Whether it’s the 3D fighter-meets-MMO stylings of the Xenoverse series or the more traditional feeling Tenkaichi games, you never know quite what you’re getting with a new Dragon Ball game.
This time around is no different, as with Dragon Ball FighterZ (DBFZ) Bandai Namco Entertainment has abandoned its usual 3D offerings and opted to appeal to the hardcore fighting game crowd.
Throughout the preview process this new challenger has looked very solid, with its eye-catching visuals and (seemingly) never-ending combos impressing. With FighterZ being made by the team behind fighter favourite Guilty Gear, for the first time in recent years, this is a Dragon Ball game which has that ‘hardcore fighter’ credibility.
But there are challenges — to a non-DBZ fan, this roster of samey Saiyans in orange jumpsuits looks like an incarcerated glam rock band.
So does Dragon Ball FighterZ manage to strike a good middle ground? Or does it alienate half its audience?
How ‘DBFZ’ Combat Works
This tag team fighter format allows you to select three characters for your team. One character fights at a time, and injured characters can tag out to heal a limited amount while a teammate jumps in.
Teammates on the sidelines can be called in for cheeky assist moves, and clever players can whack their enemy so hard they effectively force a swap — denying rest to whoever was on the sidelines.
This is the blueprint which DBFZ inherited from the Marvel vs Capcom games, and there are many more similarities between the two. But overall, this is a decidedly less technical game than its competitor. For our money, this is definitely a good thing.
Its combat, for starters, feels right at home on a controller. The top three buttons cover light, medium and heavy attacks, while the bottom is a jump button. L1 and L2 are for swapping teammates, while R1 and R2 are for super attacks.
Each character has only a handful of abilities with basic inputs, though they all look amazing on screen. The camera will zoom in on the action in all the right places, never disrupting gameplay and always enhancing the effect.
The typical rock/paper/scissors in fighting games consist of attacks, blocks and grabs. Instead of a grab, DBFZ has a “Dragon Rush” which amounts to a quick flurry of attacks that sets up an air combo. Two players Dragon Rushing at the same time will cancel each other out in a whirlwind of speedy attacks that is oh-so-Dragon Ball Z.
Interestingly, there isn’t any chip damage, which suggests the developer sees the Dragon Rush as a sufficient tool to combat excessive blocking.
Further complexity is there for those who seek it, but the basic level of play is so heavily stylised that regardless of skill, no one will feel useless while playing this game.
A Three-Way Story Mode
For those who like their sparring equal parts verbal and physical, the Story mode is ready to give you around 10 hours of overconfident bluster from all your favourite Dragon Ball characters.
Foregoing Xenoverse’s messy time travel approach, FighterZ handles its story with a novel take on the amnesiac “relearning your powers” trope. Here, mysterious and debilitating waves cause all fighters on Earth to lose their power. Several old villains have been resurrected, and clones of the most powerful fighters wander Earth like zombies.
Only those who have souls linked to them can bring out their power, by defeating as many of the clones as they can.
Three different versions of the story arc are told, depending on which character was initially linked with your — the player’s — soul. Characters will look straight down the barrel of the camera and address you, asking for your help in bringing out their power.
It’s a nifty way to play with the fourth wall. Uberfans will be treated to meaningful side comments too, but in a nice touch, the game’s story mode largely remains accessible to anyone.
If you’re expecting a challenge though, you’ll need to dive into Arcade or Multiplayer matches. While it may be good for your ego, unfortunately, the AI in the Story mode largely just feel like a procession of punching bags. Even at higher difficulty levels, it seemed as though the computer had only just figured out how to switch out characters and heal, making me feel woefully unprepared for the whooping I received online.
Speaking of healing, moving across the map in Story mode also captures match mechanics in a meta way. Characters not directly fighting will heal, and you can’t let enemies on the map power up for too long — just like you can’t mid-match.
It was a little disappointing that it wasn’t necessary to master the game’s systems to win, but despite that, the length and entertaining plot in the Story mode won me over.
Accessible But Not Simple
At surface level, there will be those who make fun of DBFZ for including over 30-hit combos that only require one press of one button.
It’s true that compared to many of its peers, this is a less technical game. Unlike say, Street Fighter, doing decent damage with basic, button-mashing combos is extraordinarily easy. Here, closing distance is as easy as pressing R2 and powering up your super meter is as easy as pressing two buttons.
Thankfully though, I was pleased to see that there are levels to all of this. While flashy combos are one button press away, manual combos are far more efficient. You may not find them explained in the menus, but for those keen enough to practice on their own and research online, manual combos will do more damage, take less meter, and look the same level of flashy.
All of this means anyone can pick up DBFZ and feel like they’re pulling off amazing moves, but the damage optimisation and efficiencies are there for those who care. It’s not ideal that most basic autocombos do about the exact same damage. But perhaps that’ll entice newer players to brave the depths of more exciting — and more rewarding — manual combos, where things start to get quite technical indeed.
I can absolutely see DBFZ being played in tournaments, though there are one or two hilarious-but-cheesy things I worry about.
For example, if you get the distance right, Android 16 has a self-destructing grapple super that literally just kills someone, and lowers his own HP to 1. He can either do it as a last resort, or attempt to heal afterwards.
It’s a big ol’ cheese pizza.
For the hardcore players, the lack of damage done through blocks could also be a concern. Still, it’s early days and only time will tell if these are issues that actually need fixing, or just different quirks.
Is ‘Dragon Ball FighterZ’ Good?
Developer ArcSystemWorks hasn’t sacrificed depth for that accessibility, yet at the same time FighterZ mechanics aren’t quite as nuanced as, say, Marvel vs Capcom. Experienced fighting game players will be able to master the manual combos and hit the offensive skill ceiling quickly, but refreshingly, FighterZ looks to be a game where even novices can catch up.
Dragon Ball FighterZ has managed to prioritise competitive play while still packing in the hyper-stylised, fill-your-entire-screen special effects the franchise demands. The moves are super cool, and the fact they don’t obscure vital telegraphing is even cooler.
It’s easy. It’s cheesy. But make no mistake, under the hood this is a fighting system worth taking the time to master.