Hype levels are over 9,000 for Dragon Ball FighterZ. After years of Namco Bandai putting the franchise into casual-friendly 3D fighting games, Goku and friends move to 2.5D with the assistance of the renown fighting game developers at Arc System Works. With their uncanny ability to seamless translate an anime art-style into games, along with their expertise in creating fighters, this is a match made in heaven. Did the final game shape up to be Super Saiyan levels of awesome?
For the first time in the history of the franchise, the graphics of the game match or exceed the visual fidelity of the source material. The cell-shaded look is spot-on with the anime during the standard course of action, with the game stunningly shifting into the third dimension for big hits. Much attention to detail has been paid to every aspect of the game’s presentation, from the inclusion of signature moves directly from the source material, down to planet-destroying super moves that literally terraform the stage. Fans of the franchise will salivate at the sights and sounds of this game, while even those just giving the game a quick glance will marvel at its presentation.
The game features 24 characters out of the box. For a standard fighter, this is a good size for a roster. Players of the Budokai and Xenoverse games may be miffed at that fact, as those games feature many more, even if those rosters are filled with minor variations of some of the main characters. This game can’t fully escape that reality, even with a greatly reduced roster, as it features three different versions of Goku, two different versions of Gohan, and two different versions of Vegeta. Though I’m a lapsed fan of the series, the roster in its current state has the characters I would want to see and a few extras. More DLC characters are on the way, for an extra fee of course.
This is a 3v3 tag fighter, similar to the Marvel vs. Capcom series. While you control one point character on the screen, you can summon your teammates to jump into the foreground and perform assist moves. As you hit your opponents, you’ll routinely send them up into the sky, pummeling them from mid-air, before smashing them back down to the ground. You can even string together each fighter’s super moves to create a tidal wave of energy blasts.
Controlling the action can seem very intimidating with how fast the game moves and how much is happening on-screen at once. Arc System Works have taken steps to ease some of your fears. For starters, you have access to multiple one-button auto combos. For players starting out, it’s not a bad way to get a feel for the game while getting some satisfaction out of being able to perform cool combos. This ability is partially limited by the fact that these auto combos are normalized through extra damage scaling and skilled players would be able to score much better damage with manual combos.
One aspect I really don’t like about the auto combo system is the way that they incorporate the Dragon Balls into the gameplay. After each successful auto combo, the game adds one Dragon Ball to a counter. Once all seven Dragon Balls have been collected between the two players, the first person to land the next auto combo while having seven full super meters will use the Dragon Balls to summon Shenron, who will give the player a choice of one hugely beneficial perk. Between two casual players, it’s a fun inclusion that loosely makes sense within the lore. However, as someone who wants to play fighting games more seriously, I would prefer it if there were a way to turn it off. Unless both players are actively fishing for it, the likelihood of Shenron appearing in a match is minimal.
Moving past auto combos, special moves and super moves only require the most basic of traditional fighting game special move motions. Even planet-destroying super moves only require a quarter circle motion with two buttons instead of one. With special move inputs being standardized in this manner, you can pick up any character right away and have the immediate joy of performing their moves before putting in the time to learn how to use them effectively.
Beyond your traditional assortment of projectile, uppercut, and grab attacks, every character has a homing attack. Surrounded by a burst of energy, performing the move allows you to lunge directly at your opponent wherever they are on screen. This technique is true to the franchise, as characters would often bounce off of each other as giant comets of energy. This maneuver allows you to keep the pressure on your opponent at all times, while also allowing you to fly through some projectiles when timed correctly. At first, it seems really effective as a means of starting your offense, but be careful, as a well-timed crouching heavy attack will counter a homing attacker every time.
Taken as a whole, the combat does feel like a somewhat lighter version of the gameplay found in a Marvel vs. Capcom game. It gives you that power trip of being in the shoes of a hyper-powered ninja with a shorter learning curve. That said, at this point in the game’s life, the game doesn’t seem to have the limitless depth of a Marvel vs. Capcom game, either. Due to the rigidity of the combo system and the way that assist attacks work, your offensive creativity may be stifled a bit sooner than you’d think. For the vast majority of players, I would guess that there’s more than enough meat to the gameplay to keep them happy. However, there’s still much to explore, and players are already finding new tech to spice up the action. For now, I’m having a blast smashing through my competition.
I’m a big stickler for fighting games having good teaching tools to help players get out of beginning stages of the experience. The tools you have at your disposable here are serviceable. The game does have a multi-stage tutorial that teaches you how each of the game’s mechanics works. There’s also a combo challenge that runs through combos of increasing difficulty for each character. While the game gives you the tools to show you how to play, it doesn’t actually teach you how to be good at fighting, which is still a common complaint I have with most fighting games.
Playing alone, you have access to an arcade mode and story mode. The arcade mode gives you three different branching ladders that vary in length. Play well, and you’ll be guided along the harder arcade path. Scrape by, and you’ll press forward on an easier path. I found the harder paths to be extremely difficult, forcing me to intentionally play worse in order to avoid the hardest branches of the path. Maybe I just need to get better, but it feel off to have to intentionally play worse at times in order to access a beatable path.
As for the story mode, you get access to three chapters of an entirely new story made just for the game. This time, a combination of mysterious waves and the reemergence of formerly deceased foes has set the world into chaos. It’s great to see these characters come back to life in a fresh story, even if it may not live up to some of the best story arcs in the franchise. The cutscenes between fights look awesome and you have the ability to level up your team in ways that make sense within the lore. With the branching paths found in the campaign, you can either take on extra missions that give you XP perks or gameplay tutorials, or cut to the chase and play the story parts alone.
To truly test your training, the game has a standard assortment of modes to participate in. You can compete in fierce ranked battles that will place you on a global leaderboard. For lower stakes battles, casual matches are available. And for fights against friends or other strangers, you can easily set up a lobby. The netcode seems to be pretty good, as most of my fights ran smoothly. There’s a handy frame delay tracker to show you exactly how good the connection is.
One huge letdown when it comes to the online experience is the process you have to go through in order to play matches against your friends. In order to do this, you first have to be in the exact same lobby. There’s no in-game method of inviting someone in, so you have to find your own way of communicating which lobby you’re in. From there, you have to keep your fingers crossed that you won’t get hit with the No Rooms Found bug. If you do, you’re kind of screwed. Even after they eventually fix that bug, this system for matching against your friends is wildly unintuitive.
The Dragon Ball franchise may not be a stranger to the fighting game genre, but Dragon Ball FighterZ represents a turning point. In terms of presentation value, it finally nails the look of the show during gameplay. On top of that, it finds a sweet balance of being beginner-friendly while having the gameplay design chops of a top-tier fighting game. The lobby system for fighting against friends sucks, but once the bugs are sorted out, it should at least be usable, if clunky. Whether you’re a fighting game enthusiast or just a fan of the source material, Dragon Ball FighterZ is a game you have to play.