For a long time, the Dragon Ball Z video game formula was set in stone. They were always these heavily unbalanced mash-heavy fighting games with absurdly long story modes that let you re-live all the major battles of the anime/manga.
Then things started to change. Dragon Ball Xenoverse was still a mash heavy fighting game, but focused on character creation and light RPG elements. Dragon Ball FighterZ challenged the notion that Dragon Ball games had to be mash fests and instead made a solid competitive 2D team fighter. Bandai Namco’s latest release Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is once again challenging that formula by creating another game where you re-live the DBZ storyline, but this time it’s an action/RPG, with a heavier focus on the RPG side than you’d think.
The DBZ RPG
We’ve only had a few DBZ RPGs in the past. You found them more often on sprite-based systems like the Gameboy Advance or SNES. It’s a shame we gave up that formula, because it is a formula that fits DBZ perfectly. It’s always had an obsession with numbers, what with all this talk about power-levels and power multipliers, and getting to see that translated into actual stats is somehow satisfying. Plus, it’s really hilarious to see a party member go through a training montage off screen and come back 15 levels higher for no good reason.
There are two major parts of DBZK, battle, and exploration. Battle feels a lot like the Xenoverse or Budokai Tenkaiichi series, but a little dumbed down. Simply put. It’s mashy. You mash an attack button to attack, a ki button to throw fireballs, a dodge button to blink dodge around your opponent, it’s all very basic. You’ll also find the other DBZ staples here, like charging your Ki, going into “awakening” mode, firing big beams, vanish dodging behind your opponent, transforming to augment your power, so on and so forth.
It feels like a fighting game, but don’t be fooled. This is not a fighting game. Not even close.
First of all, there aren’t a lot of fighting game maneuvers you can pull off. There aren’t really cancels or special pieces of tech that translate directly into player skill producing better battle outcomes.
Second, the enemies do not play fair. They can break out of your combos for no good reason. They can hit you with undodgeable attacks that you have no choice but to interrupt with physical attacks. They have tons of life bars to eat through while you only have a few. Nothing about these fights is fair.
Then again, nothing in the fights of DBZ is fair to begin with, and you are living that experience. I said before, this isn’t a fighting game. Rather, you have to play this like an RPG. You have to look for the enemy’s cues and then take the appropriate action. Is the enemy stuck in a big special attack animation? Then charge up your big beam and fire back. Is he reeling and holding his shoulder in the “Saiyans are injured pose?” Then rush in and hit him with a flurry of blows. Is he using his desperation attack? Back off and dodge or block. It’s a pattern recognition game, not unlike Punch-Out.
You can improvise a little though. DBZK allows you to put all those dumb strategies that you argued with your friends into action. Always thought Solar Flare was broken? Well it is! Call in Krillin as an assist and have him blind anyone who does any attack. You are smarter than the Z fighters, and it feels good to prove that.
That being said, you can only do so well in this pattern recognition game. You might expertly dodge everything your opponent throws at you and strike at every opportunity, but without the stats you just won’t do any damage. This too is very reminiscent of the actual Dragon Ball Z plotline. Sometimes you just have to get more powerful.
This is where all the RPG mechanics come in, and there are a ton. The simplest is, of course, the leveling system. Get enough XP and you’ll level up. That being said, the story will just award you with dumps of XP for no good reason. You’ll be earning hundreds of XP in random battles, and then suddenly Goku will finish King Kai’s training and he will be given literal hundreds of thousands of XP. Like I said before, this actually feels great. It’s like cheating, but in a good way.
Then there’s a whole bunch of other systems that DBZK layers on top. There’s a “community” system where you slot characters into grids that then give you bonuses based on who those characters are and who they have relationships with. Put Goku and Gohan on the Z-Fighter community board and you’ll get a father son bonus, which will increase your community level, which increases the stats of your whole party. These grids can get extremely complex, and the puzzle of “how do I wring the most bonuses out of my party of characters” is one you can dive deep into for hours.
Top DBZ Chef
Of course, every good RPG has a cooking system. Find ingredients, mash them together to create food, mash food together to create full course meals, eat meals to get temporary and permanent stat bonuses. You’ve done this before. Of course, how you get the ingredients is actually where the fun is. You can hunt dinosaurs for steak, harvest wild fruit, sneak up on deer to claim their meat, or even… you guessed it… fish in a fishing mini-game. There’s just as much Harvest Moon here as there is Dragon Ball Z.
Then there’s “sphere grid” type system that lets you learn and augment special moves and skills by spending “orbs” on them. You get orbs by winning battles, but also just by finding them scattered around maps. You can easily “power-level” yourself just by searching through every nook and cranny of this game’s semi-open worlds.
This is sort of the hook that makes DBZK stand out from all other DBZ games. You don’t really have to spend your time reliving DBZ if you don’t want to. You can spend hours collecting orbs and ingredients, cooking, completing side-quests, fighting special training battles to learn techniques, battling random enemies on the world-map, destroying fortresses of the Red Ribbon Army, uncovering hidden secrets, and so much more. There’s just so much to do here.
To be honest, there’s little I can complain about DBZK, though there are a few questionable design decisions. The game likes to make you do busywork between major story sections, and I understand that. Half the time this busywork lines up with the filler arcs of the anime, but the other half it’s just kind of dumb original sidequests which never feel compelling. I would have liked to see more content from filler arcs or movie arcs here. It’s a lot better than “go fight these random robots you’ve never heard of before.”
The graphics can be complained about, but only if you are really nitpicky. Cutscenes and battles look awesome, better than the anime at some points. Everything else, not so much. In casual conversation characters move in this stiff and robotic way that does get distracting. There are a few re-used battle animations for non-signature attacks, but battles tend to be so fast that you won’t notice. They also don’t match the lip flap animations to the English voice track, which is a pet peeve of mine but understandable in the long run.
Honestly, the one thing DBZK has going for it that really makes it stand out as opposed to all other DBZ games, is that it’s not boring. That sounds like an insult, but really it’s a matter of design. DBZ games always kind of appeal to the lowest common denominator weeb fan. They just shuffle you from battle to battle, which gets repetitive after a while. I am a pretty hardcore DBZ fan, and even I get tired of the 10th game that just has me fight Vegeta, Frieza, Cell, and Buu in that order.
But I never got tired of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot. I kept wanting to come back time and time again, either to level-up my characters, or to complete side quests, or to just see the next cutscene. DBZK made me want to play more, even over other major RPGs and fighting games on the market, and that’s saying something.
If Dragon Ball FighterZ was the best DBZ fighting game on the market, then this is the best DBZ story game on the market. I applaud Bandai Namco for striking gold with such a beloved franchise twice in a row. The only question left is, how can they possibly outdo themselves for the next inevitable DBZ game?