Dragon Ball FighterZ is a game for which I’ve been waiting many years. Since the Budokai Tenkaichi games, the go-to style for Dragon Ball games – and anime games in general – has been the 3D arena-style fighter those games popularised. It makes sense, and admittedly it emulates the show very honestly, but it nearly always lacks the depth of a more traditional fighting game. We’ve had a couple of 2D fighters come out under the Dragon Ball licence since then, but nothing that felt like THE DB release of the time, where stuff like Xenoverse receives some pretty heavy pushes. Dragon Ball FighterZ is finally an exception to these trends. This is a Marvel vs. Capcom style 3v3 fighter from Arc System Works, the team behind BlazBlue and Guilty Gear, who’ve worked on DBZ games in the past with Supersonic Warriors and Extreme Butoden. They’re highly regarded for a reason, and if anyone can craft a legitimately robust fighter around an anime, this is them.
FighterZ revolves around six buttons, a light, medium and heavy attack, a unique attack that for most characters equates to an energy attack, and an assist/tag in for each of the other team members. It’s a very comparable system to its most prominent contemporaries, though it errs on the side of simplicity a little more than most. Super Dash is a means to close the gap and zoom straight to opponents, Dragon Rush is equivalent to a throw, breaking enemy guards, and a Vanish expends some of your super meter to teleport behind the opposition. These are the things that characterise FighterZ and, for better or worse, create an identity separate to the pack. It doesn’t just feel like MvC or Street Fighter with Dragon Ball characters, and that’s great, even if it comes at a cost.
What results, at the best of times, are frantic, complicated battles that reward well-executed attacks, clever uses of assists and tag-ins and strategic spending of super meter. Using assists to extend combos, knocking an opponent out of the battle and forcing in a different member of their team you want to knock-out or simply tagging in an ally through the process of letting off multiple supers is so much fun, and it’s because you know that you earned it. In a fight with two opponents who are carefully making their moves and thoughtfully reacting to the enemy, FighterZ is an exemplary fighting game that’s rewarding to learn and so satisfying to grow in. Unfortunately, these fights aren’t the standard here.
DBF is a blatantly and purposefully accessible game. This is perhaps the game’s greatest strength as well as its most unavoidable weakness. The most central example of this is the auto combo system. Mashing light attack will lay down a lengthy chain of hits while mashing medium attack will do the same with some special moves incorporated. Executing combos this way does less damage than inputting the attacks yourself, which is great, but it doesn’t change the fact that any first-time player only needs to land one hit to have you stuck in a combo that drains a fairly significant portion of your health. It means that beginner play feels exciting and looks great, but it isn’t at all satisfying or, really, any fun.
As soon as you’re ready to dive in and learn some moves for yourself, the hump to get over feels massive. Probably the biggest culprit for this is the limited training and tutorial options, which tell you more than enough to be able to beat the story mode and some arcade runs, but don’t even hint at the deeper, nuanced and more interesting mechanics of the game. Each character has ten combo challenges to try out, theoretically teaching you some of the ways you can string their moves together. In reality, every character has a challenge for each auto combo, a special move, a super move – basic inputs. This means that only two, or sometimes three of the ten challenges are actual combos that require mastery and accurate inputs to pull off. This isn’t the extent of FighterZ depth, but it makes it feel as if it is, and keeps that elusive depth harder to dig in to.
The best way to learn the more involved side of DBF is to simply play other human opponents, but this is tough for a couple of reasons, too. If you match with another player who’s trying to grow their skills and rely on strategies outside of mashing, fights are just awesome. The tension when fighting an equally matched challenger is so high, and it’s just as exciting to see them do something cool as it is to do it yourself. On the other hand, matching with somebody who’s happy to rely solely on auto combos feels like a complete waste of time. It’s not that they’re too hard to combat, but it’s so annoying when they do get a hit in, and you’re locked into a full combo. Even in matches where I completely destroyed people playing this way, it’s just not fun to beat someone who isn’t even attempting to react to my movements, but just heading towards me and punching. This isn’t just a problem with the people playing but a problem with the game; it TELLS THEM to play this way.
The more across the board issue with multiplayer is that the matchmaking and lobby system, in general, are just not especially robust. Across testing wired and wireless connections with a few different networks, I’ve never gotten consistent matches that weren’t horrendously delayed. Ring Matches work well – these are privately hosted rooms within a lobby – but populating them is uncommon. The game will disconnect from the lobby server regularly, and the benefit of these lobbies feels nearly entirely worthless when weighed against the issues they seem to cause. Being able to wander around and select different modes in a 3D space rather than a menu as a fun unlockable avatar is cute, sure, but it feels like finding a game in different modes and scanning for a broader group of people would work a lot better without segregating players in such a way.
As well as a handful of online multiplayer options there are local versus and tournament modes, an arcade mode, and a story mode that tells an original narrative. The premise of the story exists solely to contextualise the fact that these characters are powered down to an even playing field and being controlled by us, the players. I honestly appreciate this approach in a lot of ways, but it comes off as pretty heavy-handed, and what unfolds often feel like excuses for fights more than plot points. The core of the story centred around original character Android 21 is pretty fun, even if it does feel like highly produced fan fiction, but the broader strokes are lame. You’re fighting mindless clones of every character in the game. Many, many, many times.
Where the story shines most are in the unique interactions between characters that are contextual to who’s on your team and who you pit them against. Tien telling Goku that he’s less of a Grandfather to his Granddaughter than Piccolo is, or hearing Gotenks consider what to refer to Vegeta as, given he’s the father of half of “them” is great, entertaining stuff. The problem is that having these things constantly thrown at you as cutscenes and not giving you anything to do during, means that most of them get to be annoying and feel like a waste of time. They’re certainly not bad at all, it’s just hard to care when there are so many, and the story becomes such a drag in its own right.
There are three separate arcs to the narrative, each one unlocking after beating the last. These are essentially different perspectives on the story, which is a really fun approach given its branching nature, except that each scenario ends up unravelling completely differently anyway, so a lot of it feels like playing the same thing with some characters swapped around. The narrative feels like it drags on forever because the story mode itself does. It plays out similarly to Budokai 2, with your team being represented as a piece on a map, like a board game. You move one space at a time, land on opponents to battle, and defeat the boss to move on to the next map. Collecting characters for your team and earning stat boosts to apply is a great way to make this feel like more than a list of chores, but the benefit and novelty of these things wear off pretty early in the first of three arcs. When it’s all said and done, the mode feels like 10% substance – and pretty fun stuff – and 90% filler.
I need to talk about the way FighterZ is presented. It’s been no secret that this is an excellent looking game and an incredibly faithful reflection of Toriyama’s art. It is, without a doubt, the best-looking Dragon Ball game there is, and it deserves all of the commendations it’s receiving. This is a creative accomplishment in art, not just a new plateau of technology or a fruit of extensive labour – though those are important components too, I’m sure. Dragon Ball has always looked gross in 3D. Always. All the way up to Xenoverse 2, everyone looks shiny, rigid and stocky. DBF, instead, doesn’t try to show us Dragon Ball in three dimensions, but cleverly plays with perspective to try and show us two. Arc System Works are known for this style at this point, but the accuracy of this representation, bolstered by their commitment to truthfully reflecting details of the source material, is an undeniable monument to their brilliant artistry.
The music’s good throughout, very much in line with the sounds of Dragon Ball video games, the voice acting is great from both the English and Japanese casts, and the blasts, beatings and slices all sound true to their origin and equally cool. I’m not a fan, though, of the UI and menu stuff here. Everything’s a little messy, and it’s not like stuff’s hard to find, but it’s a little annoying to get to. It’s all pretty sterile and clean, and where the game does inject personality, it goes for the cool, edgy style and not the fun, exciting style Dragon Ball truly represents. The title of the game alone sort of feels the same way to me, especially presented in the violent paint strokes the game prefers. It’s not a big deal by any account, but given the astounding visuals of the gameplay itself, it sucks that this stuff doesn’t have the charm or whimsy as something like Budokai 3.
I want to be clear that Dragon Ball FighterZ, at its core, is a great game that does so much right by Dragon Ball. At the best of times, this is essentially a perfect DB fighter. Outplaying an opponent in such a rapid, intense exchange is extremely rewarding and learning to best different techniques and approaches is a fulfilling process. It’s just a shame that these moments feel like as much work to reach as they do. If you want a basic, button mashing fighter that looks really cool, FighterZ is a great pick, but if you want a deep and engaging combat system, then prepare to dig through the former to get to the latter. An annoying lobby system and meandering story keep DBF from feeling like a wonderful package across the board, but the beautiful, faithful art and animation alone is worthy of much praise. Dragon Ball FighterZ is successful as a traditional fighting game in the world of Dragon Ball, even if it places more than a few hurdles in its own path.