It’s only January, but it seems likely that Dragon Ball FighterZ is the flashiest fighting game of 2018. Though only the latest in a long line of licensed fighting games based on the beloved anime franchise, FighterZ is a cut above those that came before. Publisher Bandai Namco handed the license to developer Arc System Works, makers of the niche, but well respected, Guilty Gear franchise. The series has also adopted a familiar format — 3-on-3 swap-in, swap-out team-fights, like those found in the Marvel vs. Capcom franchise.
Oh — and the game looks incredible.
When it was first shown at E3 2017, FighterZ dropped jaws with its 3D cel-shaded visuals, which look nearly identical to the anime that inspired them. (Actually, having gone back to watch some old episodes, I can confirm the game looks much better than Dragon Ball Z ever did). FighterZ genuinely looks and feels like an epic fight from the show that inspired it.
It helps that FighterZ is one of the easiest fighting games to pick up and play. Though it may lack the mechanical diversity found in some of its peers, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better brawler to simply pick up and play.
Anime you can play
Before you play Dragon Ball FighterZ, you might want to just look at it for a while. In combat, the game is incredibly smooth, the graphics look sharp and crisp. It looks like the real thing. We can’t understate how cool it is to press a button, and watch a cartoon to come to life. Though its animation is not the technical marvel that Cuphead was, there’s something even more surreal about the fact that these are characters you’ve seen elsewhere.
The game features a roster of 24 fighters from Dragon Ball Z and Super, 21 of whom are available right away. The characters all use many of their signature moves from the show. Not every fighter can do every move in DBZ history, but each one has a look and feel that’s distinct, and conveys personality.
The game makes the most of its aesthetic by piling on crazy visual effects. Every match is chock full of giant colorful energy beams and exploding auras. Though the fights are 3-on-3, which means there can technically be as many as six characters on-screen at once, it’s never hard to keep track of what’s going on in the fight. It’s difficult to balance flash with function, but FighterZ has done it.
Those impressive visuals don’t come without a cost, though. On Xbox One, it takes more than 30 seconds to load in and out of local and story mode matches. Even without lobby wait times and connection issues, you will spend a good amount of time waiting for fights to start and end.
Anime fighters: Not just for fanboys anymore
FighterZ takes more than its fair share of cues from Capcom’s Marvel vs. Capcom franchise, specifically, Marvel vs. Capcom 3. Like MvC3, each player selects three fighters from a roster of 24, who they can rotate in and out of the fight at will. The three-fighter format adds an extra layer of strategy, as it’s possible to rotate members of your team in and out to keep them alive. Your backup fighters can recover a portion of their lost health over time, allow you to draw out the fight, and recover from your mistakes.
Better yet, FighterZ mimics the MvC series’ spectacle. Both games use bombastic visual effects to make even simple attacks look crazy, cool, and out of control. Nearly every Dragon Ball character has a powerful attack that could put a giant crater in the planet, but most of them require hardly more technique than a simple fireball in Street Fighter.
Indeed, one of FighterZ’ great appeals is its simplicity. Every character has four attacks — light, medium, heavy, and special, which is often a projectile. Every character also has access to same pool of simple, yet powerful advanced maneuvers: The right bumper (R1) triggers a flying dash that allows you to dodge projectiles. Both the left bumper and trigger can call in your partner characters to perform a quick special move, often a large Kamehameha beam or destructo disc.
Combat is simple, but also fast, and the penalty for missing a step can be severe.
Pressing medium and heavy attack at the same time lets you teleport right behind your opponent and hit them with a heavy kick that knocks them across the screen. These moves are generally easy to pick up, and with that basic skill-set you have the tools you need to control the tempo of a match. While each character has their own special and super attacks (which require you to charge up energy), the buttons are mostly universal.
While there is a learning curve for getting to know how each character works, the mechanical barrier to entry is as low as we’ve seen in a fighting game in a long time.
It’s an impressive achievement. While many fighters boast that they are “easy to pick up, but difficult to master,” in a world where pro-class players are thrust into the same matchmaking pool as novices, that rings hollow. Learning how to play a fighting game well enough that you have a chance online usually takes a lot of time and dedication.
It doesn’t take long to learn all the basic maneuvers of FighterZ, and that basic skill-set gives you the tools you need to compete. Does that mean a novice will take down a champion? Probably not — but they’ll feel they have a fighting shot, which is more than you can say about Street Fighter, Tekken, Injustice 2, or MvC: Infinite.
Since both players can easily dodge, fly, teleport, and execute crazy combos, there’s a strong emphasis on positioning and momentum. To excel, you need to know how control the map and maintain your momentum. While it’s simple, the combat moves fast, and the penalty for missing a step can be severe.
The system’s simplicity does not come without flaws. While there are ways to break up an opponent’s combos, including a parry, a moment of invincibility when recovering from a mid-air combo, and the teleport attack, it’s easy to get locked up by repetitive strings of attacks that bounce you around the screen and provide few openings to counter. It doesn’t help that you can’t switch fighters while taking damage. It’s easy to instinctively call in one of your teammates when your health gets too low, only to realize no help is coming.
Anime game, anime storytelling
Though built on a great foundation, FighterZ is still a Bandai Namco anime fighting game. For better or worse, fan service reigns supreme, especially in the game’s story mode. FighterZ makes a good-faith attempt to craft a campaign that can be enjoyable for both fans and newcomers, but it’s far from perfect.
FighterZ features an original narrative that feels right at home among the anime show’s many arcs.
Written by series creator Akira Toriyama, FighterZ features an original narrative that would feel right at home among the anime show’s many arcs. A mysterious force drains the fighting power from series hero Goku and his friends as an army of android clones attacks Earth.
Though powerless on their own, the Dragon Ball crew can fight with the help of a “human soul” (you!) that’s immune to the “waves” blocking their energy.
It’s a thin excuse to explain away why you’d fight the same 20-ish people dozens of times — not every fighter appears in the story — but slow, drip-fed exposition feels right at home in the Dragon Ball universe. Fans will be relieved to hear that you can watch the cutscenes in Japanese with English subtitles, or an English dub track.
The story is broken into chapters. You’re dropped onto an overworld map and cross it to complete a single boss fight in a certain number of turns. Each map has at least a few battles. Most of them are optional, but if you want to maintain a similar amount of health and strength as your opponents, you’ll need to fight every battle and grind out your “link level” to improve your fighters.
Here’s the catch; you only get a small amount of health back at the end of each fight. As the fights get tougher, you’re all but forced to rotate characters in and out of your starting trio so your favorite characters can heal.
While the story could be worse, it’s certainly too long. The narrative comprises three “story arcs,” which tell three versions of the same story, giving you different rosters to work with. With anywhere between 3-10 fights in each chapter, the cutscenes and actual story feels secondary to the grind, which isn’t satisfying beyond the basic, visceral validation of watching your link level rise.
What else is going on?
Outside of combat, FighterZ looks and feels like a conventional Japanese multiplayer game. Players engage with the game’s various modes — story, arcade, local & online multoplayer, in-game store, practice mode, etc. — through a small hub world. The hub, populated by chibi versions of Dragon Ball characters, also doubles as a social space when the game is connected to the internet. You can exchange stickers and pre-written messages with other players. As a lobby, it isn’t great: You can’t chat or coordinate with other players in a meaningful way, but it is a fine, if benign way to let players interact and revel in their fandom together.
On launch day, we found ourselves waiting for minutes to get a match, even in a crowded room.
The social hub lobby system is indicative of a larger issue with Dragon Ball FighterZ’s online infrastructure. Even when you enter a full lobby — players are separated by region into groups of up to 64 — there are long waits between matches. It doesn’t help that the game breaks up the player pool into many different types of matches. There the standard ranked and casual pools, plus spectator-friendly “arena” pools, and “ring matches,” where you can challenge another player in the lobby (without talking to them first).
On launch day, when the servers were turned on, we found ourselves waiting for minutes to get a match, even in a crowded room. Namco and Arc System Works may be able tune things up over time, but, at the moment, playing online requires patience.
Aside from the story and playing online, where most players will spend the bulk of their time, it’s worth noting that FighterZ does have an interesting spin on the classic “Arcade” single player. Like other fighting games, arcade mode simply lets you fight through a predetermined number of fights in rapid succession. Unlike other Arcade modes, which ramp up the difficulty in predetermined intervals, FighterZ tracks your performance, gives you a rating at the end of every match, and gives a new opponent based on that score. The change gives Arcade, a largely anachronistic mode in the era of story driven campaigns, a bit of new life. When you complete Arcade with a “B,” you feel the drive to get an “A” or “S,” the highest rank. That’s enough to keep players in the mode, fighting, and improving.
FighterZ also takes a surprising and refreshing tack when it comes to loot boxes. The game has blind “capsules,” which you can buy with in-game currency, but there are no real money microtransactions. The capsules give you new stickers, new characters for the in-game lobby, and other cosmetic items. FighterZ does not offer new characters, stages, or costumes for fights through the store, so the offering feels a little thin, but it’s a small price to pay for not having any ads or intrusive mechanics.
Dragon Ball FighterZ is major leap forward the Dragon Ball game franchise. Where previous games have amounted to pure fan service, FighterZ has hooks and mechanics on par with other elite fighting games. And, again, the visuals will be a tough act to follow for nearly every AAA game coming this year.
We do worry about the game’s long-term viability. Thanks to some rough edges in the form of long load times and a less than stellar lobby system, and the game’s propensity for allowing one-sided fights, we wonder if the game will find long-term fans in the fighting game community.
Still, even if FighterZ never makes the EVO main stage, it will almost certainly be worth picking up a controller and playing with friends.
Is there a better alternative?
Marvel vs. Capcom 3 is a viable alternative, though it is much more complex. More importantly for anime fans, this is the latest and greatest Dragon Ball game out there.
How long will it last?
We completed all three arcs of the story campaign in approximately 22 hours. Technically, you can keep playing the game online or with friends locally for 100s of hours, or until you get bored.
Should you buy it?
If you like fighting games, watch Dragon Ball Z, or just need a game to show off how good your new TV looks, Dragon Ball FighterZ is worth playing.
Dragon Ball FighterZ was reviewed on Xbox One with a retail code provided by the publisher.