by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Easy to learn, difficult to master
Like many of the franchise’s memorable characters, fighting games and I have a long, tumultuous history of shining highs and frustrating lows. In a genre defined by twitch decisions and deep, complex systems that are, perhaps, the medium’s greatest examples of "easy to learn, difficult to master," it can be intimidating for players to try to jump into a new fighting game with a foreign combat system. So that you can understand a little bit of where I’m coming from, I’m a fairly casual fighting game fan that likes to dabble, but generally hasn’t put in the time required to really dig into the minutiae of most fighting games the way more competitive players do. The only one I would say I’ve done that for is 2017’s Injustice 2, but that’s a very, very different game than we have here. What I am a big fan of, though, is the Dragon Ball franchise. The series is ubiquitous with easy childhood afternoons and many a playground battle royale, and that love has kept a tight hold on a very special place in my heart ever since. Much to my delight, Dragon Ball FighterZ is a robust entry into the genre that packs the look, feel, and gameplay that the Dragon Ball IP deserves.
From a pacing and visual flow perspective, Dragon Ball FighterZ most closely reminds me of the Marvel vs. Capcom series, with teams of three fighters on both sides switching and assisting each other, bright colors flashing and blasting all over the screen, and super fast character movement in all four 2D directions. That being said, one of FighterZ’s greatest strengths is that it’s able to find that perfect balance between chaos and control. There has to be a lot going on the screen, because that’s how Dragon Ball fights always are. Characters have to dash at near lightspeed. There needs to be egregious amounts of energy blasts. Power has to radiate from screaming combatants as they charge up for a big attack. This all makes the fights look very intimidating, but once you actually pick up the controller it becomes abundantly clear that this game was designed from the ground up to be accessible to even the greenest of players.
For as flashy as everything is, making the action happen is a breeze. Basic attacks and a special are mapped to the four gamepad face buttons, other specials are mapped to short, simple input combinations, and combo attacks are only a couple of button presses. Assists, character switches, and rush-down attacks are one button each, and nothing else is much more difficult from a mechanical perspective. You won’t find any 15-second-long chain combos requiring dozens of twitch direction inputs and button presses here, though that isn’t to say that the system is devoid of depth. While this is perhaps the easiest fighting game I’ve played in quite some time to be “ok” at, there’s still clearly a high skill ceiling when dealing with things like switches, managing your special meter, composing your team, etc. for those that want to really hone their craft.
Disappointing Story and Great Presentation
Perhaps it’s just because I’ve been spoiled with the stellar stories NetherRealm has been pumping out with their last few titles, or even by the relatively fun alternate-timeline campaigns of the Dragon Ball: Xenoverse games, but I was left pretty wanting with the story mode in FighterZ. The general setup is that clones of all our favorite characters have started appearing, and they’ve got to be stopped. This brings together a nice array of series favorites including Saiyans, androids, gods, villains, and more. The newest franchise addition is the made-for-this-game Android 21, who plays a central role in the story. While it’s always fun to see these characters (and more that make non-playable appearances), the narrative just wasn’t ever particularly captivating. You’ll travel around an overworld map of stops, fight a bunch of low-level-AI clones, and then fight a slightly tougher boss fight to move on to the next region. The vast majority of the campaign errs on the side of too easy, though it does do a decent, if not over-extended job of introducing the game’s mechanics. It also grows too dull too fast, as the fights see you combating the same enemies over and over again without much real narrative advancement until after the big boss of each area.
What the story, and, indeed, the game in general, deserves credit for is the beautiful, spot on presentation that nails the look and sounds of the shows. The art style is a dead ringer for the anime, and a screenshot at virtually any moment during a cut-scene could be mistaken for something from TV. I didn’t like having to hit a button to continue dialogue after every single line, but that proved to be a minor annoyance in an otherwise masterful example of design. Fights never have a dull moment, with even the simplest of combos and attacks looking as powerful and awe-inspiring as they should. Quick dramatic cuts to different camera angles accentuate attacks, and each battle scream and ki blast sounds just like they should.
Can I Get a Main Menu?
The last thing worth mentioning is that the game’s lobby system is pretty inconvenient. When you boot up the game, you’ll find yourself running around as an avatar character in a small 3D “town” instead of a menu. To start the story mode, join an online fight, enter a private match, or do anything else, you’ve got to run and talk to the appropriate person. Other players are running around too. It is, frankly, a waste of time, and I’d rather just be able to select what I want to do from a main menu. There’s also a loot box system, though it only works with in-game currency, but the rewards - avatars and chat lines for the lobby - are fairly pointless as well. It’s not that it really hurts the game, but it seems like a strange way to spend time and resources.
Dragon Ball FighterZ is a great game that should be an automatic purchase for any fans of the Dragon Ball franchise, and is worth a hard look from anyone that may be intimidated to jump into their first fighting game. It’s too early to make claims about the game’s longevity, balance, and online community, but the pieces are certainly in place to for the game to have some legs.
Fantastic visual design, tight gameplay, a good mix of accessibility and depth
A boring campaign, an overly complex “menu”