I love Dragon Ball – all three anime series, the movie specials, and most of all, the video games. For many years I’ve played Dragon Ball games, In fact, there were several instances in my childhood where I would play nothing but Dragon Ball games. With that being said, I think it’s fair to say that I’ve seen the best and the worst of them. Over the course of the PS3/Xbox 360 generation, though, the franchise continued without any kind of change. The Burst Limit and Raging Blast games weren’t much more than recreations of the Budokia and Tenkaichi games respectively. They were undeniably lacking innovation but were consistently decent games none-the-less.
Bandai Namco must have seen a need for change, however, and in 2011, Ultimate Tenkaichi was released. In all my years playing Dragon Ball games, it was disheartening to see what “change” meant. Meaningfully complex mechanics evolved through the franchise’s video games were scrapped, and games of chance replaced the great majority of the gameplay. What resulted was a game in which a player would move toward or away from the enemy, and complete a short, single button combo to initiate a game of rock-paper-scissors. This would repeat until one combatant’s overly substantial health was depleted. After years of waiting for change, Ultimate Tenkiachi single-handedly revoked almost every piece of excitement I had for an innovative improvement in the franchise.
In truth, I was expectedly sceptical when I first learned about the announcement of Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z. Another new game trying yet another new style unrelated to its predecessors didn’t sound so exciting anymore. As I saw more of the game, I continued to lose hope for it, and it’s safe to say I had nothing but the lowest expectations for the title come launch. Unfortunately, many of my expectations were accurate. Although, with that being said, I can comfortably say it’s an improvement on its immediate predecessor, and adds mechanics that are arguably big steps for the franchise. Battle of Z’s biggest innovation is team based gameplay, and where previous Dragon Ball games have featured tag teams and similar group battles, BoZ consists of 4v4 fights, in which all fighters are active at once. Whether this is a suitable concept or not, it’s undeniably a unique fighting experience.
As you might expect, Battle of Z retells the story of Dragon Ball Z throughout its “single player” component, or attempts to at least. There is very little exposition, and what’s here is rushed and largely inaccurate to the source material. Throughout the missions, I found myself wondering who could tell a story so poorly, and I could only come to one conclusion: an uninterested parent whose only exposure to the plot is their young child’s ramblings. “Goku fought Raditz, and then Vegeta came, and nobody could beat him, but then Goku did, and then they went to Planet Namek” is about the level of narrative you can expect. To be fair, story is arguably irrelevant in an arcade-style fighting game such as this, especially one that’s been retold so many times. However, I would have been much happier for the story to be entirely ignored than to be inaccurately thrown together as it is. In fact, what would have been even better is an original story as several aspects of the plot seem to be altered to allow 4v4 fights anyway. A tournament in Other World, for example. There are plenty of conceivable ideas that wouldn’t be questioned within the DBZ universe, and Battle of Z would have been a great platform to try something new.
To clarify, there is no “story mode” in Battle of Z, but rather a selection of missions. You will, however, find a “Co-op Mode” and “Battle Mode” on the main menu, each of which is unlocked after playing a certain amount of these single player missions. Deceptively, Single player and Co-op mode are practically identical. You’ll choose a mission, select your character, and play it. The obvious difference being that one mode allows online multiplayer while the other has you selecting AI controlled allies. It makes little sense to me that these are separate game modes. Why not allow a choice of AI or online players in a single mode, rather than creating a need to exit to the main menu to access the exact same missions with or without other people? Not only this, but any missions you complete in Co-op only count as completed if you’re hosting the game, which uncontrollably changes between each fight.
Additionally, both of these modes use the same unintuitive menu, and the same branching mission structure. Unlocking missions can become surprisingly addictive, but it would have been cool to have seen a more complicated web of missions, rather than 3 straight lines. Completing missions will often unlock new playable characters too, and revisiting a mission that was previously too difficult with a newly earned stronger fighter is suitably rewarding. Battle Mode features competitive multiplayer and allows for some fairly interesting game types. For example, some objective alterations include trying to collect all the Dragon Balls within a fight, or to compete to see who can defeat the most opponents in a deathmatch, which are some of its better moments.
The character roster is typically of significant importance to Dragon Ball fans, and Battle of Z’s group of fighters is as extensive as you might expect. Some strange choices were made, however. Unnamed background characters such as ‘Frieza Soldier’ are playable, while more important characters including Zarbon or Dodoria are missing. Broly, Cooler and Hirudegarn are apparently important enough to be playable, while no other characters from movie specials appear. It’s also disappointing to find that each character’s separate forms are unique characters from one another. Where in several DBZ games you’d play as Goku, for example, and transform into a Super Saiyan if and when you saw fit, and met the requirements. In Battle of Z, you can choose to play as Goku or to play as Super Saiyan Goku. This strips away opportunities for strategy and means several characters are remarkably similar, considering each form of the same character typically utilises a largely similar move-set.
Characters can be customized through the collection of cards, which can be addictive and rewarding, but creates unneeded tedium between fights. Because cards can be equipped and unequipped at any time and because you’ll sometimes need to play as a specific character, you’ll need to remove the cards from the character you were previously playing and apply them to the new one to retain the strength you’ve earned. This process becomes monotonous quickly, whereas a simple levelling system would have worked just as well. To clarify, each character has a set power level, which means characters from early in the series are so weak against those from later that they’re practically redundant without the use of cards. Rather than all characters being balanced to fight against each other (like with most other games in the genre), these characters are designed to reflect their strength in the fiction. It’s a great way to stay true to the source material, but it means that you’ll often have to choose between winning as a character you don’t like with a high power level or losing as a character you do like.
One thing to note going into Battle of Z is that it plays quite differently from most other fighting games. Seeing as the battles typically take place between teams of four, a lock-on system was employed. Once locked on to an opponent, your attacks will be directed to them, and the camera will try to keep them in your sight. You can change which enemy you’re locked-on to with the right stick, which will cycle through your options. Sometimes when trying to focus on a different character, I found that the direction I moved the stick didn’t make too much difference, and often had to cycle through the whole team to find the fighter I wanted. This is especially annoying if you’re being attacked by someone you’re not locked-on to, and need to cycle through their team to defend.
In combat, you’ll be equipped with a melee attack, a strong melee attack, a ranged attack, a strong ranged attack, two character specific special abilities, and one super move; certain characters can also use ultimate moves. If you want to defend, you can block, or teleport within a short distance. What this boils down to is approaching your enemy, mashing the melee button and hitting them away, or shooting multiple projectiles until you’re depleted of energy. The system quickly becomes extremely repetitive due to it being practically void of complexity. There are no combos beyond mashing the melee button, there is no timing based dodging or projectile deflecting as in previous games, there is no easy way to break an opponent’s guard, attacks can’t be cancelled, energy can’t be manually collected at strategic times, and flying towards an enemy feels sluggish and accounts for large parts of the gameplay. Simply put, Battle of Z lacks many features you’d expect from any competent fighting game. Even worse, though, is that it also lacks several mechanics that made previous Dragon Ball games stand out in the past.
As well as locking-on to enemies, players can focus on their allies. You can heal your teammates or lend them energy, and this becomes very important if you’re playing with AI companions. When an ally has fallen, they can be revived within a set time period. If they’re not revived, they’ll respawn at the expense of one of the team’s communal “retry’s”. Sharing retry’s with your team means you could potentially lose a battle without dying, based on your allies’ deaths. Unfortunately, you probably will. The AI can perform abysmally, and in certain missions, reviving them becomes more important than attacking your enemies (from being defeated constantly!) In some situations, I found myself going from one ally to the next to revive them, only to find that the first had been defeated again once I’d reach the third, and so I had to repeat the process. What’s worse than the AI needing you, is that sometimes you need them. Your allies don’t often go out of their way to revive you if you’ve been defeated. In fact, it’s fairly common for an ally to be standing right near you doing nothing at all, and still not revive you.
Upon starting the game, a typo on a splash screen warns you of “auto-save fuctions” just before a beautiful original intro animation plays. I found this inconsistency in quality to be a great analogue for the rest of the game. Certain aspects seem unprofessional, and even wrong, but others can be exceptional at times, as well. This is especially true for character models and animations. Certain character models seem awkward and inaccurate, such as Kid Gohan, with his arms bending unnaturally outwards and clipping through his chest. Others look just about right but seem a little strange. Goku, for example, has particularly short, stubby legs. Plenty of character models look great though, and it’s a shame the quality wasn’t consistent all round. The same also goes for character animations. Some are spot-on while others are stiff and unfitting. Where most of the characters are accurate reflections of the source material, others can almost feel as if they were based on cheap action figures.
The levels in Battle of Z caught my attention as well, and not because they were particularly good looking, but because of the odd choice in art direction. Rather than a crisp, cell-shaded approach (typical of anime video games), the environments consist of more realistic textures. The type of landscapes and colour palettes in Dragon Ball just don’t translate well to realism, and seeing these characters in these environments is awkward and incongruous. The textures range from unnecessarily detailed to a poor quality smudge, resembling something you would expect of a PS2-era game. The visual presentation is inconsistent at best, and it simply doesn’t work.
Many of the characters feature their original voice actors, and are well represented, such as Goku and Vegeta, who both sound and act like their anime counterparts. Anyone who’s remotely familiar with DBZ should recognise important characters immediately based on their voice performances, and as such, other those characters who aren’t performed by their original actors aren’t particularly hard to miss. Frieza’s voice sounds like a terrible impression, and whoever cast an actor with a high, feminine voice to play Android 18 either didn’t know the character, or didn’t care. The lip-sync animations are off too. Character’s mouths will randomly open and close throughout the course of their dialogue, with no correlation whatsoever to what they say. I’m sure plenty of people will appreciate the option to switch to Japanese audio, but it’s still no excuse for this abysmal English dub.
There isn’t anything that’s especially broken in Battle of Z, but there’s also nothing in particular that’s noteworthy or great about it either. Despite all it lacks, at the very least it can still provide a bit of mindless fun to those who can look past its flaws; even if that appeal doesn’t last very long. If you’re a Dragon Ball Z fan, I’d suggest playing the Dragon Ball Z Budokai HD Collection, or a Dragon Ball: Raging Blast game before resorting to Battle of Z. If you’ve played those games already, and you’re ready for a new entry, this one is likely going to disappoint you. Simple gameplay, unintelligent AI, and average visuals produce a game that can be as frustrating as it is boring.