Japanese developers CyberConnect2 introduced me to the wonderful world of anime-based fighters with their stellar Naruto Shippuden games. In recent years, titles like Dragon Ball Xenoverse and its sequel have made decent attempts at trying to revolutionize the genre, but the team at Arc System Works have made things simpler with a return to the classic 2D fighter space with Dragon Ball FighterZ. Is it able to re-capture the magic of the Dragon Ball games of old, or has the light gone out of the long-running series?
When I said that FighterZ is a lot more straightforward than Xenoverse, I didn’t just mean in its fighting style. The game throws players into a hub world that isn’t as interactive or as engaging as those found in the Xenoverse titles. You can see fellow players roaming around with their avatars in chibi-form, as my incredibly cute Android 17 is a testament to, but there isn’t as much freedom and interactivity this time around. While Xenoverse felt like a world unto itself as you chased your friends across a decently sized hub world, the same feature has become totally unnecessary in FighterZ as the franchise’s license doesn’t feel like it was used to its potential here. The same four structures dot the minuscule map as opposed to seeing Capsule Corp buildings looming large in the background and being able to fly to them in Xenoverse.
However, that’s not really a big issue. What is a big issue is how many times I thought, “… that’s not a big issue.” The second such case materialized when I began to play the game’s story mode. I was surprised to learn that this wouldn’t be a simple re-treading of Dragon Ball history and would instead carve its own path through the telling of an original tale. After a few scenes setting up the adventure, players are thrown onto a world map where they take turns moving to different locations and toward the Boss, Rescue, and Tutorial icons. The game’s three-man fighting system, which has you swap out between three characters in battle, encourages you to go and rescue different heroes in the Dragon Ball universe in the game’s three campaigns: the Super Warrior Arc, the Enemy Warrior Arc, and a final arc I can’t exactly mention due to the title containing an important plot point. The more characters you rescue, the more you can choose to join your fireteam.
You can gain new boosts while leveling up your available roster as you fight minions on the path to larger, story-focused boss fights. In theory, it’s a cool system that is designed with the game’s mechanics in mind, but it becomes excruciatingly boring by the time you get to the end of the first arc, which took me almost five hours to complete. You can see the end on the map, but the story keeps going and going by throwing in filler story beats and tasking you to go from one side of the map to the other to trigger the next event. On top of the heinous length, it doesn’t help that the story and the dialogue are simply awful. This from a game in a franchise that has delivered some of the most emotional moments in anime history. FighterZ throws away a golden opportunity to tell an original Dragon Ball tale by focusing on collecting all of its heroes and villains in once place a la Battlefront II instead of just telling a simpler story with far less characters. But like I said, it’s not really a big issue – if you can ignore the fact that a stellar fighting game story like Injustice 2 exists.
Here’s what really matters: the combat. To put it bluntly, this game feels perfect. The biggest praise I can give FighterZ is that it convinced me on so many fronts when I initially had qualms about its gameplay mechanics. At first, I thought that the game would feel much better if it had mapped the dash movement, which allows you to move away from or close in on an opponent, to a button instead of double-tapping the directional pad or the left stick. This would make the pace of the game even faster than it is, but I soon learned that this small change would cause rank chaos on the screen and render the game unplayable. I also thought the ability to use a super-powered move like the Kamehameha alongside a tagged-in ally who also used their super was a bit overpowered, until I realized just how difficult it is to save up that many bars of Ki against a sturdy opponent to be able to even attempt the move. FighterZ is even glorious to watch as you track the movement of two powerful fighters throwing all manner of high kicks and energy bombs at each other.
There’s a certain satisfaction when you connect with a swinging kick that sends your opponent into a boulder a few hundred meters away for the KO that makes you want to jump into another match immediately. I am now of the opinion that the Dragon Ball license was made more for a 2D-fighter than a high-octane anime series – that is how good FighterZ’s combat is. All of the action is wrapped up in what could quite possibly be the best looking game of the generation from an art-style and visual effects standpoint. Seeing the iconic moves and costumes and hearing the voices of all the characters just adds to the experience in an indescribable way.
The game’s primary focus is its online suite, and while the play experience carries over unfettered, there’s a few design issues that get in the way of an otherwise stable experience. Jumping into matches can take a while, and having to learn how the multiplayer actually works – after darting from full-capacity lobby to full-capacity lobby, selecting regions and trying to process all of the online tutorial text on-screen – feels like a chore. Why Arc System Works didn’t just leave everything to a simplified menu is anybody’s guess, but it’s easy to ignore after you finally jump into a casual or ranked match. If you’re prepared to get your butt kicked for a while as you find your best trio of characters, there’s an ocean of strategy and nuance that opens up when fighting human players.
FighterZ also includes a simplistic Arcade Mode that sees you doing battle against increasingly difficult teams of AI. Your results effect the path you take on the mode’s grid, moving to higher or lower difficulty routes after each match. As fun as the mode is, my only issue concerns the consistency of the challenge. I would almost defeat an opponent in one instance to then be pummeled by them in the ensuing rematch and the same goes for the somewhat inconsistent difficulty spikes between rounds. Throughout all the game modes, you’ll be earning Zeni which can be used to purchase Z Capsule packs that include cosmetic items like additional lobby characters and title cards.
If you’re looking for a fighter, there is simply nothing better on the market than Dragon Ball FighterZ in terms of what it offers as a 2D, high action brawler. If you don’t see yourself sinking a lot of time into the game, it still might be worth it down the line just to appreciate the level of detail and care that the developers at Arc System Works have so painstakingly put into this project. Regardless, Dragon Ball FighterZ is a worthy addition to the anime’s long-running line of fighter adaptations.
Dragon Ball FighterZ review code provided by publisher. Version 1.02 reviewed on PlayStation 4. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy here.