplay underneath. A simple main menu listing the different game modes would be just as effective, and ultimately it is a shame that they haven’t borrowed more ideas from other console games that solved these problems long ago.
Once you wade through however, you’ll still have a little further to go to get to the best the game has to offer. The game includes a story mode, which stitches various battles together around a narrative of memory loss, possession and the final elements of the Red Ribbon Army. Spread over 3 chapters there is plenty there, however I found it overly underwhelming, encumbered with invasive cutscenes and starved of actual gameplay. Arcade mode however offers a more traditional, enjoyable, experience where players work through a sequence of consecutive battles to earn the highest possible accolade, and free of distraction the gameplay is really allowed to shine. Beyond this, training and free practice modes provide a platform to learn and master abilities and multiplayer modes allow you to move beyond the wavering AI and challenge the best players from around the world. Online isn’t just a platform for bragging rights however, offering replay and spectator modes that can be used to study the best to improve your own skills. In places it’s fleshed out with a little too much nonsense – Dragon Ball themed emojis to express your opinion whilst spectating did nothing for me – but it’s solid in the areas it needs to be, and Arcade and Multiplayer are really where the appeal is with this title.
Overall however, the experience failed to captivate me. I commend the art direction, which has without doubt achieved the original vision. Even the gameplay strikes the right chords. But overall for me it fails to capture the scale and theatre of battles in Dragon Ball, instead feeling more like a frantic fighting title wrapped in an excellent Dragon Ball skin. There are brief moments that spark seeps through, for example when swapping fighters mid battle or the brief sequences before executing your ultimate move, but it never manages to strum the satisfying vibe of smashing your opponent through a mountain and following up with a flurry of energy attacks. For me, this is the essence of the Dragon Ball series, those frantic moments as you struggle to return an outlandishly huge energy ball back to it’s sender, or the long intermissions between sparring where characters exchange cheesy lines. Those elements just don’t transfer to a fighting game, and as much as I respect it as a fighting title it’s just doesn’t deliver what I want from a Dragon Ball game.
To conclude, DRAGON BALL FighterZ (I’ve no idea why the title is largely capitalised) is a fighting game first, Dragon Ball game second. It’s well constructed, good looking and for fighting game fans it plays well. But as a Dragon Ball title, it failed to strike a chord, and as such it never felt anything more than an average but pretty looking fighting title.
DRAGON BALL FighterZ was provided to us by Xbox/Bandai Namco for Xbox One. It was reviewed on an Xbox One S and X.