There’s nothing quite like Dragon Ball Z. One of the shows responsible for anime’s continued popularity outside of Japan, DBZ‘s longevity as a franchise means that developers have had plenty of cracks at adapting its hyperkinetic battles to the realm of video games. While the story of Goku has been told in everything from RPGs to beat ’em ups, fighting games are really where the series lives. The countless warriors and flashy finishing moves on display in the show are perfect for this style of play, but only a few developers have really nailed the unique feeling of two godlike warriors clashing in a barren canyon. While I’d still probably say that the original Budokai trilogy is alone in capturing the true spirit of the anime, Arc System Works has produced the Vegeta to Dimps’ Goku in Dragon Ball FighterZ.
Taking place between sagas during Dragon Ball Super, FighterZ tells the story of the remnants of the Red Ribbon Army rearing their ugly head once again. A new android is on the loose along with an army of Z Warrior clones and a bevy of revived bad guys from days gone by. On top of everything, the world has been coated in power dampening energy waves the reduce Goku and his friends to mere mortal status. They only regain their fighting spirit with the help of the player character, a disembodied soul that can link with one fighter at a time and guide their fists to victory.
Considering that narrative is far from the focus here, I appreciate how much care was taken in telling a tale that is up there with any of the anime’s filler arcs. Both the main cutscene dialogue and the optional character moments that occur between fights feel ripped right from the show and true to the characters as fans know them. On the flip side, the integration of the player as an extradimensional soul possessing bodies is a bit awkward, leading to visual novel style moments (and even a few dialogue choices) that felt tacked on to needlessly explain away minutia. Some might revel in the chance to have Goku, Whis, and Cell talking directly to them through a television, but I was much more entertained by the running gags and callbacks that pepper each exchange.
There’s also the act of playing through the story, which is a poor experience all around. The single-player campaign feels complex at first, presenting a per character level up system, equippable perks, and a world map to travel on between each fight. However, you’ll know what you’re really in for early on as soon as you see tutorial prompts accompanying every battle you encounter. The fighting in the story is laughably basic to start, with AI foes often standing still and accepting any basic combo you throw at them. It dampens the fun of the story being told when dramatic moments in cutscenes transition directly into glorified squash matches that are impossible to lose. Things eventually ramp up, but the real draw for this mode is the story bits between fights, and a difficulty setting would have made the entire experience a bit more palatable.
Thankfully, story mode is not the only single player option available. There are several arcade ladders to climb, tournament modes, and local play against a friend and the CPU—everything you’d expect from a decent fighter. It’s in these modes where you can really dig into the insanely fast 2D 3v3 gameplay that has captured the attention of players far and wide. Utilizing a common button scheme across its roster, Dragon Ball FighterZ is easy to pick up and play as long as you can keep up with just how fast your character warps across the screen. Once you get over that, you discover the game’s depth in knowing when to tag characters in and out, learning all the ways you can reflect even the largest energy beams, and feeling out which characters map to which fighting game archetypes.
This is Arc System Works’ first foray into nonportable Dragon Ball Z development, and they make a great impression. Fights scratch the same itch as Marvel vs Capcom, both in terms of the complexity that comes from team composition and from the speed at with experienced players can dispatch their foes. Juggling between different super moves and warping behind opponents makes it hard to keep your distance, but every move can be countered if you know what you’re doing. Even if you’re just messing around, it’s extremely fun to watch the chaos unfold as assist characters pop in and smack talk flies.
Although it may seem so at first, Arc System Works hasn’t included any joke characters, and everyone from Yamcha to Beerus are viable picks in spite of their drastically different power levels in DBZ lore. The roster features 24 fighters to choose from, which may seem sizable at first glance, but feels limited as you spend time with the game. Each character’s moveset is tiny compared to most games, and button inputs remain consistent for everyone. While this makes the game immediately accessible to the Dragon Ball fan who isn’t into the type of fighters that Arc usually makes, it also reveals everything there is on offer without much effort. Considering that Marvel vs Capcom Infinite‘s roster of thirty felt small, I would have liked to see a few more obscure picks in addition to your standard fare. Despite saying that, I will give props to the developers for not including Raditz, breaking an inexplicable DBZ video game tradition that goes back decades.
As you pick your favorites and work out strategies on your own, you’ll reach the outer limits of the game’s offline content and truly test your mettle. The hard variations of arcade mode are punishing, with AI opponents that seem to respond to you before you make a move. It’s a drastic contrast to the opponents in the story mode and may prove frustrating to inexperienced players who just want to unlock the Super Saiyan Blue variations. Still, this will be good training for playing the game online, as there is enough depth and speed in Dragon Ball FighterZ‘s systems to bring out this high level of play.
Speaking of, online has proven to be a relatively smooth experience despite some early concerns. Much like past Guilty Gear games, you’re loaded into a lobby system from the start, allowing you to mix it up and trade DBZ specific emotes with up to sixty other warriors. If you want to fight online, you can choose to create a “ring match” to invite your new lobby friends, make it a more formal affair in the arena in the center, or venture out into the wider world with ranked and casual matchmaking. Matching with friends shouldn’t be difficult considering the long list of different lobbies, and the arena match and tournament modes should make for some fun online competition. Load times getting from one mode to the next are a bit lengthier than you’d like, but this could be a case of a big launch rather than any lasting technical hiccups.
Once all the loading is done, mixing it up with folks online is almost identical to playing with a friend as far as gameplay is concerned. There is a frame delay built in that smooths out online connections and gives everyone the best experience possible, and I was able to use my reviewer’s advantage to get close to beating a few new faces on day one. Despite the insanely fast nature of the combat, it was easy to keep up and counter opponent’s moves, and skill was definitely the determining factor in every match I won or lost.
As a quick aside, early reports about the game caused some confusion surrounding lootboxes and microtransactions. As we reported earlier, while there are gatcha boxes in the Dragon Ball FighterZ lobby system, they only spit out cosmetic items like lobby characters, player card titles, and alternate colors for your fighters. In addition, despite what you may have heard, there is no way to pump real money into the game outside of DLC purchases, which include a few exclusive cosmetics, early unlocks for characters, and a season pass on day one. None of this is out of the ordinary for fighting games, and the gatcha system seen here is one of the better implementations of loot in the modern age.
Graphically, Dragon Ball FighterZ brings the franchise as close as it ever has been to replicate the anime in a virtual form. Gameplay and cutscenes alike feature cell shaded likenesses that are indistinguishable from watching the show. The music and sound effects are also spot on, and the game features a full English dub in addition to its default Japanese voice cast. The gameplay seamlessly integrates references to the anime’s biggest moments during gameplay with lighthearted glee, including Dramatic Finishes that fans can set up by pairing the right characters off on the right stage to duplicate their favorite moments.
Where it counts, Dragon Ball FighterZ hits its mark. Gameplay is king, and this refined 2D combat lets the game expand beyond its licensed roots and into contention with established fighting franchises. For those who aren’t professional, the game is accessible, and players of all skill levels will find a lot to love with learning each character’s set of moves and when to execute them. While the game’s limited initial roster and disappointing story mode do sting a bit, you’ll forget all about those shortcomings as you control the chaos and deliver a Neo Wolf Fang Fist to Beerus and send him flying. In a time when many other franchises are faltering, Dragon Ball FighterZ may finally make players stop asking about Marvel.
Dragon Ball FighterZ is no mere licensed game or anime fighter. Sporting a fan-friendly story mode, a robust online experience and a host of other ways for you and your friends to trade ki blasts, it's clear that Arc have delivered a 2D fighter that's worthy of respect.
- Smooth Online Play
- Great Story Moments
- Nuanced Gameplay
- Authentic Presentation
- Thin Roster
- Stiff Difficulty Curve Offline
- Mr. Satan Isn't Playable