I’m not a fighting games expert, though I play plenty of them. It’s been well over a decade since I stopped adding to my personal collection of Dragon Ball fan art, but not a day goes by I don’t think about choreographing my own fusion dance. And for the past week, huge chunks of time have been dedicated to both.
Dragon Ball FighterZ has sparked something inside of me. Something latent and something dormant, respectively, but definitely something. It’s the pinnacle of an endlessly futile effort to translate a franchise made for video games into a one that people actually want to play and not just convince themselves to do so. The Butōden series broken the seal, and the Budokai games set the trend.
They never managed to sneak above a rating of precisely, infinitely, undeniably mediocre. And then along comes the pair of Xenoverse entries, and much to everyone’s surprise, they’re decent. In fact, you might even willingly play them. So let these words stick with you and know that there is no errant goodwill for these 30 years of banality when I say FighterZ is damn good.
It may sound superficial, but FighterZ has nailed the key aesthetic points of Akira Toriyama’s legendary work. (Hell, he even designed a new character for the game himself.) And that’s saying a lot considering that’s basically the number one objective for every Dragon Ball game to come along. If you’re gonna stand atop the shoulders of Saiyans, you might as well go Super.
This, unfortunately, has always put gameplay in the backseat, if it’s along for the ride at all. Developer Arc System Works, however, has a history of combining visual flair with mechanics and loops that grab players on all fronts. They created one of the longest-running series in the classic Guilty Gear and made a name for themselves in the modern era with the BlazBlue and Persona 4 Arena games.
After being stuck in the seemingly throwaway league of handheld Dragon Ball titles (that actually fared pretty dang well), they were handed the reigns of a major entry in FighterZ, and it paid off. They’ve created a complex fighting system that works simply if you want it to, a balance that other non-fighting game developers could have figured out. And it all lies squarely within making it complicated.
Each match is comprised of two trios facing off, and it only ends when one side is completely defeated. Normally, this puts off more casual players because instead of maining a single character, you now have to be proficient in three entire movesets and strategies. But for Dragon Ball fans, you’ll also want to see everything this game has to offer. Tough choice when you don’t have time or energy to dedicate to becoming an advanced player.
But with a simple yet oddly creative change, director Junya Motomura and company has fixed that: every character has the same command list. Rather than only being able to remember things that feel vaguely like dragon punch or fireball, you slot effects into only a handful of moves. With the same inputs, one character might fire off a Kamehameha and another might call for reinforcements.
This smartly reduces the journey to victory from one full of practice and frustration to one of pure strategy. Which of your character fit well against which part of the opposing triptych? You replace the overly expensive task of context switching with refined tactics, swapping out studious execution with an understanding of your troops. Timings, wingspans, etc. Jumping into a new roster feels as welcoming and rewarding as it can.
There are some other gems tucked away here and there, too, like in the story mode where you can force character interactions that never would come about otherwise. And gosh are the cutscenes just terrific. But there’s also a lot of fodder to fight and the online play is unreliable (from what I hear, anyway, since I’ve yet to put considerable time into it). This is not a flawless product.
But it is a fine one. It’s easily the best Dragon Ball game out there and one of the better fighting games to come along in the past year. (Yeah, I’d put it over Marvel Vs Capcom: Infinite.) Whether you like Dragon Ball, used to like it, or just want to shoot energy beams out of your hands at bad guys, you should probably play Dragon Ball FighterZ.