A new Dragon Ball Z game is almost a yearly event. It might not get the hype of other series, such as Assassin's Creed or Call of Duty, and it doesn't try to appear on every possible platform, but if you're a fan of Goku and company, Namco has attempted to keep things fresh despite having a license that is relatively static in terms of content. The results have been mixed, but it doesn't stop the company from trying something new. This year's entry, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z, has different gameplay mechanics and a different developer, Artdink, who's famous for the popular Japanese train simulation series, A-Train. The result isn't up to the glory days of the game series, but it shows promise.
From the outset, Battle of Z is set in somewhat familiar territory. Similar to the Budokai Tenkaichi series, the game is played in a third-person view that looks like you're constantly rushing the enemy. Arenas are wide-open fields with elevation changes, and you can also fight in the air. You have general melee attacks and projectiles, and you can unleash simple combos with two buttons. You can even control your altitude when you're fighting in the air. A block button can be combined with the other moves to unleash more powerful blows. A lock-on button is present, so the camera and your actions can be focused squarely on the desired foe.
Beyond this basic setup, there are many changes in the fighting system, such as the use of a card system, which can be purchased with two different in-game currencies. Experience and leveling are still present, but they're deemed less important. The experience system seems to act as a barrier to using certain cards. Most cards can be purchased with damage points, which are earned during fights; effects range from health boosts to power increases, and they're effective as long as the fighter has the card. Other cards require premium points, which are gained at the end of specific fights; effects range from instant recovery to a increased special attack potency, but they're only effective for the duration of the fight. Interestingly, none of the currencies require real money to change hands, despite the perishable nature of some of these cards. It's refreshing to see in a landscape where microtransactions are slowly appearing beyond the free-to-play world.
The second major change comes from the special energy meter. Like any other fighting game, this meter governs when a player can unleash a special move and how often. It can only be filled by executing hits against your opponent, a practice that's also practiced in other fighting games. The game punishes you for emptying the meter by making you tired and unable to perform anything for a few seconds while you regain a sliver of energy. It can be annoying when it occurs in the middle of a fight, but it does prevent people from abusing the special move system.
The next major change is the focus on team battling. For the first time in the series, players can form teams of four members to go against other teams of up to four players in a giant melee. Having multiple people target the same foe does come with benefits, such as pulling off preset double team combos or bouncing an enemy among team members so everyone gets some credit. While pure brawling is expected, you can have opportunities to give your teammates some health or energy or revive them when they fall. Teams have a revive pool they can rely on, and the number of revivals they can use is determined by the strength of the characters selected for the team. To add to the strategy of building a team, each fighter is separated by class. Though everyone can perform the same moves, a support character like Kid Gohan can provide more energy while a Saibaman or Jeice can run interference better with quicker combos.
The focus on team battles is big for the fighting game genre. By adopting a team mentality, it elevates the game. On paper, this feels like a natural evolution of the team fighting seen in a limited display from games like Super Smash Bros. and Street Fighter X Tekken, and it holds lots of promise if implemented correctly.
The problem, however, is that this isn't implemented correctly, and when coupled with the limited combo system, it turns out that what should've been a deeper fighting system became oversimplified. In single-player fights, your AI partners have a tendency to not perform their roles. AI partners give you all the health and energy you need, but otherwise, they're focused on attacking, neglecting to revive you when needed, and failing to take a defensive stance. It's important when you realize that the match immediately ends once a team member dies and no revivals are left. Meanwhile, enemy AI is even worse since they focus on attacking and not on implementing any strategy.
In multiplayer matches, that sense of strategy is also thrown out the window. The roster is 70 fighters deep and includes some new faces, such as Beerus from the new Battle of Gods movie, Super Saiyan God Goku and Whis. Several forms of characters are their own fighters instead of being various stages of a single character. Though they receive fewer revives compared to everyone else, the fighters are so powerful that brute force wins over strategy in just about every bout.
Another issue with the fighting comes from the frantic nature of the bouts and the failure of the technology to accommodate this. Chaotic fighting is nothing new for those who have played four-player fighting or party games, but with the camera focused too closely on your fighter, you barely have time to see and react to attacks. There are on-screen indicators when an attack is coming, but they appear a split second before the attack lands, and the minimap is so out of the way that glancing at it means leaving yourself open to an attack. Locking on to your opponent also creates a few problems, since it means wild camera shifts once the enemy starts moving. For some reason, it also cancels the ability to attack any other enemy in your way. If you get hit from behind by another fighter while locked on, you must disengage the lock and re-engage with the hopes that the system knows who you wish to target. In practice, it's cumbersome and leaves you mashing buttons, hoping that something goes right.
Finally, the fighting system brings up an issue that might only be a problem with some die-hard fans who adhere to the canon. With a few exceptions, most fights in the Dragon Ball Z universe are one-on-one bouts. No matter how many people are on either side, the series and manga make a concentrated effort to ensure that battles only involve two people with everyone else watching. Now, multiple people can fight at once.
Battle of Z features three different game modes, and they adhere to what is expected but add some new twists to the formula. Single Mission mode goes through all of the expected story arcs, from the Saiyan Saga all the way to the Majin Buu Saga, but every fight is engineered to use the team mechanic. Some of the fights adhere to the manga and show rather faithfully, but most take some big liberties, such as having Krillin, Yamcha, and Tien help Gohan in his training with Krillin. As such, the use of cut scenes to set up each tale is very limited, with dialogue that plays during each fight being the only way to give players some context as to where it belongs in the given saga. Each saga allows you to play as the enemies to show how the story could've gone if key events were changed. Aside from these main arcs, you have a few Age sections that feature original battles and skirmishes that are related to movies that were released outside of the main series.
Single Mission mode is fine, despite some of the issues mentioned earlier, but a few things could irk some players. First, playing through the mode is necessary if you want to unlock any character aside from Goku, but it's also necessary if you want to unlock any of the other modes. Granted, unlocking modes isn't that difficult since the required chapters are short tutorials, but it can be annoying for someone who's eager to jump into the rest of the title's offerings. Secondly, the mode is rather strict on who you can and can't have for your team, so those who want to have Cell team up with Teen Gohan, Trunks, and Android 18 to fight Majin Buu are out of luck.
In Co-op Battle mode, you can go online and team up with three other players to take on any of the missions available in Single Mission mode. In addition to the advantage of having human players, you're not constrained by the character restrictions in Single Mission mode. Online performance here is fine, and lag isn't really an issue unless someone's connection status goes red.
Team Battle mode is good for up to eight players and has four sub-modes. Normal Battle and Score Battle are pretty similar in that two teams of four play against each other. Normal Battle ends once a team member dies after the revive points are spent, whereas Score Battle simply counts the number of deaths accumulated until time expires. Battle Royale dispels the notion of teams and has all eight players duking it out in a free-for. Unfortunately, the nature of the fighting makes this the least enjoyable sub-mode. Dragon Ball Grab is probably the most interesting sub-mode, as it plays similarly to Capture the Flag while adhering to the structure of the show. Players are split into teams while they fight to locate all seven Dragon Balls. Killing anyone who's holding a ball makes them lose it, creating a very interesting tug of war.
Curiously, Battle of Z features no offline multiplayer component, though it's uncertain whether it's because the team didn't like the approach taken by the Budokai Tenkaichi series or the game's engine failed to work well in a split-screen environment. If you value playing games against your friends only instead of strangers, you have to hope that they all pick up copies of the game.
Graphically, this is both very similar and very different from what fans of the series are used to seeing. The cel-shaded look remains, the black lines define limbs and other details, and the animations demonstrate some nice fluidity despite some rather fast motions. The only time these animations falter is during the cut scenes of someone getting defeated, when their body slides across the surface and sometimes clips into objects. The colors have been upgraded, and the usually bright and cheery palette has been transformed into something darker due to a heavy use of shadows. Characters support lots of self-shadowing while the environments have lots of cloud cover. It's impressive that the game rarely dips below 30 frames per second when eight players are present.
Sound has never been an issue in this series, and the same can be said about this entry. The music captures the feel of the anime perfectly, and the inclusion of some notable pieces from the anime helps in this regard. The effects sound fine and, like the music, match the anime. Users can choose between Japanese and English voice tracks for dialogue, and both tracks sound great, thanks to the original voice actors reprising their roles. If there is a negative in this department, it would be the lack of surround sound. Several of the games in the PS3/Xbox 360 generation used surround sound to the full extent, making the battlegrounds and fights sound rich as objects crumbled and ki blasts passed behind the player. The environment is perfect for that, but you'll be hard-pressed to hear any surround being utilized.
Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z is a very flawed experience that can be fun if you overlook many, many things. The character roster is heavily padded with some overpowering characters, but the ability to play as some new faces certainly helps for longtime series fans. The new approach to battle is good but only with friends who know what to do. The AI is very hit-and-miss in performing their roles, and strangers tend to ignore a huge chunk of the roster to focus on the most powerful fighters. The team-based fighting is refreshing, even if it constantly goes against series canon, but the frantic approach may not be what some are looking for, especially when faced with the game's technical issues. It isn't the best title in the series, but it certainly isn't the worst, and if you're looking to play a fighting game that tries something new, rent Battle of Z before committing to the purchase.
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