Anime (and television in general) is rife with slow-going programming that requires a commitment of 10-15 episodes for the viewer to become fully invested. After this waiting period, the first dramatic gut punch really hits, allowing viewers to decide if they want to opt in for the whole ride. As with some of the best anime, Dragon Ball FighterZ (DBFZ) is a game with great fan service and one of the most fluid combat systems to ever grace the genre. DBFZ takes the Marvel vs. Capcom fighting style and refines it, making it completely unique. Unfortunately, the game shares some of the same problems from which anime often suffer thanks to some rough story edges that take about an hour to overcome.
Despite the previous Dragon Ball games under developer Arc System Works’s belt being smaller titles, the studio manages to nail the look, sound, and atmosphere of the Dragon Ball series—for better and worse. Most of the original voice actors are back to fill their roles in the roster of 22 unique playable characters. Some voice actors even return to play smaller roles, including all of the members of the Ginyu Force who jump in to help Captain Ginyu mid-fight. The nostalgia of Goku and company’s longtime voice actors adds to the tension of the picture perfect art -style. Arc System Works has captured the classic Dragon Ball style to such a degree that it can only be compared to the same feeling many players experienced when picking up Ubisoft’s South Park: The Fractured But Whole: playing the games is like watching a new episode of the show. The developer goes as far as to recreate some of Dragon Ball Z’s most iconic moments frame for frame. Additionally, a primarily rock and heavy metal soundtrack does not hurt the more than 30-year-old franchise. Twenty-two characters is a great starting ground, allowing for favorites including Piccolo and stranger additions, such as a new villain called Android 21. Bandai Namco has also revealed that eight DLC characters are already on the way.
DBZF has flawless presentation, with the exception of its story content. The narrative is divided into three sections that must completed in a specific order. First comes the hero path, then the villain path, and lastly an Android 21-focused version of the campaign. This adaptation of the Dragon Ball universe is set in a world where clones of classic characters, created by Android 21, are overrunning Earth. The plot is fine on its own, but Arc System Works tries to throw in some fourth-wall breaks as a way to mix things up. In some ways, the game succeeds in its effort to be narratively unique, but the story too often becomes nonsensical when trying to be different. The only reason to stick around is the hidden character interactions, which are fan service of the finest quality. Some of these hidden scenes are downright hilarious and are well worth seeking out. All three campaigns are similar, but different in small ways. Unfortunately, they all share clunky cutscene animations and lackluster dialogue. As still pictures, the cutscenes effortlessly recreate Dragon Ball’s flair. In motion though, the quality is spotty, to say the least. Sadly, the dialogue would be bearable if not for the requirement to press X following each line of dialogue, as doing so is the only way to progress in-game conversations. This mechanic is obtuse at best and tedious at worst. The difference between these cutscenes and the television show would be negligible if not for the game’s desire to keep the player involved with annoying button presses. Even if an alternative were to be added via a later update, the game would be better off simply letting the action proceed. The negative aspects of the story only become more prominent because of such strange decisions.
Thankfully, DBFZ presents the best way to fight like a Saiyan. Fluid is an understatement, and DBFZ is quick to show players its quality. An accessible 3-vs-3 combat system on 2.5D arenas allows fans to blast opponents with ki attacks, while performing quick combos, all through the use of just a couple of face buttons. Combat feels natural and will, undoubtedly, keep even rookies hooked. Where nearly all players will jump in is the hero story, which is set to a difficulty geared to ensure new fighters are not discouraged. Those more familiar with fighting games may be bored in the beginning hours, but the game scales at an even pace. Every special move learned and every group combo pulled off gives a sense of accomplishment that can still be enjoyed after more than 25 hours in. Players may sometimes feel they are performing poorly, but the onscreen feedback says otherwise thanks to the flashiness of the franchise. With the addition of standard, yet detailed, practice and arcade modes offering tons of different challenges, every player—fan or not—will be satisfied well past the final story mission. DBFZ goes to great lengths to ensure players stick around to learn and grow, which is tremendous and never feels condescending. Arc System Works’s ability to set a learning curve is a lesson that others in the genre should follow.
The glue holding the in-game world and fighters together between matches is the lobby. In this hub-world, players can unlock a myriad of different (adorable) avatars with distinct costumes and colors. Furthermore, dozens of emotes, stamps, and preset messages are available that can all be shown off to other players before online matches. Every collectible in this area can be bought with Zeni or premium Z coins. These currencies can be used to buy capsules that spawn a random item with different rarity star ratings: DBFZ essentially has loot boxes purchasable with an in-game currency. Loot boxes are scary, especially after the past year, but these items play no role in the meat of the gameplay and are easily avoidable. This passive social aspect is only available as an option for players. If anything, the lobby is a fresh way to relax between the intense fights and is a welcome addition to a genre often criticized for its lack of content.
The best way to summarize DBFZ is that it is Dragon Ball in its purest form. The game is ridiculous and odd, but filled with decades of lore that fits right in with its faithful graphics. DBFZ’s challenge and accessibility are only matched by its commitment to a proper adaptation that will appeal to both the oldest and newest of fans. The beginning hours of the story is where the game’s biggest flaws can be found, which ultimately hurt the game’s chances of keeping players hooked. DBFZ has so much beneath this thin surface though, so players who are turned off upon their first hour with the game should really give it another go. The story will always be an annoyance, but this is a small gripe in a game filled to the brim with exceptional content. DBFZ is a Super Saiyan experience and essential for anyone who has memories from the anime—present or past. Those who are not fans will still find a fantastic game, but a bit of research and patience may be needed to fully grasp what is, without a doubt, the greatest Dragon Ball game ever released.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4.