Greetings, dear readers, and allow me to apologize in advance. This review will contain a bit of a personal bent because this game made it personal.
A little background: I have tremendously fond memories of the Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi series of games on PlayStation 2. Part Zone of the Enders, part Virtual On, all Dragon Ball, these were fast-paced, free-flying fighting games that allowed players to replicate nearly every technique from the series proper. A game of Tenkaichi meant flurries of punches and kicks, teleports, knocking opponents into mountains, beam torrents, power-ups, transformations, fusions — just everything. These games were a glorious spree of button-wearing mechanics that players could string together to direct their own DBZ fights down to the finest detail. The only upshot was that that they had extensive control requirements. Specifically, they used every button on the pad and had tutorials that took an entire hour to go through, meaning you couldn't really just jump in and have parties with them. Still, the games' complexities yielded proportional rewards, and thus, all was good.
After three games in rapid succession, the series took a break to make way for Burst Limit and then returned with the two Raging Blast games, which I have only recently tried, and they give the same good vibes as the PS2 games. I can't wait to completely dig into them, but the only reason I learned of them in the first place was the game we're here to examine today: Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi. Barring a PSP entry, this is the first time since the last console generation that the Tenkaichi moniker has been put on a DBZ fighter, while at the same time suggesting that this is as close to a perfect refinement of the series as one could possibly get.
What could possibly go wrong?
Just about everything, it seems. All of the techniques that made the Tenkaichi series so appealing to play, especially for fans of DBZ's fight scenes, have been excised. Well, they're still there, but they're now relegated to semiautomated scenes that play out while the player does close to nothing to control them. Through the course of a normal Ultimate Tenkaichi match, you will bear witness to beautiful melee flurry exchanges, beam attacks, and beam fights. You will dare not blink as ultra-fast-paced action lights up the screen. You will gawk whenever a finishing move scars a huge portion of a planet, and the scars persist through the match ... and the entire time, you will wish that all of these things had been because of something you did as a player.
In the previous Tenkaichi games, execution of all these techniques was left up to the player. He or she could mix and match them, in mid-sequence, in mid-combo, to create their own fighting style and feel as if they were in an actual DBZ fight by way of technique, reflexes and no small amount of depth. None of that is present here. Instead, all fighting is done by way of literal guessing games, cut scenes, Quick Time Events (QTEs), menus or — Lord help us — rhythm minigames. All of these things either pause the on-screen action or take away control from the player when action is taking place, leaving the player just sitting there while viewing the exact same canned battle animations over and over and over again should they manage to win their chosen barely interactive sequence.
If this were an adventure game or a JRPG, I would be a lot more forgiving. Unfortunately, this is Tenkaichi, and this — pardon the pun — does not fly. The series' trademark free flight, which had initially set it apart from other DBZ fighting games, is also gone. In its place is the Range system. Up close, you can only do melee attacks. Far away, you can only do beam attacks. Your movement in either range is extremely limited, and switching between the two ranges involves — you guessed it — yet another guessing-game QTE.
By relegating every aspect of the combat to cut scene and/or menu set pieces and removing the flying system, this also means that most combos are gone. Gone are the days of initiating a barrage of punches, ending in a launch to the sky, and then tagging your opponent with a gigantic beam while he is still in flight, or zooming in with a homing dash to continue your assault while praying your opponent doesn't counter and turn the tables with their own user-invented combo. The lack of mechanics, coupled with the new "range" system, simply don't allow for that sort of control anymore, rendering the games' few good additions — such as a more tactical super meter management system, and a streamlined partner switching and transformation system — barely noticeable.
In short, Ultimate Tenkaichi is a fast-paced and somewhat interactive visual novel packaged as a fighting game. Mind you, it's a visual novel packed to the utter brim with production values, as these are the best graphics ever sported in a DBZ game, and there's a rocking soundtrack to boot. The voice acting is also of its usual decent quality. This game is shiny beyond belief. All of this wonderful dressing, however, only makes the part of the game that actually matters all the more depressing to behold. Dissidia, come back — all is forgiven.
Finally, we have the frills. In response to the complaints toward Raging Blast 2's cut scene-free story mode, we now have two story modes chock-full of animation: one regarding the original series canon, and the other following the story of your created character as he or she interacts with the DBZ universe. Both story modes clearly have a lot of work put into them save for the free-roaming parts, and while you spend much of the time watching cut scenes, they're all lovingly crafted and mesh with the game's action sequences. For what it's worth, there's also the ability to create tournaments, play locally and online. The lack of interactivity in the core fighting sadly poisons the otherwise well-done modes.
It all comes down to this: Are you a fan of Dragon Ball Z fighting games or the Budokai Tenkaichi series? If so, then I have no choice but to advise that you stay far, far away from this failed experiment of a fighting game overhaul. By the same token, are you someone who primarily enjoys visual novels, leisurely paced adventure games, and/or traditional menu-driven Japanese RPGs? Then congratulations, for you may finally have a Dragon Ball Z game to call your own since, for once, you're not required to tap buttons like a madman to be proficient.
As for me, though, it looks like I'll finally be getting off this train. Call me when they've gotten this all sorted out, won't you?
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