Dragon Ball Xenoverse takes some big steps in evolving the formula of Dragon Ball video games. Focusing on an original story (to some extent), allowing character creation and customisation, and revolving around RPG systems – Xenoverse is the biggest change to DB games since Budokai Tenkaichi. Being a huge DB fan, this all sounded super exciting to me. For all the great ideas Xenoverse brings to the table though, there aren’t too many it gets just right.
I’ve played through the same DBZ story dozens of times by now, so anything original gets me interested right off the bat. Xenoverse’s premise itself is really clever, too. As your created character, you’re summoned by Shenron to assist Trunks. Not main timeline Trunks, but Future Trunks, some time after he returned to his own time. If you’re a DBZ fan, that probably sounds awesome to you, and it is. If you’re not a DBZ fan, that probably means nothing to you. That stays true for the rest of the narrative. You’ll be travelling through time, correcting the course of history, and reversing the effects of a mysterious force altering the timeline. If you know these stories, you’ll appreciate the way they play with your expectations and change pivotal battles in interesting ways. If you don’t know these stories, I can’t see this being entertaining to you. From a narrative perspective, this one’s for fans and that’s about it. If you aren’t familiar with DBZ, you won’t get it.
So the narrative concept is great, but much like most DBZ games, the writing is pretty silly. I don’t mean silly like the anime, I mean silly as if it were told by a child. I felt the same way about Battle of Z. The cadence with which everyone speaks and the lame remarks they constantly make isn’t uncharacteristic for the source material, but extremely exaggerated. Multiple cutscenes end with a pan up to the sky while all characters laugh, and never after any kind of joke. I almost felt like it was trying to parody anime conventions a lot of the time. Maybe it’s a localization thing, but I wish they’d get passed this in Dragon Ball games, after all these years.
Xenoverse fuses and alters the 3D fighting mechanics of games like Battle of Z or Raging Blast with online RPG features, most comparable to Destiny. Fights range from 1v1 battles up to 3v3 or any combination in between. In certain missions, extra companions or enemies will join in, sometimes bringing the tally up to seven or eight fighters at once. Flying around an open space, it’s your job to lock-on to and beat down any who stand in your way.
This game’s control scheme might be my favourite of any DBZ game yet. Super attacks and ultimate moves are mapped to the face buttons while holding the right combination of triggers. You can assign and easily use energy beams, rush combos, transformations or even energy charging abilities, based on your preference. This is absolutely perfect for a DBZ game. There’s plenty of room for your characters to utilise all the techniques you want them to, and that’s awesome.
What isn’t awesome is the lacking combo system. There are only a handful of combos to pull off, and from there it’s up to the player to link these together with the use of supers, jumps and teleports. I love it when games employ this kind of system, but, in this case, it isn’t as cool as it sounds. The same goes for defending. When I describe being able to block, parry, teleport out of a combo or use an evasive attack, it sounds like a robust system. It isn’t. Combat gets very repetitive very fast. All the ideas at use here are great on paper, they just don’t play like they sound, especially as the number of opponents increases.
In fact, the game falls apart when opposing teams differ in size. If you’re on your own up against three guys, you’re not going to have fun. If they’re all especially weak it’s fine, but by design, you can not attack or defend against multiple enemies at once. If you want to attack one person, you’re open to attack from all others. If you want to defend against a sudden attack, you’ll need to scroll through lock on targets impossibly quickly. Eventually, these missions felt more like a gamble than a test of skill, having me hoping the AI wouldn’t use cheap moves on me. If you’re up against a few characters with Kamehameha type energy beams, you’re screwed. Once you’re hit by one, you’re vulnerable to be hit by another. You can be kept completely indefensible in a sea of energy from rotating sources until death. When you can be stuck in a ‘combo’ of attacks for an entire match without any chance of escape, your ‘fighting’ game has problems.
I compared Xenoverse to Destiny earlier. This comparison is very clear when in TokiToki City; DBX’s main hub. Before you even get there though, you’ll create your character. You can create a Human, Saiyan, Namekian, Majin, or “Frieza Race”. The creation options aren’t too in-depth, but there’s enough here to create something you’ll be happy with. Each race has some minor advantages and disadvantages, and will only be able to wear certain gear, but the choice is mostly cosmetic. The only real shortcoming here is the ability to create only one character until completing the game. Once I finished, I made one of each race and gender, but when I jumped in back at Level 1, I didn’t feel a need to grind my way back up.
There’s no menu to choose your game mode or any other arcade-like conventions DB games normally apply. Everything takes place in TokiToki; shopping for gear and items, online interactions, and setting up any type of battle. The main story is told through Time Patrol Quests. There aren’t too many of these, but they’ll still take you a while to get through. This is because of constant difficulty spikes requiring you to build your character elsewhere before continuing. As you level up, your character improves in regards to attributes of your choice. These upgrades, as well as using better gear and items, is the way to get over these hard bits.
This is where Parallel Quests come in handy. These are considered side quests, but are really just pre-set battles with predetermined rewards. A few of these will task you with collecting Dragon Balls within a battle, but the rest are just regular fights. You can win gear, skills and items for your victories in these missions, but only according to luck. Each mission has a list of possible rewards that is awarded (as far as I can tell from a bunch of googling) completely by chance – possibly with better odds depending on your performance. If you want that Great Saiyaman outfit, you’ll probably have to play that mission well over a dozen times. It’s a cheap way to add longevity to the game, and it was hugely disappointing. I would have happily replayed missions to do better or fulfil certain conditions if I had been given them. I’m not going to redo every one of them over and over just for a chance at something cool. Pair these flawed systems with the repetitive gameplay, and Parallel Quests end up being little less than a grind. Missions just don’t make sense either. Why are “Gohan (Teen)” and “Gohan (Kid)” standing in the same room asking me for help with different fights that already happened?
It’s a good thing you can buy other gear from shops then. Or so you’d think. Most of the interesting and useful gear is only available from grinding Parallel Quests, but there’s some stuff to be bought too. Annoyingly, purchasable gear becomes available very infrequently. My favourite thing about RPGs is gradually developing a character as I play. In Xenoverse, I’d buy a full set of gear as soon as I unlocked it, and that’d be it for hours. I wore, at most, four different sets of gear after dozens of hours playing. This process isn’t easy, either. The shop and gear interfaces suck. It shows how each piece of clothing alters each stat, either for better or for worse, but in comparison to nothing. Is this new item better than what I already have? I guess I’ll try and remember its exact stats, close out of this menu, open up the equipment screen, look at what I’ve got, and try to compare by memory. But how does that effect my overall stats considering the rest of my gear? I guess I have to write these numbers all down or something. This is a fundamental flaw for an RPG. Items can’t be filtered effectively either; you have to scroll through a bunch of items unusable by your race each time you go shopping.
This isn’t a competitive fighting game, but then again, it doesn’t need to be. The roster of playable characters is strangely limited but only because of the focus on player-created characters. Multiplayer matches show how unbalanced the game is, but in this case, I think it makes sense. Super Saiyan God Goku isn’t going to have a close fight with a Saibaman – why would he? That being said, online 1v1 matches are actually some of the most interesting gameplay moments of Xenoverse. Apart from character differences, they feel like a game of skill. Human opponents are much more fun to fight than CPUs. You can be outsmarted or outfought, whereas loss against computer opponents always feels like artificial difficulty.
Unfortunately, it’s offputtingly hard to get a match. To start with, there’s no matchmaking – you’ve got to scroll through rooms and join one you like. Most of the time it’ll be full by the time you select it, so try again. On top of that, the servers, at least at launch, have been terrible. I’ve spent literal hours cumulatively waiting to connect, not just to a match, but just to start playing the game. I’ve been kicked to the title screen as a result of disconnecting tonnes of times. The kicker though is that this all happens on the single player server. This wasn’t me trying to play multiplayer; this was just me trying to get into the game at all. On several occasions, I had to disconnect my PS4 from the internet to play at all. On the topic of launch issues, the World Tournament Mode, as far as I can tell, isn’t available at all yet.
To get away from the negative, I love the stages in Xenoverse. They’re easily some of the most creative and interesting of any DBZ game. Stages like an underground lake and a beautiful village between waterfalls and icecaps stood out to me. Being able to fight inside of Frieza’s spaceship was a cool exploration of the familiar, and West City was better realised and more accurate to the source material than ever. Interestingly, all stages are linked through a series of gates. So, for example, you could go from a field, to a stage in the sky, to Kami’s lookout, to space, to Supreme Kai’s world. It’s cool to be able to drag battles through the universe in a cohesive way, even if the whole ‘gate’ thing is a bit tacky.
Part of the reason these stages stand out is the visuals. Everything looks detailed and suits a three-dimensional environment, but still fits into the anime art style. Where Battle of Z brought fighters into weird, realistic settings, Xenoverse truly looks like the source material. Animation in battle as well as in cutscenes looks just right too, and there are even some nice 2D anime scenes through the story.
I loved the soundtrack as well. The game opens with the coolest rendition of “Cha-La Head-Cha-La” I’ve heard, set to an original anime clip. Music during fights is reminiscent of DBZ’s American soundtrack; thrashy guitar and high-energy drums. While you’re exploring TokiToki though, you’ll hear more bubbly, quirky music, very much in tune with the original Japanese soundtrack. It’s nice to have both, and I think separating them like this was a great choice. I could have used the inclusion of some of the awesome songs from key moments in the anime, but what’s here is good.
Voice acting is equally commendable. As I mentioned, I didn’t like the writing, but the delivery of the dialogue was kept to a high standard. Some of these actors aren’t the originals I know and love (I believe they’re the ‘Kai’ actors?) but they all do great work. I’m not used to all the new voices, but characters like Frieza sound much closer to the Japanese counterpart. Cell’s voice and actor, in particular, are fantastic. It’s a shame they didn’t have better writing to work with.
Dragon Ball Xenoverse is a huge step for Dragon Ball games, but one that should have been taken years ago. Though leagues ahead of its recent predecessors, nothing here is as good as it could and should be. A jack of many trades and a master of none; DBX innovates dramatically within the series, while lacking quality in almost all regards. A great and interesting narrative concept is delivered only in a mediocre way, combat controls and mechanics are cleverly constructed but poorly fleshed out, and RPG systems fit, but fail to motivate or provide gradual development. I’m sure we’ll see a sequel soon, and I sincerely hope to see my concerns addressed. Xenoverse is full of exceptional ideas, but hollow in its execution. If you’re a fan of DBZ and you’re up for a grind, give it a shot. If not, I wouldn’t recommend it.
EDITOR NOTE: this game was supplied to us by the publisher, and reviewed on PS4 across 40+ hours of gameplay.