Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z is a strange game – and not just because of the name, or the twenty-odd years of reverence the anime has built up with its fans, or the sixty-plus game titles bearing the ‘Dragon Ball Z’ brand.
The game is strange because it has some ideas that feel more like the result of a board-room meeting full of Suits than genuine design decision made by an impassioned team.
That’s not to say that Artdink’s first shot at the Dragon Ball Z licence isn’t entirely without merit, but the basic combat of the game is shallow, backed up by systems that punish the player for thinking ahead, and A.I. that often makes progression feel entirely out of your hands.
Players take the cel-shaded role of one of the many heroes or villains in the DBZ universe, and fight it out in a third-person team-based brawler, in highly destructible environments taken directly from the show.
Combat is a two-button system, with melee strikes and ranged Ki blasts. These same abilities can be augmented further through the use of a super meter that slowly increases over the course of the fight, or as you hit enemies. By holding down block, Ki blasts become more potent, and regular melee strikes become a ‘Chase’ – a small QTE that lets you bounce an enemy to a teammate, allowing them to repeat the same action.
Spamming these abilities and burning through your meter can leave your character exhausted, making them prone to enemy attacks. Monitoring the state of the super meter on an already busy screen can at times be laborious, and some aural or visual feedback would go a long way in making this easier.
Each character also comes equipped with two unique abilities that can either be offensive or defensive. For example, Goku can charge large distances at an enemy and break their guard, or Gohan can heal everyone in an area. In addition, they have a special move that usually takes the form of a powerful projectile.
With these tools at your disposal, combat actually becomes fairly mindless. Finding out how to stun-lock an enemy during a combo, linking that into a Chase, and then blasting his body with a special move is fun the first few times, but you’re doing this against virtually every enemy you encounter.
The game attempts to spice things up by encouraging you to use ultimate abilities that are accessible to a select few heroes (like Goku’s Spirit Bomb), but the prerequisites for setting these up are more trouble than they're worth.
At the end of a mission, you’re given a score based on your performance (completion time, damage taken, successful Chase combos), and awarded XP and cards. Cards are stat-boosters that you can equip to your character, but their use is limited by your character’s level. You also gain two currencies: Dragon Ball Points (DP) and Premium Points (PP).
DP are used to purchase items between missions which you can equip. Some of these items last for a limited duration from the start of the battle (such as increasing your damage for the first minute) while others activate when a condition is met – such as restoring your life if you get knocked out – and are destroyed if they aren’t.
Both of these item types are counter-intuitive; going into a fight that you know will be difficult, you don’t want the timed item to be active for the beginning phases that are easier – you want to use it during the harder phases. You also don’t want to be punished for having foresight and purchasing an expensive item for a mission you believe will be gruelling, only to find it was a cake-walk and have it be wasted. Because of this, you’ll often find yourself entering a mission with no items, just to test if it is difficult enough to warrant you equipping an item in the first place.
PP is used to purchase powerful cards with unique effects, but is acquired in a more abstract way. Throughout a mission, an energy meter will slowly fill up, and you can aid its progress by successfully chaining Chases together. Once a mission has finished, and you have successfully completed a sub-goal (little challenges that usually involve beating an opponent before he tries to flee), a globe of energy erupts in the middle of the stage, and an ‘Energy Request’ begins.
During an Energy Request, you have to mash your Ki blast button to send your accumulated energy to the ball. The more energy you send, the more PP you gain. Each request allows you to swap 100 Energy for 1000 PP. The game claims that you are “sending your energy to other players”, but all you’re really doing is creating an opportunity to generate PP, and helping increment a global ‘World Energy’ counter on the title screen – which, as of the writing of this review, has already been maxed out by players with hacked games to read 999,999,999,999,999.
The inclusion of this passive multiplayer element within the singleplayer campaign seems like a decision reached by a group of people who saw similar ideas in games like Dark Souls or Dragon’s Dogma, without really understanding how it contributes to the overall design.
As you progress through the main narrative, you unlock a larger pool of characters to choose from. From this, you can build a custom team of fighters that fit into archetypal roles, but the A.I. is so lacklustre (not engaging the same enemy that you are, occasionally not participating in Chase combos) that you’ll find yourself doing most of the work. The A.I. is also inconsistent, sometimes choosing to ignore reviving you when they’re right next to you, effectively halting your progress during missions and forcing you to replay them.
With repetitive combat, an item system that doesn’t accommodate the player’s intelligence, A.I. that can be as dumb as a bag of hammers, and small design decisions that feel like they exist to make bullet-points on the back of a box, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z is a mechanically tame game that expects little from the player, and respects them just as much.