To many, the Dragon Ball series is more recognizable for its anime and manga than for having a laundry list of winning game entries. In fact, when the most recent game, Dragon Ball FighterZ, was announced during last year’s E3, it was met with more speculation than excitement. Of course, the many previous games made for the franchise have their fans, but for a genre that’s filled with esports juggernauts, like Street Fighter, Marvel vs. Capcom, and Tekken, it’s difficult to see where a modern Dragon Ball Z fighter can stand a chance. Well, much like the over-the-top action seen in the Dragon Ball series, the game has taken aim at the competition and is striving to be one of the best. Experiencing Dragon Ball FighterZ’s fact-paced, fluid, and addictive gameplay makes it extremely clear we were wrong to overlook the potential a well-made entry in the franchise could have. To put it simply: it’s a blast.
Created by the combined forces of Arc System Works and Bandai Namco, Dragon Ball FighterZ is a three-on-three tag-team 2.5D fighter. Fans familiar with the many games under the Dragon Ball name will recall Dragon Ball FighterZ is not the first collaboration in the franchise between the publisher and developer. 2005’s Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden for the Nintendo 3DS was an attempt to bring the extreme fighting-style seen in the series’ anime and manga to a game, however it ended up being a middling fighter that didn’t properly use the genre or franchise’s staples to its benefit. Thankfully, the latest team-up takes a great deal of concepts from both the genre and anime series to create an aggressive experience that, surprisingly, can be enjoyed by any player. Including me, a casual fighting game fan.
When first jumping into the game, there are a variety of modes players can tackle. You can try out the basic mechanics in Practice mode, enjoy a fight with a friend in Local Battle, watch your favorite victories or failures in the Replay gallery, enjoy a more traditional tiered Arcade mode, and even buy new avatar characters and customizable gear from the Shop. However, the bread and butter of Dragon Ball FighterZ comes down to the Online Ranked mode and Story system. Once players feel accustom to the mechanics of the game, they can take on players from across the globe online, like most modern fighters. As with any online play, it’s recommended you don’t attempt to be ranked until you feel like you can battle with the best of them, as online medals, the in-game medals earned through climbing up the ranked mode, will likely be coveted, making players eagerly bloodthirsty for victory. The major key to mastering Dragon Ball FighterZ comes down to understanding each of the characters and their slight differences from one another.
While Practice rounds are a way to learn the ins and outs of Dragon Ball FighterZ, the developers did a great job of making the Story mode an engaging and efficient educational bootcamp. Taking cues from Marvel vs. Capcom’s tag-team system, players will enter a battle with up to three characters to use at once. The other two fighters are designated to the left trigger buttons (I played the PlayStation 4 version), allowing the player to do quick taps of the buttons to call them in for an Assist move or a combination of buttons to bring them into battle and replace the current fighter. While the roster of 20 characters is diverse, they all have relatively the same control layout, with the face buttons set to melee and ranged attacks, right triggers for Specials, and directional pad for movement. On the surface that might sound like a downside, but with how FighterZ is essentially a refresh of the franchise, it was a smart move to not insert characters with vastly different movesets. This could be a downfall for competitive players wanting to immediately jump into a challenging and complex experience, but with time the team could expand and develop more discernible differences between fighters.
The game is built for anyone to jump in and enjoy. FighterZ’s approach to combat is quite simplistic at first, with combos triggered by short commands, but as the player learns more moves, the mechanics do become slightly more complicated. While combos are easily accessed, efficiently stringing them together takes a solid understanding of the overall mechanics, which is likely what will separate casual players from competitive. For example, most fighters can use a powerful ranged attack, like Goku’s “Kamehameha” blast, with a rotation of the D-pad and the X-button, but combining it with a warp attack or melee combo takes practice. All of these mechanics, from basics to Special attacks, are taught through brief tutorials throughout the Story mode, keeping the gameplay going and not completely holding your hand. As I progressed through the story, started seeing which characters I liked the most, and mastered the basics, I found myself striving to truly understand how to look for chances to block and counter. Overall, it was a rare experience where I could see myself, and others less experienced in the genre, training to become an online competitor. I don’t have that experience with other fighters usually, especially at the beginning of learning the gameplay, so it was a testament to the developers for how well the building blocks to fighting are taught.
Apart from the basic options, each fighter comes with a Ki charge gauge that allows them to unleash different spiritual-style moves. Goku’s previously mentioned “Kamehameha” falls into that category, as does the new Vanishing ability, which teleports a character directly behind the opponent for a surprise attack. Not only is disappearing and reappearing extremely cool, but it makes the player feel like they’re reenacting the best parts of the anime, where the characters would be moving so fast it’s almost as if they’re teleporting, to deliver powerful blows.
Of course, as they say, with power comes responsibility. The Ki moves can’t be exploited, as the gauge only allows a certain amount of uses at a time, adding a strategic element to each fight. There are many other features that work similarly to Ki in battle, but to keep the praise and explanation simple, it’s the system that best represents Arc System Works’ well-balanced approach to teaching players how the game works. For gamers that don’t plan on dedicated hours of study and practice to competitive fighters, jumping into a modern game in the genre can be intimidating. Often, we never feel powerful enough or able to grasp the complexities of each match, especially when up against a veteran who makes it all look easy. FighterZ bridges the gap between novice and master by giving you raw power, the strings to make combos, and then saying, “Here are the tools to be great, now put them together in your own way.”
What also helps the gameplay feel so exciting and welcoming are the visuals. The animation team kept true to the source material by creating a gorgeous anime art-style that runs through every moment of the game. Each battle looks and feels as if you’re watching a fight straight from the series, and with the unique Specials of each character, everyone gets to have an epic moment in battle that will make fans and newcomers to Dragon Ball Z feel like they’re experiencing something unique. Players can also unlock new outfits and color schemes for each character, which adds a custom layer of fun that can make repeat battles look like a new encounter.
As for the fighters, their expressions and attitudes perfectly match their anime personas, from simple kick animations to their most devastating attacks. Going along with that drama, you can even trigger epic K.O.’s that will send an opponent flying into a mountainside or obliterate a volcano. I never got tired of using Frieza’s Super Ability to kill my opponent so I could see the entire field explode, and knowing each character had an opportunity for a showstopper made me want to try them all. In all, the spectacle is fantastic, which is fitting for a series that thrives on over-the-top action. What’s most shocking about FighterZ, though, is how well it delivers a strong story wrapped within a pulpy fighter.
Apart from teaching you how to play, at the forefront of the Story mode is the plot. Divided into three timelines, players must make their way through each in order to unlock the entire narrative, with the opening scenario featuring the Super Saiyan heroes we all know and love, including Goku, Krillin, Piccolo, Gohan, Tien, Vegeta, and many more. Through the other arcs, more characters, like Frieza, Cell, Android 18, and Beerus, are playable and impact the events of Dragon Ball FighterZ’s fresh story. After Android 16 and the Red Ribbon army, who players should recognize from the Android/Cell sagas in the anime, are revived, clones of every major character begin to pop up around the world, ready to destroy anything and anyone in their way. While Dr. Gero, who created the Androids, still seems to be gone after his downfall years prior, a new character, known as Android 21, is manipulating the revived Androids and clones to defeat the original fighters.
While those details barely scratch the surface of the story, spoiling much more would be a disservice to the great work from Arc System Works and Bandai Namco. While fighting games have had Story modes for years, they often feel like an afterthought and don’t contribute much to the meta, but Dragon Ball FighterZ took a different approach. The new saga of Android 21, a brand new character made for the game, and her quest to literally devour every living being includes twists and turns that one would expect from a role-playing game, not so much a fighter. The game’s foundation in Dragon Ball Z’s anime makes this possible, as the development team turned FighterZ into more of an interactive film. You become a character in the story as a spirit that controls all of the fighters at your disposal. The familiar snark, wit, or evil from the characters is delivered right to you, with prompts of how to respond that can actually change the tide of the story. While that concept is cool enough on its own, the personalization goes much deeper.
Progressing through the different arcs is also an active experience. Whereas a lot of other fighters would just have you advance up a ladder of sorts, here, players are able to move around a Monopoly-style board to pick which enemy teams they want to pursue, if any at all. Fighting random teams serves several purposes, such as teaching a new fighting mechanic, offering practice, defeating a plot boss that moves along the story, or rescuing a fighter that can join your playable roster. As you unlock new characters, you can switch out which three make up your team, and apart from the obvious opportunity of getting to use them in battle, who you have selected affects the narrative. For example, heading into a battle using Gotenks, Goku, and Vegeta triggered a cutscene where Gotenks, who is a fusion of Vegeta’s son Trunks and Goku’s son Goten, asks the two men if he can call them both “dad.” In another moment, going into a battle against Frieza and using Cell can trigger an amazing interaction with the two arguing over who lost the most to Gohan in battle.
The different cutscenes, which are fully animated in the game’s gorgeous anime-style visuals, offer a chance for players to return to the story mode and play around with the encounters. It’s actually astounding to see how wonderfully executed the scenes are that it pains me to know how long it took the animators to make scenes for every character. In short, the delving into Dragon Ball’s lore is absolutely astounding in these moments, making the game feel like a love letter to the entire franchise and the fans that have kept it afloat.
As said many times, the greatest asset Dragon Ball FighterZ has is introducing a new audience to the fighting genre in a masterfully developed package. As a passive fan of fighters myself, I was pleasantly surprised to see how welcoming Dragon Ball FighterZ was to a player that can typically get turned off by the minutia of learning complicated lists of combo moves. But, of course, I, along with many others like me, only represent one side of the story.
Players plugged into the competitive scene will notice the negative aspect to the ease of using combos, as many fights will come down to who can trap their opponent faster in a flurry of arguably unbalanced hits. As far as differentiating fighters from one another in terms of gameplay, there still needs to be more noticeable diversity in the movepools. The unique Specials are fantastic, but each fighter should have, at least, a few extra moves that separate one fighter from the next. The game’s pros definitely outweigh its cons, however, for anyone who likes the genre already, but more importantly, it’s a powerful tool for newcomers to understand how infectious mastering a fighting game can be.
While there have been many fighting games based on the Dragon Ball franchise, Dragon Ball FighterZ marks a modern approach through the means of fast-paced action. From its breathtaking visuals to ease of gameplay mastery, the new fighter is a good stepping stone to expand the fan base of the genre. However, it may not satisfy players who are looking for complexity.
Arc System Works
T – Teen
|Dragon Ball FighterZ is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version played was for PlayStation 4. Code/hardware was provided by Bandai Namco for the benefit of this coverage. EGM reviews on a scale of one to five stars.|