Dragon Drag Ball FighterZ proves that true e fighting-game beauty is much m more than skin-deep skin- deep
Games are born in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons, but it’s tempting to imagine Dragon Ball FighterZ’s genesis in very simplistic terms. A Bandai Namco executive sees footage of Arc System Works’ gorgeous
Guilty Gear Xrd: Sign, until now the closest a game has got to the concept of a playable cartoon. He glances at the Dragon Ball artwork on the wall. A lightbulb comes on behind him, and his pupils turn into dollar signs.
Dragon Ball FighterZ may seem like something of a no-brainer, but beneath the immediate, irresistible lure of its elevator pitch is a game of many layers. It is, as you’d expect from the maker of Guilty Gear and Blazblue, an enormously deep, monstrously technical fighting game. Yet it is also pleasantly accessible and easy to understand – a necessary move given its licence, which is familiar to and beloved by countless millions around the globe. Balancing those two very different camps is no mean feat, but our lengthy hands-on session at Bandai Namco’s Tokyo HQ, including a first look at the game’s story mode, suggests Namco and Arc might just have cracked it.
And if you’re in neither of those two camps, perhaps you’ll be hooked in by the simple fact that Dragon Ball FighterZ is one of the best-looking games ever made. It’s a three-on-three, note-perfect replication of the source material which borrows the Xrd games’ stunning hybrid fighting engine to remarkable effect. To recap: this is a 2D game in name and appearance only. Both character models and stages are created in 3D, the camera sat in a fixed side-on perspective. At points where most fighting games load in cinematics – for super-move and KO animations, for instance, or, in this case, when a new character joins the fray and the two opponents surge towards each other for a mid-screen clash before the action resumes – the camera unhooks from its mountings. Instead of a canned animation, you see a realtime, in-engine effect – during which, Arc confirms to us, every individual frame is hand-lit by the developers. And while the game runs and reads inputs at 60 frames per second, only hand-posed keyframes are shown, a high-fidelity way of mimicking the lo-fi look of the original anime.
The effect is astonishing whether you’re a fan of the source material or not, and this hybrid approach – of a 2D game that’s really 3D, of one that looks to be running at 15fps when it’s really being rendered at 60 – is a useful way to think about the game as a whole. This is a fighting game of deep complexity, that is also easy to get into and play. It’s all but guaranteed to become a fixture on the tournament circuit, but will also be bought by anime fans, who may have never thrown a fireball in their lives, in their droves. Just as Arc has used industry-leading techniques to make a game that looks like a 28-year-old cartoon, so it has made a game that satisfies both ends of the skill spectrum, without making either one feel like their experience has been compromised.
Take, for instance, the control system. “There are a lot of fighting games out there that have super-difficult commands and combos, but we didn’t want that,” producer Tomoko Hiroki tells us. “We believe the fun of fighting games isn’t just about controls – it’s about the mind games. So in terms of controls, we’ve made it rather easy. We’re trying to create depth, but not just through the difficulty of the commands. We’re trying to create a gateway [to fighting games] for casual players.”
To that end, FighterZ follows the current genre vogue for a one-button auto-combo; mash the medium-attack button and your character will perform a basic string including an aerial component which ends either with you smashing your foe to the ground, or a super combo, depending on whether you have any spare super meter. Throws have great range, and take the form of a forward dash and flurry of punches ending in a launcher, carrying you upwards with your opponent to begin an air combo. Commands have been simplified, with special and super moves activated using only quarter-circles forward and back, while the combo building blocks are universal across the cast. This is made clear during the combo trials, which rather than ask you to perform complex, maddeningly impractical and resolutely character-specific strings that you’ll likely never use in a match, instead teach transferable skills that work with any character, encouraging you to move around the cast instead of sticking to the handful you’ve put time into figuring out. Instead, the complexity comes from learning how to use those shared foundational elements with your chosen team. One fighter’s super might hit from an angle that’s inappropriate for an air combo, for example, so the string may require some tweaking to fit – or maybe, with the right assist move from an offscreen ally, you’ll be able to get your opponent into the position you need.
Perhaps the purest expression of Dragon Ball FighterZ’s dual focus on accessibility and depth, however, is its treatment of the projectile, arguably the most vital move in any character’s arsenal. Here, a simple tap of X is all that’s required for your character to fling some plasma across the screen; mash the button, and you’ll unleash a volley of the stuff. If you’re a hardened fighting-game player reading this, you might be worried by the Ki Blast. But it can be countered in style by another simple attack, a move available to the whole cast which grants full invincibility to projectiles and homes in on your target (another gives you a teleport that moves you behind your foe). Projectiles may be essential in this genre, but while mindlessly spamming them has never been easier, neither has punishing those who do so.
And while the shared combo inputs may make it easy to experiment with new characters, this is a roster of tremendous range and intricacy. Two newly announced fighters make that abundantly clear. First is Nappa, an old, burly ally of DBZ stalwart Vegeta. “When you look at a character like Nappa, normally you’d imagine him being a grappler that fights up close,” Hiroki says. “But we’ve tried to make him a little bit trickier, a bit different to what you’d expect.” One of Nappa’s moves sees him briefly stoop to the ground, planting a seed. A second or so later, a small sprite, familiar to fans of the anime as a Saibaman, appears; it walks up to the opponent, jumps towards them and, if it lands, explodes. Any grappler player, in any fighting game, would kill for such a powerful ranged ability. Once again, this is Arc walking the tightrope of this game’s different audiences, using something faithful to the anime to add a twist to fightinggame conventions to delight the genre faithful.
Captain Ginyu, meanwhile, is something else entirely. Hiroki asks the demonstrator to call up the command list; apparently, Ginyu has only four moves. Yet as in the anime, Ginyu fights with an army – in this case, a set of four allies, summoned using the Ki Blast button, coming out one at a time in a set rotation and each performing a different move. The command list may imply simplicity, and indeed, fans of the source material can just mash a single button and watch the sparks fly. Yet the veteran will need to remember which minion was called out last, and which
“W E BE L IEV E THE FUN OF F IGHT ING GAMES ISN ’T JUST ABOUT CONTROLS
– IT ’S ABOUT TH E M IND GAM ES ”
will come next, in order to optimise their combos. As for his Ultimate Attack, his most powerful super move, well. It’s a body swap, borrowed from the anime, not only exchanging characters with your opponent, but life bars as well. “We’re hoping that the core fighting-game audience will really master Ginyu – he’s a very technical character to use,” Hiroki says. “If someone used him in a tournament, and used the body change at the last minute when they were about to die… well, that would be huge.”
Arc’s efforts to satisfy all players in Dragon Ball FighterZ’s battle system would, however, count for nothing without the right modes. If all a beginner player can do is waltz once through arcade mode before heading online for a battering, all the developer’s good work beneath the surface would likely count for nothing. Furthermore, Arc’s genre peers have already shown that there’s more to a fighting game’s singleplayer component than simply banging a load of cutscenes together and sticking them in between fights. Given the source material, you’d almost understand if Arc went down that route. Yet, mindful of the need to accommodate the lesser skilled, it has once again put in the effort to strike a balance.
“The Dragon Ball games we released in the past were mostly focused on the reproduction of the original story,” Hiroki says. “You would play as Goku, and play the story that he lived. But for this game, we’re trying a new approach. We built a completely new, original story for this game, and you’re actually going inside Goku. In a fighting game, since you use a specific character for a long time and devote a lot of time to each one, players see those characters as representations of themselves. That’s what we want to express in the story.”
It means the fourth wall is torn asunder within seconds, the anime-perfect cutscenes showing Goku assailed by some unseen force, talking directly to whatever is now controlling him. When the first opponent turns up, they acknowledge it, saying they can tell Goku’s not his usual self, and that they’ll refrain from using lethal force. And it’s a factor elsewhere, first through a levelling system that boosts a fighter’s stats the more you use them to reflect the strengthening bond between you, and then back into the story, with a character opening up to you about their feelings from time to time.
Elsewhere we see a clear effort to make a mode of variety, flexibility and replayability: a story component that is built to last. Skill pickups will allow tweaks to a warrior’s core stats, boosting speed, damage and so on, or granting them unique abilities. The action is split over map screens, each containing a number of fights on multiple paths. One might lead to a fight against a powerful enemy, yielding a hefty chunk of character XP and perhaps a new skill; another will lead you to an ally in need. Save them, and they’ll join your party and become controllable in battle. The mode is split into three chapters, or arcs: the first puts you on the side of Goku and the good guys, the next on the baddies, and the third on the androids, in particular Android 18, the all-new character created for the game.
It’s a generous thing, all told, and while Hiroki estimates that a skilled player, taking the straightest path through the narrative, could see the credits in around ten hours, most will take a lot longer than that. And the hope is that most will stick around for longer still. “There are a number of routes, a lot of options, a lot of choices you can make. You can focus on recruiting new characters, or gaining specific items or skills. Since each story may not be super long, we wanted to add in different things so players can experience something new each time. We have a bit more to say, but I can’t get into it right now.”
Fighting games are, like Dragon Ball FighterZ’s story mode, split into three arcs. There’s the bit for beginners, which does the job of easing a novice audience into the basics of the game, and the genre. At the other end of the scale is a requirement for dizzying complexity, a
“W E WANT ED TO ADD IN D IF F ERENT TH INGS SO PLAY ERS CAN EXPER IENC E SOM E TH ING N EW EACH T IM E ”
seemingly infinite skill ceiling and enough high-octane thrills to ensure a game is loved by the hardcore and thrives on the tournament circuit. Yet perhaps the most vital element sits in between the two, the bridge between the on-ramp and the endgame, the path from fighting-game newbie to fighting-game god. And it is here that most games in this genre fail. The experts dive into training mode and try things out, leaning on their genre experience to learn the game. The beginners happily mash their way through the content that’s been tailor-made for them, hit a wall, and cast the game aside. From what we’ve seen, Dragon Ball FighterZ does a better job than most of catering for the two very different ends of the spectrum. Whether it can fix the genre’s long-standing problem with the middle ground remains to be seen, but given the work it’s done elsewhere, we’re cautiously optimistic.
Our image of the Bandai Namco exec and their lightbulb moment is, as Hiroki tells it at least, a little wide of the mark. To understand FighterZ’s genesis, you have to go back 25 years, to the run of three 2D fighting games, subtitled Super Butoden, that Bandai made for the SNES. “We started receiving a lot of feedback from fans that they wanted another 2D fighting game [like those],” Hiroki says. “Recently we’ve released a lot of 3D Dragon Ball fighting games. Because we’d focused a lot on 2D in the past, we’d done everything we could and 2D fighting was getting a bit old, so we shifted to 3D. We worked with Arc System Works on Dragon Ball Z: Extreme Butoden [a 2D fighter for 3DS], and we thought they’d be able to deliver to players a new type of 2D. That’s what I always say: the evolution of 2D isn’t 3D. It’s a new type of 2D. That’s what we’re trying to reproduce in this game.”
As we watch Goku deploy his most powerful attack, a series of supers strung into each other which costs six entire gauges, the screen exploding with spectacle as Arc’s remarkable engine surges into top gear, we’re inclined to say it’s job done. It’s been easy to dismiss Dragon Ball games in the past; they’ve been made at speed, within a limited budget, and aimed at an audience we’ve never really been part of. It’s been an effective strategy for Bandai Namco – at the last public count, licensed Dragon Ball titles had sold over 40 million copies worldwide – but FighterZ has the chance to be so much more. With Capcom’s recent efforts disappointing and Netherrealm long since settling into a solid, but never genre-beating groove, there is a gap in the market for a fighting game of truly mainstream appeal. This has the looks, the style, the familiarity and something of an obsession with easing novice players in; if there’s any justice, we may be soon to crown a new genre king.
And if not, then Hiroki at least hopes FighterZ will change people’s perception of big-brand games. “When you look at a licensed game, a lot of people think that the quality is not that high – that it’s made just to satisfy the fans. With FighterZ we want to convince players that even though Dragon Ball is a worldwide brand, we can create a game on its own terms. We want to create a fanbase for Dragon Ball games, and be able to say that the people playing these games are people who know quality.” Well, we know it when we see it. And it’s here, on full display, the camera twirling and cavorting through the air in one of the best-looking games we’ve ever seen.