|System: PS4, Xbox One, PC|
|Pub: Bandai Namco|
|Release: January 17, 2020|
|Players: 1 Player|
|Screen Resolution: 480p-1080p||Violence, Mild Language, Suggestive Themes|
by Lucas White
I’m 30 years old, and Dragon Ball has been around all my life. I mean that literally–as long as I’ve been aware of Dragon Ball, new content has come from every conceivable multimedia angle. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve revisited the story of Goku and his crew of mostly bald friends through comics, TV, movies, and especially video games. Dragon Ball games love to find new ways to retell Akira Toriyama’s timeless story, and this is another one of those opportunities. But while I’ve seen Piccolo double-murder Goku and his evil brother Raditz a dozen times, it’s been a while since I’ve heard from Eighter. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot retells a story that doesn’t need to be told again, but spices it up with little details and character moments that longtime fans will appreciate.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot was presented early on as an action-RPG, and that’s more or less where we’ve landed. If you remember playing the Legacy of Goku series on the Game Boy Advance, there’s similar verbiage here. It’s almost like if that game was smashed into Dragon Ball Z: Sagas, but with the added benefit of being developed by CyberConnect2 instead of mediocre mercenary developers. It’s an action-adventure game that presents itself as being about Goku, but it’s more of an all-encompassing Dragon Ball Z experience, with multiple playable characters beyond the titular hero. It’s sort of a weird culmination of modern video game tropes, Japanese game tropes, and Dragon Ball game tropes all rolled into one big package.
We aren’t exactly in “open world” territory yet for Dragon Ball, but this is about as close as we’ve come. There’s a big, connected world map (well, multiple world maps), but they’re divided into sections. You can’t explore all of Dragon Ball’s world at once, but considering it’s the most ill-defined aspect of the series, it’s good the effort wasn’t wasted. That said, each section is huge enough to fly around, and that’s all you really need.
Moving around in Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot feels shockingly good for a Dragon Ball game, considering the series’ track record. Characters run around by default at a normal human pace that doesn’t feel janky, but clicking L3 activates a goofy speed run that’s impressive and (seemingly) deliberately funny at the same time. It covers a lot of ground, but the best part is when you hit the jump button and your character goes sailing across miles of bizarre Dragon Ball wilderness.
Flying is solid too, which is a relief because of how much flying is happening here. You’ll be soaring from destination to destination for the most part, and it has similar speed settings to running. Combat is also flight-heavy, which is honestly a bit of a detriment in some ways. But it feels good, is responsive, and lets you do cool Dragon Ball things. Cool Dragon Ball things such as… collecting orbs and admiring the craftsmanship of bridges? There’s some weird, corny stuff happening in this game’s margins that don’t really stand out or keep you from enjoying the game, but do come across as uncanny. Flying around collecting multicolored orbs just reminds me of Donkey Kong 64.
Idiosyncrasies aside, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot really does present a fun world to play around in. There isn’t a whole lot to do off the beaten path, but moving from point A to point B is snappy and looks cool, and occasionally you’ll be attacked by random goons to break up the pace. While it won’t be challenging any dedicated action games, combat is a streamlined, speedy version of what we’ve come to expect from Dragon Ball. The controls are strangely complicated though, or they are at the very least presented in a way that’s more intimidating than necessary. The nice thing is you never have to think too hard about anything, as the major difference between Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot and other games is the number of defensive options has been expanded quite a bit. You can just dodge around more or less indefinitely and only need to bother with the fancy stuff in specific situations (or because you feel like it).
Getting around in Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is fine and so is fighting, but the secret best parts are tooling around in the menus and tackling side quests. It has something called the Community Board, which is basically a series of skill trees providing passive bonuses. These boosts apply to all kinds of stuff, from combat stats to shopping discounts and cooking. The boards are entirely based on Dragon Ball’s complicated web of character relationships, by which you can access a totally separate Dragon Ball family tree just for funsies. Anyway, each board has a leader you can set, then you can acquire character coins and place them on the boards. If the coins connect in ways that make sense in terms of the series’ lore, you get additional bonuses and to read a fun little skit.
Speaking of skits, my favorite part overall is the criminally underutilized side questing. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, like any game sporting large, open spaces, has a critical path and the occasional secondary waypoint to chase. Side quests are often pretty banal, just offering more of the same to do as usual. You’re either collecting something, fighting something, or talking to someone. But the interesting thing about these side quests is they all tie into the story somehow in ways that haven’t been done before.
It’s all flavor text really, but for Dragon Ball junkies, running into Baba as young Gohan and getting his extremely depressing fortune read or helping Eighter tie up some Red Ribbon loose ends as adult Goku is neat stuff. These quests are where the writing shows up to play and demonstrates a real understanding of these characters and why people like them so much. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough of these moments, and the main path doesn’t do much beyond the norm.
Considering how polished the rest of it is, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot fumbles its critical story path quite a bit. All the lovely animations and vibrance of the regular gameplay almost entirely vanish when it’s time for an expository cutscene. It transitions to scenes largely indistinguishable from similar scenes in past fighting games, which means often low-budget, corner-cut versions featuring scarce animation and weird shortcuts. Sometimes a cutscene will wake up, start moving, and even recreate famous manga panels. Those moments are exciting, but considering Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot’s whole conceit, it’s no wonder some reviews have been groaning about the story being the same. Bandai Namco’s recent One Piece: World Seeker avoided this problem with an original story (and collaboration with mangaka Eiichiro Oda), but that makes more sense since One Piece is still kicking and Toriyama famously doesn’t care about plot.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is an intriguing entry in the ongoing Dragon Ball video game experiment. These games are pumped out as closely to annually as possible, but with HD game development being what it is, it’s probably hard to justify playing loosey goosey with fighting games like before. Dragon Ball games, from Xenoverse to FighterZ and now Kakarot, are much more ambitious and distinct. With Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, we have a similar outing to the aforementioned One Piece: World Seeker, but with more of an experimental vibe. It’s as much about goofing around as it is being a Dragon Ball experience, with the most valuable moments coming from fishing with a fake tail or flying around randomly and finding Launch upset because she drove her car off a cliff during a police chase. The action is solid and better than plenty of past Dragon Ball video game adventures, but the wholesome fan service is the real offering here. There isn’t enough of that, but what you do get is a great reminder of why Dragon Ball is still here.