Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, the latest anime-inspired game to be published by Bandai Namco, launched last week. The game is a retelling of some of Dragon Ball Z‘s most iconic storylines, with the developers at CyberConnect2 remixing the much-loved anime series into an action RPG. The game is far from perfect, but it is a great example of how well an anime-watching experience can be translated into a video game.
If you were hoping for a free-roaming open-world experience, this isn’t quite it. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot does have a few sizeable hub worlds, and you can often fly around exploring them, but there is a fair bit of fast-traveling involved and a sense that you can sometimes only go where the game wants you to go. But the visual style sticks faithfully to the source material, and it’s easy to imagine fans enjoying this chance to immerse themselves in this familiar world.
If you want to make serious headway through the 40-hour story, you’ll have to get used to some fairly repetitive battling mechanics. Although your point-of-view character changes quite regularly, with players switching between classic heroes (like Goku and Gohan) and face-turning villains (like Piccolo and Vegeta), the structure of the fights is pretty much always the same. In a similar way to last year’s Jump Force, you’re normally either furiously hammering the dodge button or trying to squeeze in a quick “Kamehameha” before your opponent powers up again. The game can feel like a bit of slog, but that doesn’t mean the core idea of adapting Dragon Ball Z into an RPG doesn’t have its merits.
One positive thing about this game that really stands out is its structure, which proves that the overarching storytelling style of an action-RPG is very well suited to telling an anime-inspired narrative. Of course, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot isn’t the first or the last game to base itself on a pre-existing Japanese animated series, but it’s still a strong reminder of what can be done with this particular blend of pop-culture benchmarks.
After all, there’s a lot of crossover in the structure of an anime and the structure of an action-RPG: every now and then you reach a massive plot event, but there are also smaller stories and more personal moments that happen in between the major stuff. You get a bit of both when you binge-watch an anime, just as you do if you sink a few hours into an RPG (especially one where you care enough to engage in the side-plots).
After some tutorial stuff, Kakarot begins to show you its winning structure: the main story kicks off with a retelling of the Saiyan Saga, chronicling Goku’s first brutal conflict with Vegeta, but then the game transitions into an “intermission” where the player can undertake a series of more personal quests while playing as Gohan. You can choose to explore the world and pick up every side mission if you fancy experiencing some of the more chilled-out content, or you can rush ahead to the next main mission, which introduces Frieza and his gang for another series of massive battles.
These intermissions, which are dotted throughout the game, provide you with time to train up your characters, search for new swag, hunt for food, interact with NPCs, and perhaps even cook up a tasty meal with your mother. It’s wholesome stuff, and some of the most enjoyable content in the game. And, as a nice touch, each side quest you pick up comes with a full-screen title card (as do the main story events), which hammers home the feeling that you’re bingeing through a series of episodes just like you would with the anime. Title cards may not sound like much, but they help capture that spirit of watching an anime, which makes Kakarot feel like a strong adaptation – not just of the franchise itself, but also of the experience of watching it.
The problem is that it’s not just the main battles that get repetitive. The side quests do as well, with a huge focus put on old-hat “go and fetch something” quests and dull “fight a few robots” missions. Sometimes you’ll fetch something and fight some robots in the same side-quest, just to mix it up.
The only thing that keeps the side quests interesting is the fact that you get to interact with some slightly more obscure characters from the Dragon Ball lore, which could be quite pleasing to long-term fans of the franchise. Much like watching a less-earth-shattering episode of an anime, these quieter moments in the game provide your opportunities to learn a little more about the world you’re in and the people that inhabit it (and the things they need you to fetch.) It’s just that, in an anime, these side-bits may well feel like less of a chore. This is where we’d be learning to love the characters and their quirks, not just running around completing arduous tasks for them.
Sadly, it’s all too easy to imagine how much better the game could be if the experiences it offers were a bit more varied. It feels like binge-watching an anime, which is great, but with more meaningless battles and fetch quests than even the least imaginative anime writers would come up with. The fact that the structure itself is sound almost makes it worse – if there was more to do, it could be really fun to pick up a load of side quests during the “intermission” and then gear up for the next big story even when you’re done.
It’s hard to get excited about a night on the sofa with Kakarot when you could just watch the anime instead and not have to bother with all the fluff. We wouldn’t mind seeing some other Japanese franchises trying their hand at an action-RPG game with a similar structure (retelling some of the classic Pokémon anime storylines using this method could be amazing, for instance), just so long as they bring a bit more variety to the table.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is out now on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.