Review – Dragon Ball FighterZ is how you do a faithful adaptation

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“Kamehameha.” For those in the know, the word conjures an image of spectacular destruction. Granted, we’ve seen stronger and evolved forms of the attack in the decades since, but the Kamehameha remains an iconic Dragon Ball staple. With Dragon Ball FighterZ, that devastating wave of energy has never looked more alive.

Arc System Works are renowned in the fighting game space, soaring on the strengths of their Guilty Gear and BlazBlue properties. They enjoy pushing their 2.5D presentation, cramming it full of stylish visual effects and kinetic animations to sell the power behind every attack. If there’s one developer who makes “the anime of fighting games,” Arc System Works is it. Pair them up with the infectiously over-the-top Dragon Ball and you’ve struck gold.

This isn’t their first tango with the franchise, but Dragon Ball FighterZ (and that’s pronounced “fighters”) is hands-down their best effort yet. Possibly even the best Dragon Ball video game. The gushy visuals aside, it delivers an excellent fighting system that’s accessible and fun, without deterring the fighting game community. There’s a story mode that blew away my expectations with its length and approach, plus a good variety of local and online modes to plunge into afterwards. If anybody wants an example of what a mass-appeal fighting game should look like, then this is it.

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Story modes in fighting games tend to lean on cinematics, either gunning for graphical fidelity or in-engine recreations. In Dragon Ball FighterZ, you’re the narrative hook.

Taking a sledgehammer to the fourth wall, players embody a human soul trapped in Goku’s body. Every so often, the cast will speak directly to you, complete with artificial dialogue choices. You’ll eventually learn to “link” with other characters along the journey, and its essentially the game’s way of explaining how you’re controlling these legends or why levelling up even exists. You could even say it maintains the canon – Frieza didn’t just lose to Gohan, you did! It seemed a little cheesy at first but the execution ties in with the larger narrative perfectly, making it at all feel like a legitimate piece of Dragon Ball fiction.

As for that larger narrative, it all revolves around the game-original character Android 21. For the sticklers out there, franchise creator Akira Toriyama was directly involved in her creation. Without spoiling things, the main antagonist is key to the recent surge of clones terrorizing Earth, as well as the sudden loss of power affecting the Dragon Ball cast. You, the human soul, can overcome that suppression. This forces Goku and Bulma to go around recruiting friends (and enemies) in a bid to confront and stop the immensely powerful Android 21.

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Campaign progression is tied to a series of maps dotted with multiple paths. You’ll get to choose who to fight, but the longer you spend on these side battles, the more chances your foes get to level up (higher base attributes). While you can make a bee-line for the boss, you do so at the expense of passive ability awards or ally rescues. What’s more, your party’s health only fully recovers when moving to a new map. It’s a great way of adding player choice to what is typically a linear affair, and I had plenty of fun agonizing over my options. However, there were also moments where I was too caught up in the story, rushing towards a boss for the next cutscene.

In all, I spent nearly eleven hours on the Dragon Ball FighterZ campaign alone, which is split into three arcs following the perspectives of Goku, Frieza, and Android 18. Each offers new insight, yet also have unique endings – it’s sort of the best of both worlds, and at no point felt repetitive. I did go on a losing streak out of curiosity and found two outcomes: losing a boss battle resets the current map, while losing a regular battle means you must swap your entire line-up. If that’s the case, then hopefully you haven’t been neglecting your other characters.

My only gripe with the campaign is how bogged down it can get with all the short loading screens, worsened by the lack of dialogue auto-scroll. They do mess up the pacing of the campaign at times, especially when you’re rearing to get into a fight or during longer expositions.

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This is a good time to talk accessibility. It’s a pressing matter for fighting games moving forward, especially when younger generations grow up with touchscreens instead of arcade sticks. What Arc settled on is decidedly genius: if you can pull of a Street Fighter Hadoken (↓↘→ + key) you can pull off everything. It doesn’t feel as “cheap” as just hitting a button, yet isn’t so complex that you spend more time memorizing inputs than learning a character’s strengths. Combine that with a good tutorial and the autocombo keys, and I’m confident that anyone can breeze through the campaign with ease. In fact, I settled on a pattern resembling the “flowchart” – it’ll easily carry you through most AI battles, and when it doesn’t, you’ll be comfortable enough to employ other tactics. Just don’t expect that to work online.

If you’re wondering where fighting game veterans or skill growth fit into all this, then fret not; manually pulling off combos is far more rewarding in terms of results. For instance, opening with a light attack autocombo is effective and does end on a special move, but you’d still be sitting on an empty bar at the end. Do that same combo manually and you’d eke out enough meter for one bar, while also dealing more damage per hit. In an extreme match-up, someone relying on autocombos would be dismantled at the hands of a technical player in terms of raw damage output and flexibility. The latter is highly important given Arc’s preference for extended combos and juggling, too.

I’m personally a huge fan of the freedom to choose, though I can understand why better players wish to disable the autocombo option entirely. And for newbies worrying, Arc says the game will match you with similarly-skilled players.

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Instead of menus, Dragon Ball FighterZ dumps players into lobbies modeled after a small town. It’s a neat little social space where chibi Dragon Ball characters run about on their business, and it does help make the community feel alive. You can swap characters at any time, broadcast stickers and preset messages you’ve unlocked, and generally mess around with strangers while you wait for matchmaking.

Because you’ll be waiting for matchmaking. A lot. Initially I chalked that up to the PlayStation Network problems (tested on a PS4) and overloaded launch servers, and while matters did improve after a few days, I still found myself waiting for minutes at a time. Swapping between Ranked of Casual play did little to help, so I can only hope that Bandai Namco and Arc System Works get to the bottom of things soon.

The alternative to matchmaking was lobby play, either by stepping into the arena in the middle of town or in one of the player-created rings. Unfortunately, this presents a different set of issues. Basically, I’d wrangle up a few lobby folk and we’d just spend time waiting in the arena, either for more players to join in or for the match to start – I can’t tell which. There are no error message or notifications to clue us in on what’s happening, either, so eventually someone would get frustrated and leave. I’ve had more success with the ring lobbies, thankfully, but even then, it wasn’t as consistent as I’d like.

These online woes are a huge sore spot for what is otherwise a fantastic ride, but I still have high hopes for the multiplayer once services are tweaked. What little I’ve managed to see has been great and, if the local battles are anything to go by, are an immense amount of fun. In the meantime, other modes such as the arcade will do a good job of building endurance and brushing up one’s skills. Or simply replay the campaign to level up characters and unlock short, personal cutscenes.

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What ties it all together is how faithful Dragon Ball FighterZ remains to the source material. Adaptations fall into this grey area that may not fit on the canon timeline, but the Android 21 saga presented here may as well be a full-fledged arc. There’s been plenty of talk about how the developers labored on the visual presentation and it’s clear that their efforts have paid off immensely, with even the 3D scenes – simple they may be – put to good use. Arc System Works knows how to play to their strengths, and the result makes one feel like a starry-eyed child catching an early morning broadcast.

Of course, what helps sell that authenticity is the high-flying voice cast on both the Japanese original and English dub. Dragon Ball is a long-running franchise that has propelled voice acting careers, with some forever associated to the characters they portray. None can replace Masako Nozawa as Goku or Ryusei Nakao as Frieza for the Japanese. In the same way, Chris Sabat is just as entrenched with his roles of Vegeta, Piccolo, and more for English fans. Tragically, this is the last chance you’ll get to hear Hiromi Tsuru as Bulma, as the voice actress passed away last November.

Bandai Namco has greeted 2018 with a remarkable feat that is Dragon Ball FighterZ. It’s the sort of adaptation that every license holder wishes for, tapping onto the vast fandom with an easy-to-enjoy game, while at the same time generating plenty of buzz from the core gaming crowd. If you’ve ever been curious about fighting games, or just wanted to see what is up with these band of buff, shouting men, then boy oh boy do you need to grab a seat – you’re in for a (planet-wide) blast.

Dragon Ball FighterZ is out now for PC, PlayStation4, and Xbox One.
Developed by Arc System Works. Published by Bandai Namco Entertainment.
A copy was provided for review.

Ade Putra

Ade thinks there's nothing quite like a good game and a snug headcrab. He grew up with HIDEO KOJIMA's Metal Gear Solid, lives for RPGs, and is waiting for light guns to make their comeback.