Back when I was in elementary and middle school, Dragon Ball Z was one of those shows that made me rush to get through my homework as quickly as possible to tune into the action. Pretty much as soon as I got back home from classes, I put on Toonami and was compelled to see the epic story of Goku and his companions unfold as they trained to fight more absurdly-powerful enemies after another, starting from the Frieza Saga on down (I think I got as far as the Kid Buu Saga). Thinking back on it now, Dragon Ball Z was mostly over-the-top and absurd in a lot of ways… and yet, it’s a show I look back on fondly as exhilarating fun that was a big part of my growing up.
That sense of nostalgia is one of the reasons why I was so looking forward to Dragon Ball FighterZ, which is the latest take on a video game fighter based on the iconic Dragon Ball series. Though at this point I haven’t watched an episode of Dragon Ball Z in somewhere around 10-15 years, those years of watching Goku, Vegeta, and the rest of the series’ cast go Super Saiyan came flooding back to me in my time with Arc System Works’ Dragon Ball FighterZ. It’s easy to see it as one of the best — if not the best — game adaptations of the series yet.
Coming from the developers behind the Guilty Gear titles, the BlazBlue series, Persona 4 Arena, and more, Dragon Ball FighterZ is an excellent mix of combat, style, and a healthy dose of love for a franchise that has spanned over three decades. Dragon Ball has been adapted plenty of times in game form over the years, yet FighterZ brings the series to life in a way that feels as striking and energetic as the anime and manga that inspired it.
As I think a lot of people can expect, Dragon Ball FighterZ will appeal mainly to fighting game enthusiasts or die-hard Dragon Ball fans. While I wouldn’t consider myself falling into either of those camps necessarily, FighterZ manages to successfully balance the hardcore (and some might say intimidating) mechanics of titles like Arc System Works’ Guilty Gear series, with a control scheme that is very newcomer-friendly.
Personally, I loved how approachable FighterZ is. While it isn’t necessarily at the same level of simplicity as something like Smash Bros., fighting game newbies should be able to grasp the core mechanics pretty quickly. And yet, there is still a considerable amount of depth to the controls and combat that the hardcore fighting game community will undoubtedly latch onto in the weeks, months, and (hopefully) years to come while uncovering the game’s deeper mechanics.
Dragon Ball FighterZ takes the form of a 2D tag-team fighter, not too unlike the Marvel vs. Capcom games. Players on each side pick a mixed-and-matched team of characters from across the Dragon Ball universe and cannot only utilize a wide range of abilities and powers for each character individually, but also chain and combo those attacks together through assist moves from the remaining two characters on the bench, or switch them out in the midst of a fight to give weakened characters a breather.
At launch, Dragon Ball FighterZ has a roster of 24 characters (with more to come down the line through DLC) that span across the Dragon Ball franchise. Series mainstays like Goku, Gohan, Vegeta, Krillin, Piccolo, and more all find their way onto the roster, while several variant versions of the characters are also on the list with a bit more specialized abilities, like Adult Gohan or Goku Black. Additionally, plenty of the series’ villains also make an appearance like Frieza, Cell, and Majin Buu along with some newer faces from the series like Beerus and Android 21, a brand new character crafted specifically for FighterZ (and who plays a major part in the game’s Story Mode).
Compared to most other fighting games, 24 characters might seem like a reasonably barebones roster, especially for a tag-team oriented game like FighterZ. This was a concern I initially had back when I first played the game last fall with an even more limited selection of characters, but I’m happy to say that the final roster (for the most part) feels diverse and justifiable at two dozen characters. While some of the Saiyan characters might suffer from some familiarity (given that multiple versions of Goku, Vegeta, and Gohan are on the roster), overall there are numerous different playstyles to toy around with, especially in figuring out the best team of characters that might suit your specific playstyle or strategy.
Well-rounded characters like Goku or Vegeta will serve as excellent picks for newcomers to play around with, while the lineup expands in some surprising ways with the rest of the cast for experienced fighting game players to enjoy. As expected, characters like Goku and Gohan can unleash Kamehameha and several of the show’s iconic moves, but many characters have their own unique gameplay styles and traits that can make the game more than just blasting each other back and forth with energy beams.
For instance, Piccolo has a grab maneuver instead of a neutral projectile attack, which offers an entirely different angle for players to use to their advantage. Likewise, Kid Buu can be hard to play an up-close game against thanks to his long-ranged attacks, and Hit has a variety of counter moves that can be devastating in the right hands. Some of the characters’ play styles go way beyond that like Nappa, who utilizes his army of Saibamen to completely throw players off-guard, and more. Of course, Yamcha gets a lot of laughs for his general lack of fighting prowess, but even he has some tricks up his sleeves for players to explore.
Though the roster might be slim to some players, the amount of depth and variety that each character offers is compelling, primarily when they are used in combination with a full team. This is made all the better by the fact that Dragon Ball FighterZ uses (mainly) universal input commands for each character, making the transition between each character mid-fight way pretty seamless. While the specifics of each character’s movesets will be very different, the means to pull off those moves will be more or less the same between characters, which makes for a much more enticing experience when it comes to learning new characters (or playing as ones you might be less familiar with). If you can pull off Ryu’s Hadouken in a Street Fighter game, then you can virtually perform any of the characters’ moves in FighterZ.
Aside from the roster of characters from across the Dragon Ball universe and the compelling fighting gameplay, the real star of FighterZ is the art style. To put it frankly, Dragon Ball FighterZ is stunning in motion thanks to the use of Arc System Works’ process of crafting 3D character models that are painstakingly made to look like 2D drawings. Honestly, I still remember thinking that the visuals were hand-drawn, 2D animation back when I first played the game. While that isn’t the case, FighterZ clearly is the closest that games have ever gotten to bringing the iconic style of Dragon Ball to life.
From top to bottom, FighterZ feels like Dragon Ball. Everything from the models of the characters to the detailed environments, and even to the ways that the camera sweeps in and out of the battlefield perfectly captures the qualities that have made the series such a larger-than-life experience. It wouldn’t be surprising to pause the game and think that it was a still from the anime, as each frame of the game perfectly captures the qualities of Dragon Ball in style and substance. Just taking a look at the game’s various “Dramatic Finish” moves — which act as secret match finishers under specific match conditions — literally recreate iconic moments from the show almost perfectly is something I think Dragon Ball fans everywhere will love.
Arc System Works’ love for the series is apparent all throughout FighterZ, and that attention to detail also extends down into the game’s single-player offerings. Namely, the game’s Story Mode crafts an entirely new story in the Dragon Ball universe as Goku and his companions fight off waves of clones that have replicated themselves as the series’ protagonists. Spanning three different story arcs, the Story Mode ends up putting the player into the shoes of many of these characters as they stop a new threat from taking over everything.
It’s not exactly new territory for a Dragon Ball story (or a Dragon Ball video game for that matter), but the Story Mode does offer a gentle introduction to the combat for newcomers and a ton of fan-service for lovers of the manga and anime. Personally, I loved the Story Mode’s pairings of unlikely characters; the Story Mode’s cutscenes are almost entirely worth it for that reason alone, even if it ends up being a bit too repetitive to come back to (easily lasting at least 10 hours or more, for most players).
Aside from the Story Mode, players can also turn to some other casual/single-player-oriented modes like Arcade Mode, which simplifies things by letting players take on branching paths with varying numbers of fights (and a much higher difficulty level than Story Mode). A local battle option is also available for players to duel in either split-screen with a friend or to take on CPU opponents, while various Training and Practice options are also available for players to hone their skills with specific characters or team comps.
By and large during my time with FighterZ and playing online, I had little to no issues as far as encountering a smooth, steady online connection against friends and other players (which I played mostly on PC). However, the only major hurdle that is holding back Dragon Ball FighterZ‘s online experience is a somewhat clunky lobby system that might take a few hoops for players to jump through, especially if you want to play against friends.
Primarily, all of FighterZ‘s modes are accessed through an in-game public lobby area, where the player (as a cute, chibi version of various Dragon Ball characters) can either roam around to the specific mode they want to play or warp to that location instantly. It’s relatively self-explanatory at first, though if you’re going to invite or play against friends, things can get a bit complicated very quickly.
To jump into a game together, players have to be on the same server, which FighterZ prompts players to join right from when they boot up the game with a list of servers divided up by region. From there, players then have to establish a “ring match” that, essentially, creates a room within the lobby for other players to hop into a match with each other. However, if you want to establish a private room for just your friends to play together, you not only have to be on the same server with enough empty space (which might be a challenge given the game’s current popularity), but also use a password provided by the player creating the room to jump in.
All in all, Dragon Ball FighterZ‘s methods of setting up matches online (especially with friends) takes some getting used to, on top of some of the issues that the game currently has been experiencing with the ring match function being a bit fussy, and with servers for the game more often than not being full entirely. Publisher Bandai Namco has addressed recently that it is working with Arc System Works to improve the online functionality of the game, so there is the chance that the system in place could be tweaked in the coming weeks (or months) after launch.
The online system right now works, though it would be hard to say that FighterZ‘s current set-up for jumping into matches online isn’t a little bit convoluted and might take some getting used to, for the time being. For organizing large groups of players together in matches, I can see what Arc System Works has in place working well, but for the sake of a simpler quick-play experience, I would have appreciated a more streamlined setup to get into matches with another player (especially with friends) than what is currently there.
Given that loot boxes and microtransactions have been a hot topic in games as of late, Dragon Ball FighterZ mostly steers clear of the more negative connotations of in-game purchases. FighterZ does include a “loot box” system but it’s all relegated to cosmetic items, and they can only be purchased with in-game currency (as opposed to real money). The loot boxes themselves are “Z Capsules,” which players can obtain individually or in batches of 10 for certain amounts of “Zeni,” the in-game currency that players earn from virtually everything done in game. Alternatively, you can also earn Premium Z Coins (which are earned from duplicate items in Capsules), in which 10 Z Coins can be traded in for an item that is guaranteed to not be a duplicate of what you already have.
While that all means players will have to put some time into the game (and its loot boxes) to earn avatars and other cosmetics (like alternative character skin colors), the loot box system is largely (and thankfully) unobtrusive from the main experience. However, those that want to invest their time into unlocking fun character cosmetics and items have the option to do so at their leisure.
Despite a few nagging issues as far as its online systems and a few single-player modes with some rough edges, from top to bottom Dragon Ball FighterZ is going to be a tough competitor to top as far as fighting game releases come for the rest of this year. While its appearance suggests that fighting game enthusiasts and Dragon Ball fans will be the ones turning towards it the most, FighterZ admirably makes its experience just as accessible to first-time fighting game players as it does to seasoned vets.
Aside from having an incredibly solid fighting game structure at its core, Dragon Ball FighterZ is a title that Arc System Works clearly treated with respect and love for the franchise that it is inspired by, and it stands toe-to-toe with the iconic anime and manga because of it.