Dragon Ball FighterZ
PC, PS4, Xbox One
The AI transforms from button-shy novice to psychic wizard in the blink of an eye
Publisher Bandai Namco Entertainment Developer Arc System Works Format PC, PS4 (tested), Xbox One Release Out now
We left our visit to Bandai Namco HQ for E313’ s Dragon Ball FighterZ story with one question. While Arc System Works appeared to have successfully delivered a game that would appeal to two very different groups – the genre-novice DBZ fan, and veteran fighting-game players – how did it intend to bridge the gap between the two, helping the former on the long, tough road to becoming the latter? The answer, sadly, is that it hasn’t. Dragon Ball FighterZ is two games in one. It is two very good games, too. But it’s hard not to see it as a missed opportunity, a game that seemed perfectly placed to solve its genre’s biggest problem declining to even engage with it.
Dragon Ball FighterZ is either a game in which you merrily mash buttons and watch as a succession of bonkers-haired anime warriors duff each other up on a screen filled with fireworks, or one where you spend hours in training mode, experimenting endlessly with team combinations and combo optimisations. This is par for the course in fighting games, certainly. Yet it’s especially disappointing given the massmarket pull of the Dragon Ball licence, and that FighterZ’s maker has a reputation as a fine teacher of fighting games.
Arc’s tutorials are the stuff of legend, not just telling you how to do a move but why it’s worth knowing, and when you should use it. Amazingly, almost all of that is gone. FighterZ’s tutorial imparts only the basics – fair enough, perhaps, given the way the game brings long, flashy combos within reach of a novice. But it is almost entirely bereft of context.
Take, for example, the Sparking Blast. Activated by pressing two shoulder buttons at the same time, it can be used defensively to push an opponent away from you across the screen. When used on the attack, it can extend combos, cancelling a move’s animation and causing your foe to crumple to the floor. And it buffs your damage and health recovery, the strength of the effect scaling according to your number of surviving team members. It is an essential tool that is capable of turning a match in your favour, or putting one that’s already going your way to bed. How does the tutorial explain this vital move? When attacking, apparently, it “temporarily powers up your character.” On defence? “Turn the tables with a Sparking Blast!”
Those who buy the game because of their love of the source material won’t care, admittedly. They certainly won’t need it, since opponents in the Story mode are polite, submissive sorts, happy to be knocked around so long as you’re having fun. Another novel system is the Ki Charge, which lets a character build up super meter for free by pressing two face buttons. You can be hit out of the lengthy animation, however, and if you try it online you’re asking for trouble. In Story mode, though, you’re left to it, the AI only too eager to give you the resources you need to fill the screen with a succession of beautiful cinematic super moves. We get most of the way through the first of Story mode’s three arcs before an opponent blocks one of our attacks, and by no means does that signal the start of a trend.
Story mode is for watching cutscenes and mindlessly pressing buttons, then. And that’s fine, because Dragon Ball FighterZ rewards mindlessly pressing buttons with joyous, dizzying abandon. Mash out light attacks and you’ll perform a basic combo, including an aerial component; do the same with mediums and the resulting string will end in a super move. Most characters can perform a fireball attack with a button press, which can be mashed for a rapidfire volley. And most share a movelist, with simple, universal commands producing character-specific results, encouraging you to move around the cast without needing to spend too much time learning the intricacies of each one – essential in a story mode that throws new characters at you at a fair clip. There’s a levelling system, with team members growing in strength and survivability the more you use them. But it’s really not needed given the hands-off nature of the AI; you’ll soon find yourself ignoring most of a chapter’s map screen, taking the shortest route to the area boss, the gap between your level and your opponent growing but never really seeming to matter. It’s abysmal training for the real game, which you’ll discover either in the upper difficulty tiers of Arcade mode, where the AI transforms from button-shy novice to psychic wizard in the blink of an eye, or when you head online. Suddenly FighterZ becomes a different game; one of magic, sure, and astonishing beauty, but it’s one that a dozen-plus hours of the Story component has done absolutely nothing to prepare you for.
It’s also one that’s very hard to follow: graphical splendour can be a hindrance when you’re trying to work out which direction you need to block in on a screen full of neon plasma and special effects. And the source material doesn’t help either: when half the cast are variations on the same manga boy with a colourful mop of hair, it’s hard to even tell which character’s yours.
At launch, despite multiple beta tests, we encounter numerous network problems, the decision to clump players together in 64-player lobbies meaning it feels like a blessing to actually get into a match. That will doubtless settle down, both as Bandai Namco tweaks things behind the scenes and as hordes of casual players leave with tails between legs when a game whose Story mode made them feel like a god suddenly reminds them that they are in fact an ant. The result is a brilliant fighting game for newcomers, and a wonderful one for genre fans, that somehow still manages to feel like a disappointment for so comprehensively failing to bring its two demographics together.