Like a certain radioactive spider, Dragon Ball Z is the catalyst for my Anime Fan Origin Story. Growing up with the ludicrous high-flying, hard-hitting adventures of Son Goku and friends, it puts me in kind of a tough position as both a super-hardcore Dragon Ball fan and a person who writes video game reviews whenever a new Dragon Ball game comes out.
Having started off with Dragon Ball Z: Super Butouden 2 on the Super Famicom, it's been a long and brutal road to finding the "perfect" Dragon Ball game. While I'll talk about my personal favorites later, let me say that the recently-released Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z gets a lot right, but shoots itself in the foot in some pretty spectacular ways.
Beginning with Raditz' arrival, focusing on every major arc of Dragon Ball Z, and ending with the Battle of Gods movie's story, Battle of Z features a whopping 68 selectable characters (with a handful of giant-scale bosses), but it does that irritating thing that Saint Seiya: Brave Soldiers does where each character's different powered-up forms each count as a separate character. This means there are five different versions of Goku (normal, Super Saiyan, Super Saiyan 2, Super Saiyan 3, and Super Saiyan God), four of Vegeta, four of Future Trunks... you get the picture. Previous games let you transform mid-battle, keeping the constantly-escalating feel of a Dragon Ball Z fight, but this takes a lot of the series' "feel" away.
The game plays out as a four-on-four team battle, and our recent demo review made a good comparison to Spike's Tenkaichi games. In a way, while movement is faster and more focused, combat feels a little more restricted than the Tenkaichi games--movement is so fast that it's better to just stay locked-on to your opponents, and quickly switch between enemies to thin their ranks. While plenty of the stages have buildings or rock formations that you can smash each other into, most of the combat will take place pretty high-up, so you won't get as much reckless destruction as you'd expect in a huge team fight.
Some battles play out in a four-on-one boss battle, with four regular-sized opponents taking on a huge enemy, like Vegeta in his Great Ape form or giant Wrath of the Dragon monster Hirudegarn. It's important to note that you won't be able to have any one-on-one matches--even if Goku fought Frieza alone for those five minutes (read: eighteen episodes) that Namek was dying, it's actually going to be Goku and three friends fighting it out with the fully-powered Frieza. I have to admit that it was really nice having the tension of five actual minutes to take Frieza, with a huge timer ticking down in the corner and my teammates dropping left and right.
While navigating the game's honestly very clunky and unintuitive menus, the main single-player focus is on the story mode, which follows three mission tracks: the regular story where you play as the good guys, a second set of missions where you play as the bad guys in each arc, and then the "Another Age" missions that let you pick any team of characters for large-scale battles, like killing twenty Saibamen or taking on a whole army of Frieza's low-grade soldiers. You can also equip stat-enhancing Cards or consumable Items to different fighters, and fighters all come in different classes--Goku may be a Melee-type and great for close combat and breaking enemy guard, but Krillin is a Support-type who can heal and restore Ki, and Piccolo is an Interference-type who can stun enemies, drain their Ki, or hit them with status effects. You're also able to customize character colors, and add cosmetic items like Saiyan tails or add and remove armor and props.
But after you fight your way through the story, you'll want to team up with some friends and fight side-by-side, right? I know I did! But y'know what kinda sucks is that Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z has absolutely zero local multiplayer options. No couch co-op so you can all fight Broly together (and whoever's playing Vegeta will still get KO'd in 29 seconds). No couch versus so that one Yamcha fan who's really good at video games can shut everybody up. You need to play this online. In some ways, it makes sense--split-screen for this type of game could get difficult to follow, but it's been done before, so it's a mystery why Battle of Z requires only one player per console.
With that said, the online is pretty solid (on PSN)--only one match dropped out for me, and there was sporadic lag fighting some Japanese players who beat me and my teammates like we owed them money. There are sometimes long lobby waits for matches, and every now and then you'll have to deal with input delay--this is a very fast game, and unfortunately the online can't always keep up with it. On an only slightly-related note, owners of the Vita version have reported in-game slowdown, and the Vita version only has the English dialogue option (compared to the console versions' English, Spanish, and Portuguese in addition to the original Japanese).
Technique-wise, there have never really been any competitively-viable Dragon Ball Z games, so it's understandable that fights can get kind of spammy. There's a huge emphasis on the "Chase" moves, where a team that's working in synch can pinball opponents around the arena, but these take up very little energy to start up and the execution windows are very forgiving. Character-specific finishing moves have some pretty infuriating homing properties (especially when I had Speed+60 bonuses equipped), and while only select characters can perform Ultimate Moves (huge finishers like Goku's Spirit Bomb), these are only available by purchasing a rare, expensive (via in-game currency) consumable item, and aren't available in Versus... so why make them so hard to get?
Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z is pretty cool--it gets the sound, the look, the feel of DBZ right. Unfortunately, a lot of Battle of Z's good is weighed down by some baffling choices. No local multiplayer, a padded cast, funky menus and a less-than-stellar combat system make this one a "maybe" for anyone but the most hardcore Dragon Ball Z fanatics. Even then, I think you should try the game out before committing to it. Battle of Z does a lot right, but it does enough wrong that it's not an immediate must-buy.
And since we talked about it earlier, my all-time favorite Dragon Ball game is Dragon Ball: Advanced Adventure for the GBA, because it's tight, unforgiving side-scrolling perfection. Runners-up? Budokai 3 and Idainaru Dragon Ball Densetsu on Saturn/PS1.
+ Amazing visuals and sound come together to make the best-looking, best-sounding DBZ video game experience to date
+ Huge, destructible battlefields and lightning-fast combat make for a fast, furious, fun-to-play (and fun-to-watch!) game
+ Extra-long story mode pulling from the entire Z series (and some of the movies)
+/- Simplified combat system is great for beginners, but easily exploitable by experienced players
+/- Enormous cast is mainly enormous because of numerous repeat "characters" that are just powered-up forms
- No local multiplayer (co-op or versus) is a massive oversight
- Clunky, unintuitive menu design can sometimes leave you confused on where to go or what to do
- No character language choices for the Vita version--sorry guys, just Sean Schemmel Goku for you