There are only so many times you can tell the same tale before even the most ardent of fans are bored. Such is the case with Dragon Ball Z, Akira Toriyama's tale of an alien boy who grows up and becomes Earth's defender. As with all things popular, this has been translated into video games countless times since the SNES era, and American audiences were first exposed to the games on the original PlayStation. The problem is that the story was complete in both manga and anime form long ago, and while the gameplay was great in the PlayStation 2 era, the story remained static. The series kept pumping out new games, each with changes that somehow diluted the product even more. The franchise has set its sights on the Kinect with Dragon Ball Z for Kinect.
The good news is that the game does a pretty good job of nailing the presentation. The music hasn't changed much from other video game incarnations of the series, so fights will sound familiar to fans and the music is fitting for each bout or cut scene. The voice cast in both languages comes from the Dragon Ball Z Kai series, and while that consists of some members of the original 1990s cast, there are a few notable changes for those who haven't seen the series since. The look of the game is quite striking, and the backgrounds, while a bit plain, resemble photographs more than artist renderings. This helps the cel-shaded characters "pop" more and emphasizes the expanded color palette. The end result is a Dragon Ball Z that looks great but doesn't lose much of the original look.
Like most of the games in the series, Dragon Ball Z for Kinect is a fighting game, but the third-person perspective has been replaced with a first-person one. When close to the enemy, basic arm movements are translated into various punch types while kicks serve to attack the foe and move yourself closer to the enemy. From a distance, the movements remain the same, though punches translate into ki blasts that automatically aim for the enemy. On the defensive side, leaning your body in any direction lets you circle strafe the enemy to dodge blows while putting up both arms in a blocking motion lets you block incoming attacks. As for the special moves, you can get into a crouching position to build up your ki, just like the characters do. Similarly, you can mimic those moves to initiate things, from the Kamehameha to the Spirit Disc, once the appropriate ki level has been reached.
Aside from the free-form fighting, you'll be asked to perform what is the equivalent of Quick Time Events during the fight. Some events have you running in place while others ask you to quickly decide which of four available motions you'll perform to survive the situation. While some of these QTEs are immediate, some have you doing the equivalent of button-mashing to prevent damage.
For the most part, the Kinect does a decent job of reading most of your moves. Punches are read properly, and some of the kicks only take one try. Some of the special moves, like the Kamehameha, are read instantly, and there's no mistaking a duck or sway in one direction. The game falters, however, when you want to execute some of the more complicated moves. It can read a straight punch or a hook, but uppercuts and blocks take a few times to register. The sweeping motion for reflecting fireballs takes a while to read, and the stance for building up ki takes some time before it's properly understood. It isn't perfect, but it is certainly better than a number of Kinect titles that try to be ambitious.
The game only features two modes, both of which are solo affairs. The story mode goes through the major story arcs of the series, from the arrival of Raditz all the way to the Majin Buu saga. You'll be mimicking all of the major battles of these story arcs, exactly like they did in the series with the same characters and same key scenes in each fight. Completing each fight allows you to unlock different fighters.
The story mode falters in two big ways. The first has to do with the pacing. The fights try to play out like they did in the anime, and this means having cut scenes and dialogue in the middle of the fight. The abrupt nature takes you out of the moment and really breaks the flow of the fight, even if it is faithful to the show. Worse is the fact that the bouts only let you do the basic fighting portions of the battle and not the big moments. You may start beating the crap out of Frieza's henchmen, for example, but you'll simply watch your character initiate the killing blow instead of doing it yourself. By not letting you complete a fight, the game disconnects the player from the event. Also, the game assumes that you don't care about the story since every bout glosses over the start of the saga and fails to provide any resolution. Again, this assumption makes the experience feel empty, especially for those who may have forgotten some of the finer details of the story and need a refresher.
The second issue is with the actual fights. Despite learning a good number of moves in the tutorial mode, almost all of the fights boil down to flailing your arms in front of you in a believable manner to let out a flurry of punches. Once you build up enough to fill up your special meter, you can keep flailing your arms to take out large chunks of health from your opponent, occasionally stopping to complete a QTE. You can try to employ some variety in your fighting to make things interesting, but with one move sequence that almost always guarantees victory, there's no incentive to do so. As a result, all of the fights feel shallow and, after the first fight, quite boring. Worse yet, if you look at the screen, you'll see that most of your moves only connect during cut scenes. All of that punching you do in first-person mode feels pointless because you'll never see your fists connect with your opponent.
Score Attack is the game's other mode, and it isn't that different from the story mode. Aside from the ability to pick out a different fighter to embody, you can only replay the story missions you've already completed. There's no option to change your opponent, and the fights don't differ much since they go through the same beats as the story mode versions, making each bout predictable. Surprisingly, the recorded scores are only for local use, as there's no online leaderboard, providing very little incentive for players to try it unless they're hungry for Achievements.
It is both surprising and relieving to see that multiplayer play wasn't added to the game. On the one hand, fighting games were tailor-made for adversarial play, so one has to wonder why this title couldn't support two players fighting in offline and/or online modes. On the other hand, with the controls and basic fight mechanics, maybe it wasn't a bad idea to leave the mundane mechanics to solo play, as it might be impossible for a decent fight to be had.
If there is one saving grace, it would be the inclusion of the Dragon Ball episode, "Legend of Bardock." Released in Japan in December of last year, the 20-minute episode tells of Goku's father Bardock as he survives the attack on his planet by Frieza and is sent back in time to face Frieza's ancestor. Since it was a recent episode, the presentation is great with nary a hint of compression in the high-definition display. The audio is only in Japanese, but the episode is a nice treat for fans who wouldn't mind learning about the anime's lore. The only problem is that there's no way to stop the video or skip ahead once the episode begins playing, aside from the general "pause" gesture that the Kinect recognizes.
The audience for Dragon Ball Z for Kinect is quite narrow. This is intended for fans of the series who know every detail about every major story arc and don't mind trying to re-enact some of the fights in front of their TVs. Even then, this would be a hard sell since the fights quickly devolve into something that's so far away from the source material that one has to wonder if this was simply another game that was re-skinned to include Toriyama's creations. Dragon Ball Z for Kinect falls flat, so fans of the anime would be better served with the HD releases of Dragon Ball Z Budokai 1 & 3, which are coming in a few weeks.
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