The year is young, but Dragon Ball FighterZ makes an explosive case for becoming the year’s best fighting title, as well as one of the best Dragon Ball licensed video games ever made. That’s saying a lot for an anime with dozens of terrific entries that vary in style, form, and substance, and FighterZ manages to outshine just about all of them in quite a few ways.
The fighting mechanics of FighterZ are familiar, but still fresh thanks to gorgeous Unreal Engine graphics and a few other surprises. Light, medium, and heavy attacks have their own respective buttons, which opens up your strategy to a wide array of combos, but FighterZ‘s most obvious flourish is probably its 3v3 tag-team mechanic, an obvious nod to Ultimate Marvel vs. Capcom 3. It’s as thrilling to discover new tag combos as it is to watch them unfold onscreen, and the game manages to be challenging enough for you to rely heavily on a balanced toolbox of moves and rotating roster of characters.
To be fair, a fighting game with the Dragon Ball IP shouldn’t have a hard time impressing you with interesting visuals and diverse characters. Fans of the anime series (especially Dragon Ball Z) will have plenty of fun reconnecting with their favorite fighters in what happens to be a quirky and original storyline featuring the return of the Red Ribbon Army. As someone not yet initiated into the Dragon Ball Super universe, I had a blast getting sold on why this new series is worth a look.
On the surface, FighterZ isn’t as comprehensive as some of the Budokai games, notably the third one. You’re limited to a smaller number of characters just peeking into the larger Dragon Ball universe, but the game manages to hone in on the personalities you probably care most about: Goku, Vegeta, Frieza, Cell, Buu, and so on (though Adult Gohan is my personal avatar for all things Dragon Ball, and he’s graciously here as well).
As for the gameplay itself, FighterZ excels at matching the show’s vitality and scope with what you’re actually seeing onscreen. Mid-air power struggles are basically seamless with an episode of Dragon Ball Z, and the player is rewarded for mixing up combos in ways that feel true to what these characters would do scripted. A noticeable drawback, though, is how limited the environments are in variety, flavor, and versatility, even compared to previous Dragon Ball games.
But for where it counts the most, FighterZ delivers and usually tops expectations. The story mode has appealing RPG elements, giving players the freedom to level up their characters and approach different battle scenarios with appropriate tactics. And you’re not limited to playing as the heroes, thankfully. I found myself far more engaged with the plight of Cell and Frieza, weirdly enough, and there are at least a dozen hours of story to get through before you’ve made it close to the finish line.
For a contingent of Dragon Ball fans, I can see FighterZ being somewhat inaccessible, especially if they’re not as accustomed to Japanese online fighting games or the Dragon Ball Super updates to the story. The arcade, narrative, and currency mechanics are sure to at least briefly intimidate some players, but the game certainly provides plenty of options for a casual gaming experience. You just have to be a little patient and experimental with what FighterZ has to offer, and it certainly offers a lot.
Truth is, FighterZ caters most to the hardcore fans, and it shows. There’s a deep learning curve for wriggling yourself out of huge combo chains that can wreck a player in a matter of seconds, while casual players can rely on auto combos and “Vanish Attacks” while still getting the hang of defense. One of my favorite aspects of the game is actually how they teach you important strategies and basic controls as you play, rather than through bogged down tutorials. While powering through the story, I was often reminded of general gameplay tips through non-intrusive “help” displays. This really helped me step my game up and try new, cleverer fighting combinations and perfect my dramatic finishes, which are some of the most satisfying experiences you can bring about in the entire game.
If FighterZ has one crucial flaw holding it back from true greatness, it’s the repetition, especially in story mode. Your enemies are a rotating list of off-color clones of main characters for the most part, and while this is fine and even acceptable during the early goings (as this is a time in the game for you to grind through tedious practice), it gets old pretty fast until you get access to more allies. A saving grace is the addition of cutscenes before some of the fights, usually conditional on the team you’ve chosen and which battle you’ve started. It’s a small touch, but a nice one that mixes things up a bit.
At its core, Dragon Ball FighterZ represents most things I love about the various Dragon Ball sagas. It’s colorful, vivacious, and endearingly complex, and because no two battles are truly alike, you can find yourself pulled into a never-ending cycle of pulp action that leaves you wanting more in the best way possible.
Developer: Arc System Works
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One (Reviewed), Microsoft Windows
Release Date: January 26, 2018