Dragon Ball is a series that’s been around long enough to have had adaptations on all major (and some minor) game systems since the NES, some laughably bad (the NES RPG released here in America as Dragon Power) and some surprisingly competent (the PS2 era DBZ Budokai series holds a special place in a lot of hearts). That said, there’s never really been a definitive take, something to hold up and say, THIS is the Dragon Ball video game, similarly to the Batman Arkham series or Capcom’s work over the years with the Marvel license. Until now.
When news leaked out of the Bandai Namco camp last year that Guilty Gear masterminds Arc System Works were being handed the DBZ license, fighting game fans the world over rejoiced. Finally, FINALLY a fighter that could live up to the into the stratosphere hardcore brawls of the greatest fighting manga/anime of all time. The finished product is even better than expected, Arc blending their aptitude for seamless cel shaded anime graphics and whiplash inducing fighting into the greatest playable representation of Dragon Ball battles yet.
Even more brain melting than in the last round of GG updates, these graphics are, with very few exceptions, impossible to discern from traditional hand drawn 2D, in all their hyper colorful HD glory, with a flawless frame rate and no sign of screen tearing or hitching to be found. And it’s a good thing too because this gameplay engine cranks Arc’s typically bonkers Guilty Gear/BlazBlue/Persona Arena house style to 11, utilizing the simplified auto combos of the latter series’ with universal chains and commands that create a high flying and hard hitting yet thoroughly accessible and approachable system that more than does justice to the source material.
That slavish devotion to said source material permeates every aspect of the production, from manga and anime frame specific poses and animations to the hours of voice work in both English and Japanese recorded specifically for the game, and the hundreds of (sometimes hilarious) unique character interactions that utilize said voiceover. The samples and numerous and varied enough to never seem repetitive though, even during extended gameplay sessions. Similarly, the combo heavy fighting engine doesn’t degenerate into mindless button mashing, which the AI, even on low levels, will exploit any attempts of. It really is the perfect mix of fan service and genuine artistic appropriation, of approachability and depth.
Graphics and gameplay can only carry a game so far if there’s no modes to play it in (just ask Capcom) but luckily FighterZ offers the most feature rich suite of gameplay diversions this side of Bamco’s other fighting masterpiece, Tekken 7. Of course there’s a cinematic story mode, one with some amusing fourth wall break-ery to explain its wealth of long dead characters and settings, but this one is a cut above, not just a series of disjointed matches bookended by cut scenes but with multiple actual maps of opponents, strategy when counter picking and choosing allies, and light RPG elements concerning upgrades and leveling up, hearkening back to the grand daddy of the genre, Street Fighter Alpha 3, and its storied World Tour mode.
Arcade mode too, addictive in its own right, brings the heavy DBZ flavor with 3 different pathways of ascending difficulty (think the towers from Mortal Kombat) patterned after the series’ early story arcs, and unlockables in the form of characters and currency based on a Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike style grading system. And along with a very intuitive and informative tutorial, and your typical modern bevy of training and online modes, the entire presentation is wrapped up in a chibi-fied lobby as charming as it is useful, with literally hundreds of avatars to unlock in different colors and permutations of the franchise’s ridiculously deep bench.
I kind of wish I had more to say about DRAGON BALL FighterZ but both a fighting game and a licensed game this perfect deserves to be played and not discussed. Ticking all the boxes of both a meticulously crafted love letter to one of the most long lived and still relevant intellectual properties out there and an impossibly deep and engrossing yet supremely pick up and play brawler is no mean feat, creating a must play for both anime and fighting fans, and a contender for game of the year as early as it is formidable.