This article previously appeared on Crossfader
I’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who has no idea what the hell Dragon Ball Z is these days. Having nearly 30 years of material under its belt and touted as one of the biggest transnational phenomena to ever cross over to the States, this cultural icon has amassed legions of fervorous followers over the years and is still going strong to this day. Like many fans, my unabashed adoration for this series holds especially true when it comes to DBZ-branded fighting games. Despite some egregious missteps in the past, games based on Akira Toriyama’s astronomically enormous anime franchise have enjoyed continued success over the years. Even more important, those games have stayed pretty consistent in delivering the type of fodder fighting fans enjoy. It doesn’t require too much brainpower to figure out what key elements are a requirement when it comes to anything DRAGON BALL Z: explosive combat, over-the-top characters, a laughably bad narrative, good humor, and a massive amount of fanservice.
We’ll touch more on that later
So what happens when Arc System Works, the creative team behind other bombastic fighting series like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue, manages to get a hold of this series’s license? You get something goddamn beautiful, that’s what. DRAGON BALL FIGHTERZ takes all the raw potential of previous DBZ games before it and gives it the contemporary FGC makeover, giving both long-time fans of the series and fighting game regulars something to love.
The game has all your standard features for a modern FGC, the main attraction obviously being its multiplayer duels, with the obligatory single player offerings like an Arcade Mode to test your mettle and a Story Mode thrown in for spice. Given the team’s track record with handling other big-name anime licenses, Arc System Works has no problem showing off their game design expertise here and improving on their formula. FIGHTERZ’ combat framework utilizes a system similar to Marvel vs. Capcom, allowing players to construct a team of up to three characters that they can switch between on the fly. Each of the playable characters function roughly the same mechanically in terms of control and combo input, which definitely helps to keep the flow of combat and using of different characters in FIGHTERZ very intuitive. Adding to that accessibility is a very simple, beginner-friendly mapping system for all moves in place of the complicated inputs that are standard in other FGC fodder, graciously allowing even novices like myself to pick it up quickly.
Despite opting for simplicity, each of FIGHTERZ’ combatants also comes equipped with their own set of unique playstyles, abilities, and fun little callbacks to the source material, which in turn help to diversify the cast’s “character.” For example, if the player decides to play as the flamboyant Captain Ginyu, all of his energy-related moves will use members of the Ginyu Force to attack for him, or if you play as Nappa, you can plant Saibamen that keep your opponent distracted and attack on their own. What’s more, each of the game’s playable characters synergize exceptionally well within any constructed team, and regardless of which characters are included, manage to balance themselves out. There’s no combination of fighters that feels explicitly “overpowered” or “unfair,” and considering the team-building theme of this brawler, that’s an accomplishment that should be lauded.
That’s not accounting for style, though. These guys are off the charts
Unlike other DBZ titles over the years that boasted absolutely massive collections of characters, ASW makes the wise move of culling its fighter roster to a more manageable 24 (at least for the time being). This severe downsizing is ultimately for the best; one of the more disappointing aspects of having those massive rosters of previous entries was that the majority of fighters ended up blending together into a homogenous mess with no real distinctions besides appearance. Here, the more limited roster gave the developers ample room to flesh out each combatant’s mechanics, in turn giving each character their chance to shine as their own unique fighter.
One minor gripe I have with the roster is regarding some of the choices made for who fills it out. That is to say, in a game that has already limited its character count substantially from the veritable hundreds in the DBZ universe, does there really need to be three versions of Goku to play as, or two Vegetas? There are a number of fan favorites that could have been added to the roster in their stead, with playstyles that practically write themselves. There could have been the hulking powerhouse Broly stomping around as a heavy-hitter, or the laughably pathetic Mr. Satan flailing helplessly and lobbing grenades. I’m not saying that the other versions of these characters don’t function differently or don’t bring distinct strengths and synergies to the table; it’s just a little disheartening that while some real contenders were hung out to dry, ASW thought that players would enjoy making a choice between Vegeta with Blue Hair or Vegeta with Gold Hair.
The gold really accents the crotch kick, so . . .
On the technical side, FIGHTERZ really shines in attaining that coveted DBZ aesthetic, more so than any game before it. The developers know full well that the main audience for this game are fans of the show first and FGC enthusiasts second. As such, FIGHTERZ spares no expense when it comes to giving its target audience plenty to gawk at. The art direction and cel shaded animation used here are immaculate, capturing the visual style of both the anime and especially the manga to a T. Every frame of animation, be it throwing a punch or performing a flashy energy attack, is absolute eye candy, and so picture-perfect that it feels like it was ripped straight from the manga. With so much emphasis on the visual presentation, it’d be more than fair to assume that the story ends up getting the shaft, and you better bet that it does (this is a fighting game, after all). However, the way the narrative of the game unfolds and how these fan-favorite characters interact within such a hammy plot is so undoubtedly “Dragon Ball Z,” it more than makes up for the lack of nuance.
Like discussing the finer points of robot marriage
Much stronger than the plot is DBZ’s flavor of humor, intentional and otherwise, which is felt all across the game. Many of the group combinations you construct will elicit random conversations between your team’s members before matches, performed by the anime’s original voice cast to very entertaining effect. Other games pandering to fan whims, such as INJUSTICE 2, have toyed with this idea to a minor extent, but it’s nowhere near the level FIGHTERZ pushes it. Most of these exchanges last well over a minute the first time you see them, and only get funnier the more you experiment with the characters. Ever wanted to see Nappa throw a hissy fit because two seven-year-olds can go Super Saiyan and he can’t? You can now.
But what really drives the fanservice concept home is that under certain conditions, the player is able to pull off what’s called a “Dramatic Finish” and recreate iconic scenes from the series in striking detail. These can include triggering arena transitions by blowing up the planet, or playing out events such as killing off Frieza when you defeat him as Goku, down to perfectly replicating the goofy expressions straight from the page. It’s these little nods, as well as the abundant “What-If?” scenarios, that really gives FIGHTERZ the extra edge over its predecessors.
Ultimately, DRAGON BALL FIGHTERZ ends up being an enjoyable addition to any fighting game catalog, and an absolute delight for fans of the series. The amount of care for the DBZ brand is more than apparent, and the game’s brilliant presentation through its explosive visuals and writing charm definitely helps to place FIGHTERZ at the top of the “Best DBZ game” totem pole. In addition, Arc System Works’ finesse with the genre only heightens the game’s accessibility and enjoyability, cementing this game as a stand-out hit, if not the strongest fighting game they’ve ever produced. Do yourself a favor and pick it up.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4