Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4 (Played), Xbox One

The time has finally come. Dragon Ball FighterZ has released to the public, and hardcore fighting game fans are snatching it off store shelves.

However, that has made some Dragon Ball fans nervous. Dragon Ball games are usually fanservice affairs, packing in a bunch of characters and locales from the anime with little effort put in to being balanced or competitive, and that’s how Dragon Ball fans have liked it. This new game is a seriously competitive tag team fighting game in the style of the Marvel VS series. Is this new system going to make Dragon Ball FighterZ inaccessible for the core Dragon Ball fanbase?

Not even close. In fact, I’d say this may just be the best Dragon Ball game yet. Let’s take a look.

A story that delivers delicious fanfiction

The story of Dragon Ball FighterZ is a hilarious guilty pleasure for any fan of the anime. Mysterious waves have spread over the land, sapping the world’s greatest fighters of their power. At the same time, clones of all the heroes and villains of the Dragon Ball universe have begun a senseless attack on the world’s population. With our heroes out of commission, who is left to protect the world from this new threat?

You, of course!

You take the role of a spirit that can transfer from body to body. You are completely unaffected by these power suppression waves, which means you can unlock the sealed power of the Z fighters by controlling their bodies like puppets... perhaps with some sort of… stick…like something you might see in an… arcade.

Unfortunately, you are but one being and can inhabit but one body at a time. So to make full use of your power, you have to hop back and forth between bodies as fighters get pushed to their limit. THAT’S why you have to tag in and out and THAT’S why your teammates can only ever muster up the strength for one attack when assisting. It’s a goofy way to shoehorn the player into the plot but I genuinely love every second of it.

The rest of the plot revolves around the brand new self-insert original character (do not steal) Android 21, the new leader of the Red Ribbon Army. Also she has Majin Buu’s powers, and a split personality arising from the uncontrollable spread of Majin Buu’s cells through her body, and she wants to eat everyone. This also must sound really dumb to you, but think about it. It’s not any dumber than any other Dragon Ball Z story arc, is it? It hits all the good beats a Dragon Ball arc should hit: powering up, splitting the villain into good and evil, fusion, absorbing other fighters to make you more powerful, crazy desperation attacks, and more.

Think about it this way. Critics look down on Dragon Ball Z because its entire plot appears to be a thinly veiled excuse to have a bunch of characters with different fighting styles beat each other up. Fighting game stories are also heavily criticized for being nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to have a bunch of characters with different fighting styles beat each other up. This means that the Dragon Ball plot is actually a perfect fit for a fighting game! Of course everyone is beating each other up! This is Dragon Ball we are talking about!

Honestly, the main plot is only half of the fun of story mode. The other half is unlocking neat little side scenes between the cast of characters. At worst, these scenes are just small references to the plot arcs of the Dragon Ball series, like Goku reminiscing about how he and Krillin faced off against Piccolo back when he was evil. At best, these are hilarious comedy sequences that take advantage of in-jokes in the Dragon Ball fandom, like Goku’s friends chastising him for being a worse father than Piccolo is.

It feels like each and every scene was written explicitly for Dragon Ball super fans, but even people with just a passing knowledge of the series will have a big smile on their face the whole time.

Gameplay: Learn to Go Super Saiyan

Dragon Ball FighterZ is a 3v3 tag team Dragon Ball fighting game made by Arc System Works. Previous Dragon Ball fighting games were unbalanced mash fests. Previous fighting games made by Arc System Works were tremendously complicated and impossible to penetrate for new players. Previous tag-team stle games were fast-paced twitch-fests that required split second reactions and the ability to memorize and execute immensely long combos.

DBFZ doesn’t fall into any of these categories.

First off, it’s not a mash fest. DBFZ is incredibly well balanced. You aren’t going to find the same gameplay from games such as Budokai Tenkaichi or Xenoverse here. This is an incredibly deep three-on-three fighter. You are going to have to think about team composition, mix-ups, meter management, and more. You are going to have to have good blocking, footsies, and you might even have to learn how to instant air dash. Make no mistake, this is a fighting game built for the hardcore fighting game audience.

That’s not to say that there isn’t anything here for the casual audience. In fact, Arc System Works went to extremes to make sure the game is far more accessible than their other properties. For example, it only has four main buttons. This makes it feel natural to play on a controller if you don’t own a pricey arcade stick. Every button performs an auto-combo if you mash it. This won’t allow you to beat pros that invest tons of time in learning their own manual combos, but it will allow you to feel like you are competing without getting slaughtered.

For the pros, these auto-combos actually increase the depth of the game rather than decrease it, because they are made up of unique moves that you can’t access any other way. For example, many characters have an easier time comboing medium attacks from the second hit of their light attack auto combo rather than the first. This might mean nothing to newbies, but for pros this means there is even more variation and flexibility in combo creation.

Special and super moves are also incredibly easy to do. There is no motion in the game more complex than a quarter circle forward or back. That’s all (along with one or two down-down motions). Supers are just quarter circles with two buttons instead of one. If you can throw a fireball you can do every single move in this game.

Everything else has been made especially easy through single buttons and short-cut commands. Tagging is one button. DHCing is one button. Alpha countering is one button. Instant air dashing is easy. Heck there’s even a simple shortcut for “immediately dash at your opponent and attack.”

All of these simple commands allow new fighters to get into the game by imagining what it would be like to fight like a Dragon Ball character. They might remember a scene where their favorite character teleported behind the opponent, hit them so hard they went flying, and then followed after them and punch them a million times. You can do that in Dragon Ball FighterZ and not only is it an actual important and viable pro technique, it can be executed with just three button presses.

Part of the reason why DBFZ is so accessible is its speed. It’s much slower than other tag-team games. It’s not as slow as something like, say, Street Fighter, but it’s half as fast as Marvel vs. Capcom. This makes it easier to see what you are doing and react to what the opponent is doing. It makes it feel less unfair to someone who is picking up a game like this for the first time.

It also helps that combos are short, damage is low, and matches take 300 seconds instead of 99. Even when spending all your meter, all your resources, and all three characters, it’s nearly impossible to one-touch-kill a character in this game. It’s balanced to make matches long and enjoyable, and it pulls that off masterfully.

So casuals will love this game, and pros will love this game, but intermediate players might get frustrated. You see, their fundamentals won’t be on par with pros, so they will get bodied in seconds. However, the existence of auto-combos and easy inputs means that casuals will have a better fighting chance against them. Suddenly they won’t be the standout fighting game player in their group of friends anymore, and that can be disheartening.

However, DBFZ’s mechanics naturally allow intermediate players to make the transition into pros. For example, it doesn’t take much to realize that the light auto-combo doesn’t end in a super move but the medium auto-combo does. This will lead intermediate players to transfer over into the medium auto-combo after the first few hits of the light auto-combo in order to maximize their damage and see their character perform a cool move. And that’s exactly how a pro hit-confirms!

DBFZ teaches you fighting game lessons with its mechanics alone. It doesn’t even need to bring you into tutorial mode!

Enough Content to Stuff Fat Buu

Even though it doesn't need one, DBFZ has a tutorial anyway, and it’s awesome. It not only walks you through all the basic controls of the game, but also basic combo structure, basic defense, and it tells you exactly how to trigger awesome cutscenes of your characters destroying the world.

Once you are done with that, you can hop into character challenges which walk you through each characters normal, specials, auto-combos, and eventually lead you to try out a few manual combos of your own. Completing these is more than enough to make you semi-competitive.

Hopping into training mode will give you access to a ton of tools to help you improve. It can simulate online lag, repeat attacks after blocking, show you attack data, and more. It’s not the most powerful training mode in existence, but it’s still above and beyond what most fighting games offer.

I already mentioned how much I enjoyed the story, but I should also mention how deep the story content goes. The cutscenes alone are four hours long. The story mode itself includes elements of tactical games and RPGs. You can level up your characters, equip them with items, change their stats, and unlock new characters as you slowly take on the campaign. This, combined with the fights themselves, amounts to a 10-12 hour experience, FAR longer than even the best fighting game story modes (Injustice 2, I’m looking at you). It’s also worth replaying to get even more hidden scenes and endings. Oh, and for once, a developer actually integrated a fighting game’s tutorial into its story mode. Brilliant!

Then there’s the game’s arcade mode, which offers several different courses to take on, each with branching paths and adapting difficulties. Imagine these like towers from Mortal Kombat games except your next opponent is determined by your last. You can lose yourself for hours taking these on and trying to fight the highest ranked final boss.

I just want to make it clear, that with story mode, challenge mode, and arcade mode combined, you are already looking at 20-25 hours of content, even if you only play through every mode once and perfectly win every single match. That’s an incredible amount of single-player content in a fighting game, and there’s even more to do after you complete all of that.

Every day you will get challenges that help you farm “Zeni” a currency that lets you customize your avatar in lobbies or otherwise customize the game’s appearance. There is a difficulty slider that is far more granular than the normal settings of easy, normal, and hard. Rather, you can change single-player difficulty on a scale of 1 to 100! There is a full tournament mode that lets you run tournaments up to 16 players. There is, of course, local versus mode and with it comes online mode.

There is just so much here to do, far more than there is in similar fighting games.

As wonderful as this all is, there are some flaws. You can’t just sit back and watch cutscenes play out in story mode. You have to press a button to push forward each box of text and frankly that’s kind of dumb. Many story scenes are long and while they are entertaining, they would be more entertaining if I didn’t have to keep the controller in my hand as they played out. The endless repetition of battles against clones can get a little boring as well.

Tournament mode is powerful, but limited. It doesn’t really let you seed people and its restriction to sixteen person tournaments makes it less useful than it would otherwise be at professional gaming events.

Instead of traditional menus, you can pilot an avatar around online and offline lobbies, and while this is neat, it ends up being a bit of an annoyance once you’ve played the game long enough. Luckily you can go into a “quick menu” in order to pick from traditional menu options, but it kind of feels like ASW could have done more with this lobby concept.

Netcode is the one big problem

All of those previous complaints were pretty minor. Now let’s talk abou real flaw: DBFZ’s netcode. It wasn’t great early on. My beta experience was pretty awful. I could never find a match, I was constantly disconnected, and the matches I did get were practically unplayable.

Now that the game has officially released I can say that my online experience has been better… but not by much. I’m not getting randomly kicked off servers as much as I used to be, but finding matches still takes forever, lobbies are constantly full, and match quality is still a crapshoot at best and a slow stuttering slog at worst.

I tried DBFZ’s online modes on both the PS4 and PC. Both were hardwired into my wall using a private connection that no one else was utilizing at the time, and I still got mostly 0 bar matches that could barely run.

Even when I had full bar connections it was running at a 2-frame delay, which was enough to really screw up the timing of some of my combos. As I wrote about in my beta piece previously, this is because ASW made the strange decision to use delay netcode instead of rollback netcode. This is the same netcode that really held back games like Guilty Gear Xrd, and its holding back DBFZ now.

I want to make it clear that it’s not unplayable. In fact, it’s probably the best delay based netcode I’ve seen, and certainly the best effort from Arc System Works so far. However, it just doesn’t feel as good as, say, MVCI or Street Fighter V does, and that’s a shame because it surpasses those games in literally every other way.

Simply put, it works but it’s not great. It’s functional. Functional is enough to get me to play hours of online matches and it will be enough to make you do the same, but you will get frustrated at lag spikes, you will drop combos, and you will be screaming “come on!” at your monitor every time the lag makes you drop an input and die.

On a brighter note, you have as many online options as you do single-player ones. You can go into world match to climb the leaderboards or just hop into a casual fight. You can fight in arena matches, which are essentially lobbies. You can even fight “ring” matches, which are matches with special rules, including a party mode where six players fight, each taking control of one character on a team. With all this and the promise of more modes and content coming in the future, you’ll find that you’ll never get bored with DBFZ, whether you're online or off.

Graphics and Sound: Just Like the Show

This is the best looking fighting game on the market, period.

What? Do I really need to justify that? You’ve been looking at the screenshots in this review, right?

Alright, Arc System Works knows how to make a good looking fighting game. Guilty Gear Xrd was one of the best looking fighting gams on the market before DBFZ, but this takes it to a whole other level. It looks just like the anime. From the way characters are drawn, to the color palette used, to the way energy auras are drawn. Characters even pose in the exact right way when throwing attacks. Heck, Captain Ginyu is nothing but poses!

The game runs at a smooth 60FPS at all times, even on low-end computers. The lighting is fantastic. Each ki ball or beam casts light on everything around it, making major exchanges entertaining to watch. The only time any graphics come close to failing is the story mode, which doesn’t quite look as smooth as an anime does, but still looks impressive nonetheless.

Then there are the small graphical touches that make the game feel like a love letter to Dragon Ball fans. The fact that characters get damaged as they fight. The fact that the stage gets damaged as you fight. You can even blow up the stage, knock the opponent into another stage, or (if you spend enough meter) BLOW UP THE PLANET WITH YOUR SPECIAL ATTACKS! Heck, if you fulfill certain conditions you can even recreate exact scenes from the anime. Kill Cell with Teen Gohan and watch him one-handed Kamehameha him into oblivion. Every single fight oozes personality. Whether you're looking for them or not, you'll just naturally see all these amazing graphical touches as you play the game.

The sound is equally amazing. All the English AND Japanese voice actors come back for this one, and they give amazing performances. The only way it could be better is if Bandai Namco got the fan voice actors for DBZ Abridged to do some voices.

Even the sound effects are ripped straight from the anime, and this actually helps you learn how to play the game. You know what a punch sounds like, what a hit sounds like, and what a block sounds like if you’ve ever watched an episode of DBZ. You can use these sound cues to help you keep track the action.

Then there’s the music, and it too is fantastic. It’s a combination of themes from the show and the energetic thrash guitar that Arc System Works is known for. The story mode in particular shows off some of the best tracks the series has to offer. It appeals to both sides of the aisle. If you don’t like Dragon Ball’s music, there’s always Arc System Works’ heavy rock and roll influence to enjoy, and vice versa.

Sensible Controllers: Finally!

Yes, I am giving this its own section. DBFZ lets you hot swap controllers without closing the game first. It’s a shame that I have to make a note of this, but so many PC fighting games (especially Arc System Works games) don’t allow you to do this.

A Message to the Dragon Ball Fans

I want to finish this review by talking to some of the skeptics out there. I’ve heard a lot of Dragon Ball fans comparing this to other entries in the series and… well to be frank… not really getting it.

“Oh but this only has 24 characters. Budokai Tenkaichi 3 had over 100.”

Yes, it had over 100 characters most of which had copy-pasted move-sets. In DBFZ everyone plays 100% unique. Captain Ginyu calls the Ginyu Force, so they don’t all have to be separate characters. Nappa plants Saibamen, so THEY don’t have to be separate characters. Yes, you can’t play as different transformations like Imperfect Cell or Xenomorph Frieza but… why would you want to?

In previous Dragon Ball games they were just worse versions of characters in their final forms. To implement a transformation system in a game like this you’d have to sacrifice game balance and for ONCE we have a Dragon Ball game where nearly everyone on the roster is viable.

“Oh but it doesn’t let me fight through classic Dragon Ball battles.”

While I agree that it would have been nice to, say, take on Cell one on one with Teen Gohan just to relive the moment, those moments are actually baked in to the game system itself. You can re-live that moment just by choosing Teen Gohan and Cell in a match. You’ll even see a special intro and trigger a special finishing scene.

You don’t need a special story mode that lets you play through the same story we have played through a million times. Instead you have a brand new story and it’s pretty awesome!

“Oh but it doesn’t let me move around in 3D and explore the world!”

First of all, this isn’t an RPG. If you want an RPG or an action game there are plenty of Dragon Ball games in that genre. This is a fighting game. The main question we should be asking is, does the fighting feel good. The answer is yes. Besides, story mode does take you all around the Dragon Ball universe. Just look at the stages you fight on!

“Oh but…”

No, look. I understand that DBZ fans are used to “more.” I understand that they are used to more characters and more stages and transformations and tons of crazy gimmicks. I get that.

But this is something different. This isn’t a game that is going to make you happy just because you are controlling the model of a character you recognize from the show. This is a game that will teach you to fight like that character. Frieza has to fight dirty and underhanded. Cell fights brutally and with a combination of moves from other characters. Hit has no flashy gimmicks, he just has to beat the opponent with good normals.

These characters have personality, not just in their voice actors, but in their fighting styles. Other Dragon Ball games may have let you play as Goku, but this is one of the only games that lets you feel what it’s like to BE Goku.

That’s what Dragon Ball FighterZ lets you do. It lets you live out your own Dragon Ball adventure. It lets you fight against stronger opponents, pushing yourself to get better, fighting against them as if everything is on the line. It lets you feel yourself understanding and reading your opponent’s moves and allows you to formulate a strategy against them. It allows you to ascend to a whole other level when you learn new combos, mix-ups, and gimmicks. It will teach you how to transform from a casual into a pro. It will let you go Super Saiyan.

So don’t let your preconceived notions of what a Dragon Ball game is let you miss out on this one. In my opinion, it’s one of the best Dragon Ball games ever made, and may very well be a contender for fighting game of the year.