Dragonball Z is a franchise that has been involved in video games for a long time. In fact, Goku and team have appeared in almost as many console generations as some of the medium’s biggest stars. The genres of their titles range from RPG to fighter, and I’m fairly sure there was a card game or two along the way as well.
Dragonball Z: Battle of Z marks a minor departure from what has become the norm. For quite a while now the Dragonball games have focused on one-on-one fisticuffs. Even if the camera angle is occasionally funky, Dragonball Z’s gaming feet have been firmly planted in the domain of Street Fighter and company. I say a minor departure because, ultimately, Dragonball Z: Battle of Z is still a game about punching people and zapping them with pulsing energy balls, but this one takes its attention away from the intimate depth of a”true” fighter, and instead focuses more on things like “team synergy”.
First thing’s first: if you’re not already versed in the narrative of Dragonball Z then Battle of Z will do nothing to remedy this. In fact, it will confuse. There’s a buffet of content here, with 50+ levels running the entire gambit of Dragonball Z’s sagas, but Battle of Z is arguably the most love-less re-telling of Akira Toriyama’s lengthy shout-fest that’s ever been released. It looks pretty enough, and it hits most of the pivotal scenes, but there is absolutely no explanation for the events unfolding on screen. Fortunately a tap of the lock-on button will tell you exactly who to punch, so it’s not like you need to follow the tale too much, but it’s worth noting that the way the Dragonball Z narrative is shown here is incomprehensible.
So forget the story (which can be played solo or in online co-op), how’s the fighting? Exhilarating is a good word for it. You control a character in third person, free to run and fly around the arena as you please, while a simple lock-on will tell you where to aim your aggression. Then, when it comes time to attack, you have a basic string of melee hits and a projectile – those two are fairly similar for everyone – which are accompanied by a pool of special moves that are wildly different depending on who you select from the meaty roster. Oh, and there’s also a launcher attack that does the whole “hit someone far away, teleport, then hammer-punch” thing that’s super fun and happens all the time in the anime. To protect yourself you have a block and a simple evasive lurch.
But as alluded to before, this isn’t a fighter. In fact I’d be more tempted to compare Dragonball Z: Battle of Z to titles such as Virtual On, or Kid Icarus Uprising, in that it focuses more on movement around your opponent and the terrain, dodging their assaults while trying to best use your character’s strengths, than on the ability to pull off elaborate combo strings.
Goku, for example, has a solid melee string but a few serviceable projectiles, but his primary special attack moves him very close to an opponent. This spread of attacks informs you that he has a balanced play style that leans more on mid to close range. Comparatively speaking, Vegeta is described as a blast character, with an impressive suite of ranged attacks including his terrifying trademark Super Energy Wave Volley. Vegeta can do much more at range than his Saiyan cousin. Elsewhere the unfortunately named Trunks wields a sword and sports a number of special attacks that makes him a rush-down master, launching around the arena at shocking speeds and landing some vicious combo strings.
It’s to the game’s credit that the characters do feel genuinely different to play, despite the limited pool of techniques, and this means that the story missions aren’t quite as repetitive as they could have been. Sometimes the fights are a little easy – a four-on-one fight against Frieza wound up feeling a touch unfair on the girl-y voiced destroyer of words as me and three AI pinballed him around the planet – but I was stunned how well a CPU Android 19 was able to keep me and my mates at bay with pushback abilities and constant blast attacks.
And this diversity is only bolstered when Dragonball Z: Battle of Z is taken online. In a four-on-four fight it’s important to play your role, to communicate with allies, and to know who you should target and how to best function in your own role. Heck, you could be the team healer if you wanted! The free-for-all mode gets a little messy, granted, but as a team game Battle of Z’s fizzing, frenetic, and altogether rowdy representation of Dragonball Z is rather compelling.
It is only really worth playing in Score Mode mind, as this, like Kid Icarus, takes character choice and power level into consideration, whereas the basic battles don’t, effectively giving the more powerful characters a free win. Power level is decided by character and augmentation (you earn cards as you play, and equipping cards buffs your character beyond their basic power).
So on a pure gameplay level Dragonball Z: Battle of Z is solid, and it’s worth re-iterating that the game does a great job of nailing the terrifying power of the Dragonball Z cast, with characters crashing through scenery as another pair fight on the ground, and visually it’s a wonderful representation. That said there are a few things it fails to get right, at least for fans of the series.
Dragonball Z is known for the whole “super saiyan” thing, and the escalation of combat that goes with that, but Dragonball Z: Battle of Z doesn’t embrace this side of the series. You can play as the more powerful characters, but that’s a choice made pre-battle. You cannot, during battle, bulk up as Goku and make your hair blonde to combat ever rising power levels. If you choose basic Goku, you play as basic Goku for the whole fight. It’s not a mark against the game, really, but it does feel like Battle of Z is missing part of the Dragonball Z spirit.
Secondly, combos are painfully restrictive, to the point where logical, “cool” strings fail to register. If I pummel someone with Vegeta then yes, I want to follow that up with a barrage of energy bolts that drills them into the ground, but the game’s combo logic says that once a character is grounded they’re in an invulnerable state until they get up. It’s an example of game logic getting in the way of fun. Again, it’s not a mark against the design so much as voicing a disappointment when viewing the game within the context of the franchise. I would still perform the attack even when I knew it wasn’t dealing damage, just to feel powerful.
Finally, the levels feel short in terms of height. It doesn’t feel right that there are buildings in the city I can’t get over. An issue of designing such a visually busy game for PS3, 360 and Vita? Perhaps Battle of Z could realise its true grandeur on next gen…
But these are personal gripes and, as we saw in Dragonball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi, just blindly replicating the source material doesn’t necessarily make for a good game. Ultimate Tenkaichi went for pure flash and wound up with as much depth as a petri dish. Dragonball Z: Battle of Z isn’t quite as swish, but it’s a far more engaging game for it.
VERDICT: Battle of Z slims down on the fighter and bulks up on the teamwork, designing an interesting arena brawler in the process. Those not familiar with Dragonball Z will find the story invisible, but those with a soft spot for the classic series, and a few mates with which to team up and reminisce will find something far more creative and exciting than most recent games based on the franchise.
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.
Review code provided by publisher.