Disclosure ‐ A copy of Dragon Ball FighterZ was provided by Bandai Namco for the purpose of this review.
Since the franchise’s inception, more than fifty Video games have been released under the Dragon Ball license, and FighterZ blows them all out of the water. Where previous games were fun because they gave you the ability to fool around in a beloved universe, FighterZ is a fantastic game in its own right, standing toe-to-toe with the best the genre has to offer.
Developer Arc System Works have been consistently pushing out Guilty Gear and Blazblue titles over the last couple decades, earning a reputation for creating quality “anime-style” fighting games. Yet, they’ve never been able to break out of that niche market. Dragon Ball’s wide appeal and global brand recognition was exactly what Arc System needed to reach a new audience.
Chronologically, the three “arcs” (think episodes) that make up the story mode in FighterZ take place after the events of the TV series: Dragon Ball Super. Although, as someone unfamiliar with the new show, I found I was still able to keep up with the events in-game reasonably well. While the original narrative featuring Android 21 was interesting, I enjoyed the dynamic “Special Events” quite a bit more.
The story mode takes place on a game board, wherein your objective is simply to reach the next cutscene, usually denoted by a boss battle. Moving around the board, players encounter numerous battles against “clones” of beloved characters, as well as the opportunity to recruit additional party members. Upon confronting an enemy, there’s a chance a small cutscene will play out; a “Special Event” triggered when specific characters are teamed up. For example: having Gohan, and Piccolo on the same team will trigger an animated scene where the two reminisce on their training back in Dragon Ball Z. Similarly, taking one hero into battle against their clone will often yield some humorous dialogue. It’s a fun way to encourage replays of certain maps, or shake up team composition.
In fact, diversifying your team in Dragon Ball FighterZ isn’t only encouraged, but often necessary. Health isn’t automatically refilled after each battle, rather, depending on the score you earn, a small amount may be recovered; it makes every hit you receive critical, and incorporates an unexpected level of strategy. If you happen to struggle with the difficulty, equippable skills gained from battle will grant certain buffs, like Attack Power Up or increase HP earned after a fight. Role Playing elements aren’t anything new to Dragon Ball, but they do add a different feeling of progression across the roughly 15-20 hour story mode.
What astounds me, however, is that the story mode lacks an autosave feature. In fact, the only way to save your story progress is to use the save and quit option tucked away in a menu. It may seem like a small gripe, but it ended up costing me hours of progress.
Upon starting up Dragon Ball FighterZ, the player is automatically thrown into an online lobby in the game’s hub world, free to approach all the modes the game has to offer. It’s a little daunting, because even without the substantial campaign, the three arcade courses and large selection of tutorials is enough to keep single-player oriented players busy for a long time. In terms of multiplayer, FighterZ features all the standard casual, ranked and tournament gameplay you’d expect from a modern fighter. Every match I played was extremely smooth as well, always matching me up with players of similar skill and ping.
On the other hand, what wasn’t great was the connection when I was wandering around the game’s small online hub. It wasn’t too frequent, but it was frustrating to be disconnected when I was trying to start a local match. There is an option to boot into an offline hub, though it was kinda sad to see how barren it became without other players.
Tying the different modes together and serving as the single means of progression is Zeni, obtained for completing literally any battle. The only use for the currency is to exchange them for capsules, essentially this game’s loot box equivalent. All currency is earned in-game, and the rewards are purely aesthetic, ranging from palette swaps to additional chibi characters for navigating the hub.
The gameplay of Dragon Ball FighterZ consists of 3v3 tag team battles on a 2D plane, similar to that of Marvel Vs. Capcom. Each character’s moveset is comprised of Light, Medium, Heavy and Special attacks that can be combined with a quarter circle motion to perform a variety of moves. Powering those moves is the Ki gauge, that can be filled through battle or hitting the special+light buttons at the same time to trigger one of those classic Dragon Ball Z power up animations.
Expanding the movement options is a flying dash, executed by the Right Trigger, and the “Dragon Rush” performed by pressing the Right Shoulder button. The Dragon Rush is an attack unique to FighterZ that causes your fighter to immediately run towards an enemy within radius, breaking their guard and performing a combo that can be followed up by forcing them to tag out with a teammate. It’s a unique ability to have in a fighting game, and when combined with Vanish –the iconic teleporting move that instantly places you behind an opponent –keeps matches moving at a fast pace.
Moreover, a welcomed addition for newcomers is the auto combo. It gives novices an opportunity to pull off the crazy moves and combos the series is known for, even if a quarter circle is too much to pick up on. Not to mention all the attacks are rather simple to discern from one another, which makes it quite easy to figure out how to perform them after some practice.
The titular Dragon Balls that appear in battle further supplement the combat, as every light auto-combo performed grants you a random Dragon Ball. That’s not the only way to gather them, however, as performing a combo between 10-19 hits will grant the 1-star ball, 20-29 the 2-star, and so on. Collect all seven and the dragon Shenron will grant you one of four wishes: Restore full health for a single character, revive ally with 50% health, fill Ki gauge to max, and “make me immortal” which restores 50% of health and allows Ki gauge to automatically regenerate.
While I find the encouragement to abuse the light auto-combo a pretty awful idea, it’s a tactic so easily countered, that I doubt it will be a problem for most players. The Dragon Balls themselves are an exciting mechanic though, even if it rarely occurs, I appreciate the developers being so dedicated to the concept that they didn’t even include an option to turn off their appearance.
It’s something that has been beaten to death since the game’s initial reveal, but FighterZ stunningly replicates the art style of the Dragon Ball anime. From the arenas each battle takes place in, to the cell shading used on the character models, it truly feels like the closest we’ve ever been to participating in the show.
Furthermore, the soundtrack feels ripped straight from the anime. Its only failure is when tracks occasionally fail to loop, I’d find myself fighting in silence, with only the grunts and screams from the cast to keep me company. Both the original Japanese and English voices are able to be selected. Indeed, as I’ve only ever watched the show in English, I decided on that option, but found some of the characters’ performances a little lacking in their delivery. Though the option for Japanese audio is there to mitigate the issue, I can’t help but feel that for a game with the Western appeal of Dragon Ball, subpar voice acting is disappointing.
Dragon Ball FighterZ is a fantastic example of a licensed game that pays tribute to the source, whilst also being an incredible title in its own right. If you’re a Dragon Ball fan but not huge on fighting games, I implore you, play FighterZ for the character interactions. If you enjoy playing fighting games but aren’t familiar with Dragon Ball, play FighterZ for the tight gameplay and stunning battles.