One cannot help but be amazed at the tenacity of the Dragon Ball Z license. Despite the absence of new tales for more than a decade, the game series continues to chug along, content to retell the same battles over and over again. Part of the sustained staying power lies in the fact that the fan base is still rabid enough to take in every iteration almost without question. The other part of the equation is that the games tend to change up the mechanics, often swapping out completely different engines while still maintaining the fighting game ethic set out so many years ago. This new entry, Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi, is no different as developer Spike forgoes the advancements made by earlier games and uses the story in its own fighting engine. The results are, at best, mixed.
The fighting system feels like a mix between Burst Limit and the Raging Blast games in terms of viewpoint. Getting into melee range gives you the Burst Limit viewpoint, where the game is presented as a traditional fighter. You can unleash light or heavy attacks, block, and dash toward or away from your opponent, but you can't unleash ki-based attacks. Once you register three hits from a light attack combo, you get a short pause and determine whether your next hit will be a light or heavy attack. Pick correctly over your opponent, and you'll get a chance to unleash combos where you toss your opponent in the air, hit him further than before, and ultimately finish him off with a 20- to 30-hit combo. Pick incorrectly, and if you were on offense, you simply receive a counterattack. If you were on defense, you have to try to recover to stop getting hit and hopefully get a chance to counterattack. If you back up far enough from the opponent, the game switches over to the Raging Blast viewpoint, where the camera is an over-the-shoulder view. You can do ki attacks from here, such as throwing energy blasts of varying strengths, but you no longer have melee attack capabilities. You can also deflect those attacks and reflect them back at your opponent.
People look forward to signature moves in the series, and those are unleashed once you are close to death. When this happens, you enter a spirit mode and can unleash the attack, which has enough power to permanently deform the environment or destroy buildings. On offense, the release of the move is as easy as flicking down the right analog stick. On defense, provided you have enough ki, you can block the attack to take less damage. You can also choose to dodge the attack via a button-matching game, where losing means taking in more damage. You can also try to reflect the attack by button-mashing.
Upon playing the game for the first time, you immediately see the problems with the fighting system. Getting out the initial blows is fine, but once you get to the attack choice, your success really becomes a coin flip. Despite the fact that you're rewarded with great-looking fight sequences should you win, turning a brawl into a game of chance essentially undermines the whole experience, especially since getting to the choice option is so easy to execute.
Consequently, while going on the offense is easy since all you have to do is get lucky and then hit either the light or strong attack in conjunction with a direction, going on the defense is next to impossible. You only have a limited amount of time to button-mash in the hopes of finally teleporting away from an incoming attack. Once this is done, you have to hit the indicated face button at just the right time to initiate the counterattack. Unfortunately, the response time for that button hit is never precise, and getting to this situation in the first place never seems to happen since the game doesn't indicate how much button-mashing is needed to get this right. In fact, the only time you'll ever see this happen is in the tutorial, and even then, failing to do this move results in a bug where the whole tutorial sequence must be restarted. Coupled with the fact that the most powerful moves in the game are executed by the flick of the analog stick, and the whole system becomes less of a fighting game.
Ultimate Tenkaichi comes with quite a few big modes. Story mode is here, and while it starts off unexpectedly with the Bardock fight against Frieza, you're soon going through all of the familiar story arcs that made up the animated series. While there are plenty of fights happening, you will also get to engage in chase sequences where you have to either catch up with or outrun an opponent via Quick Time Events (QTEs). Though you've seen and experienced these story arcs countless times, you are rewarded with some HD animated cut scenes for your troubles. Also, by the end of the game, you're given bonus missions in the form of a few select story arcs from Dragon Ball GT.
There are two big complaints people will have with the story's presentation. The first has to do with the beginning of each saga. As good as the animated sequences are, the long wall of text that slowly crawls by to set up each story arc is infuriating to watch, and only the most patient will have enough restraint to not hit the X button to move on to something else. Also, the world map mode feels like it was implemented just to lengthen the adventure. Most of the time, you're simply moving from one battle location to another with this map, and considering the load screens going to and from the map, it feels like a menu would have been better.
As for the fighting, one change comes with the fights against larger creatures. Fighting against the Great Ape form of Vegeta, for example, changes the title from a standard fighting game to a platformer, where the opponent is at the center of the screen and the player is at the bottom running around, avoiding attacks, and trying to unleash a few of his own. At times, the player will have to engage in a series of QTEs to defeat the creature, and while most of them work well, the mechanic used in the recovery and counterattack of a combo comes into play here, complete with imprecise button responses. With the consequences of missing the button press being a substantial hit on the energy meter, these fights become next to impossible to win.
The big addition this time around is Hero mode, where your created hero goes on an adventure in a parallel universe. The story is even more simplified, with the tale of a warlord who successfully found all seven dragon balls and got his wish to rule the world with an iron fist. As a Saiyan warrior with a desire to bring peace to the world, you set out on your own journey to find the dragon balls. While there aren't multiple story arcs like in the main Story mode, you encounter several characters from the universe in similar roles here. Also, the game ends up being a much deeper experience since it is treated as a fighting RPG. Each battle, whether major or minor, gets you experience in several different areas, improving your character in the process. You also spar against several other characters who act as your masters in this mode. Successful sparring sessions net you skills and fighting styles that can be equipped to your character and switched on the fly. While you'll still have to play Story mode to unlock fighters, most series veterans will likely go here first because it provides a different but familiar take on the game world.
The ability to create a character in the universe is great, but it also feels limiting. When you start, you're limited to only four clothing styles and about three hairstyles. Things improve with the voices, where you can choose from plenty of attitude styles, and you can customize the colors of just about everything on your fighter, but no matter how well you mix things up, you'll still have what looks like a miscolored Vegeta, Goku or Krillin, minus the dots on his forehead. As you progress in Hero mode, you can find more clothes and styles to wear, but the options don't seem very plentiful. While it is still cool to see your character done in the style of Akira Toriyama, the limitations make it less exciting to see your creation on-screen.
Beyond this, you have the same modes you expect from this game series. The versus mode is open to just about any configuration of human and CPU players, with every unlocked fighter and environment available for play. The World Tournament also returns with the ability to host one offline for up to 16 participants, all vying to be champion. Finally, there are the tutorial and training modes, where you can learn about all of the fighting mechanics and try them out, respectively.
As far as online play goes, Ultimate Tenkaichi handles itself quite well. Lag is handled so that even when playing on bad connections, you'll never see moves go unregistered or see the action pause and break up the flow. The ranking system is quite smart about judging disconnects, penalizing the player only if it knows that network conditions took a sudden and dramatic turn for the worse. There's also a title system that gives players titles to put on their fighting cards when they accomplish certain online actions. For those going through Hero mode, you can also fight online with your created character, giving you extra incentive to ensure your fighter is as strong as he can be.
The graphics are one area where the game does just about everything right. Most of the fights are now more cut scene than interactive, so the combat looks more like the anime than ever before. Animations are quick but fluid, and there doesn't seem to be a misstep when players teleport all over the field. Characters have their colors toned down, with subtle shadowing on their clothes, making them look more like a blend between the anime and manga cover art versions of the characters. Damage, while gradual, stands out more as you see clothes being torn and scratches appearing on the characters' bodies and faces. The environments fit in with this new style, but their appeal comes from the fact that they retain the destruction put forth by some of the special moves. By the end of the fight, you'll see craters, collapsed buildings and broken stone littering the field. Speaking of moves, they look more spectacular than ever. Beyond the destruction and smoke they leave behind, the camera angles and pans go a long way in showing how massive each of these moves are, and while you may know that the Kamehameha is powerful, the cinematic treatment only reinforces that.
The sound quality hasn't changed from game to game, and with good reason. The music mimics the themes used in the animated series and movies well enough, and it even includes the "Cha-La Head Cha-La" theme, which is synonymous with the series. The effects hit with the same timbre as the series and the voice cast, both the English and Japanese versions, are the same, making the experience more authentic. With the sound quality remaining constant between all games, there's not much of a reason to change anything.
Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi is a beautiful-looking game on the outside but downright ugly on the inside. The graphics and sound are both top-notch. Despite having already gone through the story several times, the addition of HD-animated cut scenes makes it worth going through just one more time if you're a big fan of the series. Even though it has a few limitations initially, the Hero mode is exactly what the series needs to keep itself from getting stale after all these years. Despite this, the fighting system is flawed in every way. Limiting projectile moves to certain distances is fine, but the random nature of combo after-effects ruins the basic mechanics, as does its overemphasis on offense over defense as evidenced by the controls. Unless you really are dying to go through an alternate version of the universe with a created character, the mechanical flaws are bad enough that it becomes very difficult to recommend this game over the older entries. If you're a big fan of Dragon Ball Z, you're better off playing any of the other games.
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