As a kid, I remember faithfully waking up on Saturday mornings to tune into the trials of Goku and his cohort of energy-wielding superheroes. Dragon Ball Z was my first exposure to anime, and it became a franchise I stuck with for more years than I can even remember. Yet while I do have a soft spot for DBZ and the myriad media that orbits it, I fell off the bandwagon years ago. I haven’t kept up with the new Dragon Ball Super TV show, and I haven’t earnestly played one of the games in full since the PlayStation 2 era.
Dragon Ball FighterZ, the new console and PC title out today, is drawing me back in, reinvigorating my love of the franchise. After spending some time with the full version of the game this week, I can say that it’s without a doubt the most visually stunning DBZ games in years. On top of that, it’s one of the most approachable fighting games I’ve played in ages, giving both genre newcomers and diehard fans a path to get well acquainted with the characters, move set, and DBZ backstory.
There are a number of thoughtful touches in FighterZ, like an open-world menu layout with chibi avatars and a progression system that, unlike most modern games, doesn’t seem too weighted toward real-money purchases. But the star of the show is developer Arc System Works’ art style, attention to detail, and superb capturing of the DBZ spirit. Responsible for the renown Guilty Gear fighting game series, Arc has a reputation for making some of the most polished, best-looking fight games around — and FighterZ only reaffirms the developer’s talents.
Of course, there have been Dragon Ball Z games for as long as the anime and manga have existed, which is to say decades. (The first one came out back in 1986 on the ancient Cassette Vision.) And while the series has evolved in step with the fighter genre, the point has always been to let you “play” through the show, so to speak, to unlock characters, special cutscenes, and other collectibles. This typically meant only diehard fans cared about DBZ titles, and quality tended to take a backseat to the obvious fan service.
But in the early 2000s, with the Budokai trilogy, the series really hit its stride. Those games, which blended 2D Street Fighter-style combat with interspersed 3D animations, made the strongest case for why a DBZ video game should exist outside the show’s core fandom. They were the first to bring to life the eye-popping, world-ending finishing moves and ludicrous, hair-changing transformations of the anime in a way that felt at truly at home on a game console.
Since then, 3D play has overtaken traditional fighting game elements across all anime game adaptations, from DBZ to Naruto to One Piece titles. Starting with 2005’s Budokai Tenkaichi — and more recently with 2014’s Battle of Z and the subsequent Xenoverse games — features like free roaming, co-op battle royales, and over-the-shoulder third-person perspectives have made DBZ games feel like cheap anime knock-offs. These games have lacked a style and personality of their own.
Dragon Ball FighterZ throws those late-series trends to the wayside in spectacular fashion, choosing a back-to-basics combat system and a full embrace of the zany internal logic of the series’ fictional universe. You still have an elaborate story mode chock-full of cutscenes, dialogue, and references that will confuse a lapsed DBZ fan. The narrative — something about clones and a new villain named Android 21 — is placed in the Dragon Ball Super timeline, and it’s occasionally tiresome but mostly bearable thanks to comical cutscenes and clever Easter eggs. There’s also online multiplayer, local play, and a staggeringly difficult AI arcade mode.
But the actual combat-focused core of the game is a blisteringly fast, stunningly animated assault of the senses that is as intense and challenging to follow as it is exhilarating. On one hand, the game captures the excitement, speed, and anime-infused bombast of the original Budokai games. Yet FighterZ manages to deliver it all with a simplicity and consistency that makes every single fight feels like a unique TV show battle. It’s something none of the over-engineered 3D battle systems of past games could pull off.
A lot of that can be traced to the game’s simplified approach to combat. Arc is using a system most non-fighting game fans might recognize in something like Super Smash Bros., meaning there’s a shared set of button combinations that make each character perform different actions with the same commands.
Swing the right analog stick in a smooth arc from your character’s back and toward the opponent and then press the circle button to perform Goku’s signature “kamehameha” attack. Perform the same move with green-skinned Namek fighter Piccolo, however, and his arm will extend out for a grab. Not everything changes across characters — every playable hero in the game charges up in the same fashion, and some pre-scripted combo moves and aerial maneuvers like teleporting are identical throughout the roster.
This has the effect of letting you learn one character’s moves, like Goku’s or Vegeta’s, and have it translate across most of the two-dozen character roster. That goes a long way in making this the most accessible DBZ fighting game in a long time, especially considering the fact that each match is a 3v3 bout. That means players are typically facing off against enemies by using three crucially different fighters, some of which combine well in story-specific ways but many of which do not.
Practically speaking, the simplified combat system also means battles tend to gravitate toward more elaborate, energy-consuming special attacks, which is where the game’s aesthetics really shine. Why focus on cheap punches and kicks when you can power up Goku to Super Saiyan 3 and level a mid-sized city’s worth of barren terrain with an energy blast? The game incentivizes you to counter your opponent’s special moves with versions of your own, and fights continually escalate in ridiculousness as a result.
And that’s where the 2.5D, cell-shaded art style really shines. Each special attack, though it’s performed in the same way, yields a result that’s difference is mostly visual and clearly designed for flair and bragging rights, while the damage is roughly equitable across attack tiers.
Want to turn an enemy into a piece of candy with Buu? You can do that. Want Gohan to team up with his younger brother Goten and father Goku for a triple Kamehamaha? You can do that too. These moves walk right up to the line of overbearing, excessive visual splendor, but FighterZ never succumbs to it by keeping things snappy and always re-centering the scene on the standard 2D plane. Clever pacing touches — like making each new fighter arrive with a quick intro animation — keep these 3v3 fights from feeling overwhelming.
Thes elements might lead a more hardcore fighting game fan to assume that FighterZ won’t be able to accommodate higher-level competitive play, or that its combat system has a lower-than-usual skill ceiling for the genre. Both may be true. But DBZ games aren’t exactly meant to go head-to-head with Tekken, Marvel vs. Capcom, or Street Fighter.
The point here is to make players feel as powerful as the fictional characters in the TV show. FighterZ is perhaps the best DBZ game in the franchise’s history at instilling in players that feeling of ultimate strength and earth-shattering destruction, an approach that only works because the game acknowledges the cartoony, over-the-top delivery of the source material. FighterZ is the DBZ series distilled into its purest form, and it’s made a fan out of me all over again.
Dragon Ball FighterZ is out in North America on January 26th, 2018 for PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.