Release Date: January 26, 2018
Platform: PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One, PC
Developers: Arc System Works
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Capcom made a beautiful thing back in 1994. Riding high on Street Fighter II’s success, the company took the Marvel license and made a fighting game out of X-Men. X-Men: Children of the Atom could have easily just been “Street Fighter II with X-Men,” but Capcom chose to really go the extra mile and make a game worthy of the property. It was colorful, fireballs were replaced with energy beams, characters could jump so high that they were practically flying, and so on. It’s a marriage of styles that NetherRealm has never quite mastered with the Injustice games.
Arc System Works’ Dragon Ball FighterZ is a second coming. Not only does it bring back the chaotic three-on-three style that Capcom shied away from with Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite, but it’s another instance of a tried and true formula melding perfectly with the style of the beloved franchise it’s adapting. I absolutely love ASW’s Guilty Gear games, and the Xrd entries in the series have been underrated products of the fighting game revival, so I would have been completely fine with a game that was just “Guilty Gear with Dragon Ball Z.” Again, ASW went the distance and created a wonderful hybrid.
Dragon Ball Z has a very specific style to its fights. Characters will unleash flurries of punches and kicks in repeated animation. Fireballs and beams are as plentiful as jabs. Everyone tackles into each other while covered in an energy aura. Dash-teleporting behind opponents before smashing them is a thing. It’s a regular habit to just stand in place while intensely screaming and glowing. There are so many specific things in the manga/anime that you have to check off, and they all land here.
The template is the classic Marvel vs. Capcom 3, making it a three-on-three tag-team battle with all the usual quirks. You can bring in assists, tag out via supers, and the X-Factor ability is more or less reimagined as Spark. You have four attack buttons, which include light attack, medium attack, and strong attack, as well as a projectile button. The projectile button can not only fire fireballs (including rapid-fire), but you can use it to make beam attacks or even deflect oncoming projectiles.
Deflecting also leads to the environment getting destroyed, which is one of the many nice touches sprinkled throughout the game that gives it the right Dragon Ball feel. Defeating opponents with certain attacks can knock them into the distance and cause them to shatter buildings and volcanoes. The supers are as over-the-top as you can get. Finishing off your enemies with certain ones will reveal how massive and damaging the energy blasts truly are. Then there’s the hilarity of Tien’s level three super where his little buddy Chaozu pops in and reenacts Dragon Ball history by latching onto the opponent and blowing himself up, as Tien looks on in defeated horror.
Speaking of reenacting Dragon Ball history, there are also a handful of special finishes that unlock epic cutscenes taken straight from the animated series. Having the right character defeat the right opponent to end the match in the right environment with a strong attack can cause the game to reenact, say, Goku vaporizing Frieza or Gohan destroying Cell – including the awkward death faces!
This wouldn’t be nearly as effective if not for the beautiful art and music direction that Arc System Works perfected with its last few Guilty Gear games. The cell-shading animation is completely on-point, definitely 3D in creation but looking very 2D in action. Cutscenes and in-game action look very much like extremely polished versions of the cartoon. The use of the series’ voice actors (both Japanese and English available) only adds to this authenticity. Dragon Ball FighterZ is as on-brand as you can get.
Rather than a simple menu, the game starts you off in an overworld hub. As a chibi DBZ character, you run around a tiny map that allows you to pick what mode you want to play, but you can also interact with other players to set up online battles. The game also uses quests, in-game currency, and loot boxes to help you alter your hub avatar. It doesn’t have any bearing on the meat of the game and it does nothing for me, but I’m not going to hate on the game for trying since it doesn’t do much to hurt the experience.
Outside of the usual versus and training stuff, you have the Arcade Mode and Story Mode. Arcade Mode doesn’t have any cutscenes or endings to mess around with, but it has an interesting setup original enough to keep your attention. With different options to play with, you have a board of branching paths. Your goal is to make your way higher and higher up the board, but that only happens depending on how well your in-game performance is. If you finish off the opposing CPU team and get an S rank, you keep moving upwards to harder opponents worth more points. If you win, but get a C rank, you’re going to be moving downward.
Story Mode is a mixed bag, but it hits a bit more than it misses. It’s divided into three parts, which tell the same story from different perspectives (heroes, villains, androids). The video game aspects are explained via a plot where all the fighters are weakened by some force and the player’s very soul is able to possess and control them in battle. The fighters get stronger over time via RPG-lite elements.
The plot is about a new character named Android 21, a genetic mix of an android and Majin Buu, who wants to devour all of the most powerful warriors on Earth. There are also a bunch of mindless clones of various heroes and villains causing trouble around the planet, and even major foes like Cell, Frieza, and Nappa show up.
Each chapter of Story Mode has a board on which players have twenty turns to get to the next chapter. They have to reach and defeat the chapter’s boss within those turns, but they also get to use those extra turns to fight the evil clone opponents. Doing so will increase your stats, allow you to play tutorials, and even save side characters to add to your team. While rescuing Krillin and Piccolo are part of the plot itself, you have the option of rescuing the likes of Yamcha and Gohan.
Story Mode mostly lacks challenge and can be incredibly repetitive. That said, when it isn’t having character #294 get caught up to the story, the cutscenes and overall arc can be pretty damn fun. It’s also here that we get one of the biggest love letters to Dragon Ball Z of all.
See, the random clone fights also unlock cutscenes based on your team and who you’re fighting. There are tons of these based on different combinations and many of them are absolute gold. Having Piccolo and Yamcha team up will be preceded with them bickering (“Now I see why Bulma chose Vegeta”). Frieza will make fun of his teammate Nappa for being unable to turn Super Saiyan. Goku and Tien will ignore the looming Piccolo clone to instead discuss how great a babysitter the real Piccolo is.
I’m not even a huge Dragon Ball Z fan. I stopped watching shortly after the Frieza Saga and only understand most of the references through geek osmosis. Even I think this stuff is phenomenal.
Speaking of awesome uses of the license, the game’s engine implements the ability to summon Shenron mid-match. When either team hits a combo, a Dragon Ball appears on a meter. When all seven are there and one player has seven full super bars, hitting another combo will bring Shenron to life. You can either revive a fallen partner (with minor health), bring your active fighter to full health, give your team quick healing, or give your team a second Spark.
It’s hard to say if the Shenron summon will be a neat novelty or a big part of gamer strategies in the time to come, but I feel that there will definitely be a time to come with this game. It’s so well put-together that I see it having a lasting life in the fighting game community. By taking the foundation of Marvel vs. Capcom 3, having it rebuilt by the company behind Guilty Gear Xrd, and absolutely embracing Dragon Ball Z into its genetics, we’re given a perfect new entry in the fighting game genre.
Gavin Jasper wishes a badly animated Scrooge McDuck was DLC for this game. Surely, someone out there gets that reference. Follow Gavin on Twitter!