When I was young, I couldn't wait to get home from school, flip over to Cartoon Network's Toonami programming block, and watch an episode of Dragon Ball Z. Kid Me loved that show like no other - and why wouldn't he? It's big, it's loud, it's (often literally) earth-shaking, and dripping with excess; there's even cool aliens to look at and a talking cat. It has everything a 10-year old kid could want.
But, if we're being honest with ourselves, Dragon Ball Z rarely introduces complexity into its spectacular fights. It's not often our plucky hero Goku or one of his many friends and allies wins a battle because they're smarter or more clever, or use a unique fighting style - most of the time, it's just a matter of whose power level is bigger than the other's. What I'm trying to say is that nobody should watch Dragon Ball Z looking for realism or subtlety, they should watch to see who can scream louder and shoot a bigger energy blast from their hands.
But fighting games demand more nuance than that - you need a varied selection of fighters so every match doesn't feel the same, you need balance so one character doesn't overshadow all others, and more. So the question is, how well does developer Arc System Works' Dragon Ball FighterZ balance the feel of an anime fight with a game's needs for balance and variety?
Easy to learn, mildly challenging to master
If you're coming at Dragon Ball FighterZ as a fighting game fan, you'll find plenty to like, but perhaps not enough to love unless you’re a fan of the series. The roster feels unique and balanced, with a blend of old favorites and quirky, unexpected picks.
I found myself surprised at how well FighterZ managed to make characters stand out, even when most of them are basically just humans wearing a gi or space armor. Nappa can grow little minions called Saibamen in a throwback to the Saiyan Saga, while Piccolo can extend his arms like elastic. Yamcha can dish out a flurry of quick attacks, while Vegeta is a beast when it comes to energy blasts.
Even so, once you've learned how to throw a light, medium, heavy, and special attack, you're pretty much set, regardless of who you select for your 3-person team. By hammering the same button a bunch of times in a row you'll be able to perform an auto-combo, which look flashy but lack much skill to pull off.
True pros will be able to chain together these auto-combos with one-off attacks and tactical switching in and out of partners, but overall you're looking at a lower skill ceiling here than other competitive games. Basically: if you can pull off a fireball in Mortal Kombat, you can do pretty much anything FighterZ would ask of you.
But these auto-combos aren't necessarily a setback. They let everyone experience the rush of watching impossibly strong fighters clash, and feel like an open invitation to newcomers and casual players in particular since you'll always be able to perform one no matter who you're playing as.
Instead, FighterZ's biggest stumble in terms of combat is that it feels like it rewards offense a bit too much over other facets of fighting. Moves that let you avoid damage or can safely get you away from an aggressive opponent are limited, and if you do get caught up in a combo, it's pretty tricky to escape. Meanwhile, there are at least three moves available to every fighter that let you quickly close the gap between you and your foe and deal damage. And FighterZ is fast - extremely fast - so opponents will often try to bully and overwhelm rather than play slower and more strategically.
As far as fighting games go, it's less "technical precision of Street Fighter," more "rushing and ruthless attacks of Dead or Alive."
Story mode stumbles
If authenticity is your main concern, let me be clear: FighterZ is enthusiastically true to the spirit of the Dragon Ball Z anime - and, to a lesser extent, Dragon Ball Super - sometimes overly so. Story mode in particular is full of silly and 'dramatic' line readings like Frieza screaming, "Your jokes are horrible! You'll just have to workshop them in hell!" It's also got some borderline misogynist humor that feels out of place in 2018, not unlike watching a Looney Tunes short with Bugs Bunny putting on a racist disguise.
Specifically, my eyes widened fairly early on, when Piccolo read Bulma's mind (I honestly don't recall why he did this). Bulma, not having given her permission for Piccolo to do this, complains that he probably saw memories of her naked, playing out the 'I'm just an innocent girl!' routine you've seen in a hundred anime series from the '90s and beyond. Piccolo shrugs like this is no big deal, and Krillin and Goku not only side with him - pointing out he's an alien and probably isn't interested in Bulma sexually - but also toss out this zinger: "Aren't you a little old to be calling yourself a girl?"
So to recap, a mind-reading alien went through someone's private memories without their permission, and that person's friends responded by gaslighting her and calling her old. I mean... holy shit Dragon Ball Z, I thought you were cooler than that.
This isn't to say the story mode content is all bad. There are some genuinely funny moments peppered throughout as well, such as Vegeta and Goku arguing over who gets to fight a bad guy first, and Krillin flitting between nervous and brave. The animation is also top-notch presentation, and there are moments you could easily confuse the game for an episode of the show. Just be aware that while most of the Dragon Ball Z charm hasn't faded over the years, not all of it has aged so well.
Regardless of your sense of humor, there's no denying the story mode is overstuffed. This mode is set up like a board game, with you moving between spaces connected by simple lines. Each chapter is like a new board, though it's always the same pace of progression: slogging through a bunch of extremely easy fights where the AI barely fights back until you get to the one fight that's actually relevant to the plot or allows you to recruit a new fighter to your squad. Instead of getting excited for each fight, I was analyzing maps to find the quickest route so I could get each chapter over with as soon as possible.
Lots of story mode fights will also dispense tutorials as you trade blows, which can be helpful at first; the annoying part comes when you're still getting these (sometimes even the exact same tutorial) hours into the game. And I do mean hours. Lots and lots of hours. It took me roughly four hours to beat the first story arc, of which there are three. Even so, the game only registered my completion at just over half, since I skipped so many of the non-critical fights. So yeah. Buckle in for the long haul if you want to see everything.
Packed with references and nods to fans
Outside of story mode, there are a ton of fun easter eggs and references to the show. Pick the right characters, or beat one of the series' main baddies with the right attack on the right stage and you can trigger a short cutscene recreating a moment from the show almost shot-for-shot.
My personal favorite is Goku fighting Frieza on Namek: if neither team has Krillin selected as one of their fighters, the game gives Goku a unique intro reminiscent of the first time he transformed into a Super Saiyan. This was a moment I felt like I'd waited eons for as a kid, and it's impossible not to feel that little dopamine rush of nostalgia every time I see it. Honestly, FighterZ may be the closest humanity comes to a time machine. Or, if we're using DBZ terminology, a hyperbolic time chamber.
Even the game's menu is set up to provoke warm and fuzzy feelings. Instead of simply navigating options up and down, FighterZ's interface is set up almost like a mobile game, with a small town and characters to interact with. There's even a randomized rewards system, but it's all cosmetic and right now, there's no option to purchase the game's Z Capsules (loot boxes) with real-world money. But hey, it gives me a chance to see a chibi Piccolo wearing a backwards hat so I'm fine with it.
I find myself thinking about Dragon Ball FighterZ in the same terms I thought of Dragon Ball Z 20 years ago: it's flashy, a bit dumb, and fights are sometimes too simplistic... but god is it fun to watch. Now pass me that bowl of Fruit Loops, I'm gonna stay home from school today and practice my Kamehameha.
This game was reviewed on Xbox One X.