I’m sure that by now we’re all at least dimly aware of the Dragon Ball phenomenon, but for those of you who have somehow missed it – perhaps the rock you’ve been under for the last few years lacks broadband, or you’ve a severe blind spot for enormous spiky hair and melodramatic dialogue – Dragon Ball Z is an anime series in which children collect creatures named Pokémon which they pit against one another in bat–
Stop, rewind. Sorry about that. Dragon Ball Z is in fact the second anime series in the Dragon Ball saga, which began in the late 80s with the original Dragon Ball. DBZ is a follow up set a bit further down the line. The basic plot involves a bunch of really, really hard fighters defending the Earth from alien invaders, a task which involves a copious amount of punching and, occasionally, some spectacular visual effects.
I’m not familiar with any of the Dragon Ball animes beyond the absolute basics, picked up from friends who are fans. Fortunately I think this is a good way to approach this review, since fans of the series are likely to be familiar with the associated games and will know what to expect. This review is for the rest of us: gamers who wonder how much play there is to be had in Dragon Ball Z: Burst Limit.
At the core of the game is a slick and streamlined beat ‘em up fighting engine. As with most contemporary fighters it’s dual 2D/3D, with the bulk of combat occurring on a 2D plane but allowing additional dodging and manoeuvring around that. The trick to the game is stringing together basic combos that delay your opponent long enough that you can unleash a more powerful special move. It’s a formula about as old as beat ‘em ups themselves. Burst Limit also boasts more varied blocks, dodges and counters than most beat ‘em ups – albeit tying them all to one button and demanding split-second timing – and by the looks of the cutscenes it’s quite possible for two highly skilled players to trade blows for some time, each dodging the other’s attacks with well-timed taps. In fact much of the game comes down to timing and I’ve found this occasionally tricky to pull off, though no doubt beat ‘em up or series veterans will find this a lot more intuitive and fluid.
Still, the fighting at the core of the game is solid, managing to balance accessible controls with a challenging and fun system of moves and abilities. On top of this simple foundation are some entertaining additions, such as Drama Pieces. To produce a Drama Piece certain conditions must be fulfilled – your character losing half his health, for example, or being struck with a certain chain of attacks. The fight will then be interrupted by a quick cutscene which demonstrates a dramatic change in the current of the fight – a fighter’s partner might fling him a healing Senzu Bean or strike an unsuspecting opponent –after which combat will resume. The cutscenes are slightly disruptive but they’re also fun and over in seconds, so I’ve not yet resented their inclusion.
Outside this core of delicious nougat, however, things get a little… flaky. The single player campaigns are a string of levels that very loosely mirror events in seasons of the anime, although based on the game’s cutscenes newcomers will be hard-pressed to figure out what’s going on. There are quite a few of these campaign matches and they can be beaten at multiple difficulty levels, for each of which the player’s effort is graded, so there’s an impulsive self-improving replayability to them. This aside there’s no real sense of drama or meaning in the fights unless – I imagine – you’ve seen the anime. The game doesn’t offer any context for your battles outside the fights, either. Compared to something like last year’s Naruto: Rise of a Ninja with its 3D platforming components, lush environments and strong plot (complete with key scenes from the anime slotted in), it’s something of a disappointment. Indeed, beyond the basic single player campaign and the multiplayer modes, there’s very little to do in Burst Limit.
In its favour the game is as gorgeous as you’d expect. The cel-shaded graphics are well-drawn, fitting the anime style very well, and the character designs are excellent. The combat audio is exactly what you need, full of subtle audio cues assisting in deciding your timing. The Japanese voice acting is good (as are the subtitles) though I can’t vouch for the English voice acting as I turned that off right away. Oh, and I imagine that to some players the multiplayer over Xbox Live will be a big draw. You’re as limited in terms of game modes as elsewhere in the game, but you can choose between casual and ranked battles and utilise all of your unlocks from the single-player game. It’s good fun playing online against a stranger, even if – like me – you get your spiky-haired melodramatic arse handed to you almost every time.
Still, despite enjoying the game my recommendation is tentative. If you’re a fan of the anime and enjoy beat ‘em ups, or have played and liked previous Dragon Ball games, it’s worth checking out – despite the unfavourable comparisons with Naruto this game can still provide plenty of entertainment. If, however, you’re looking for a beat-‘em-up with a bit more substance to it than a fluid fighting engine, you’re better off looking elsewhere.