Dragon Ball FighterZ hands on: a bad-ass, stunningly accurate-looking tribute to the anime

By Alex Donaldson, Tuesday, 29 August 2017 14:47 GMT

Anime and fighting fans alike are certainly going to find something to love about Dragon Ball’s 2D fighter effort.

I’m coming at the game from a fairly different angle to many who are super pumped for this one: I know Dragon Ball decently enough, but I’m also no mega-fan. In fact, I’m primarily coming at FighterZ as a lover of fighting games. I’m ridiculously excited to be getting two tag-team fighters, this and Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, in such a short span of time.

While it may feature a prominent license that’s had both good and bad stints with flashy 3D fighters, FighterZ has some proper fighting game lineage behind it, being developed by Arc System Works, the folks behind Guilty Gear and BlazBlue. The license seems to have had a positive effect, however: for my money this is a far more immediately accessible ArcSys fighter, but scratch past the surface and you’ll find a pleasingly deceptive level of depth.

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“That’s what’s most impressive about DBFZ, honestly – it looks so much like the much-loved source material that it actually boggles the mind.”

The obvious comparison to make here is to Marvel vs. Capcom, and that’s thanks to the three-on-three format Dragon Ball FighterZ takes up. It’s a similar sort of affair to that but with a dash of anime fighter flair and a whole lot of Dragon Ball – and against my personal expectations that mixture proves to be a potent one.

This is the thing about anime fighters in general, really – they tend to be mechanically rich games that never quite find the mass-market appeal at retail or crowd-pleasing results at tournaments that things like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat or even the Versus series enjoy. FighterZ might just be the perfect opportunity for anime fighters to properly breach the big time – and all they really needed to do was partner up with the biggest anime going. Well, duh.

That’s what’s most impressive about DBFZ, honestly – it looks so much like the much-loved source material that it actually boggles the mind. It’s bloody amazing looking, and the flash-bang, super-charged action of Dragon Ball is pretty much perfect for this kind of flashy game. Fans who have been disappointed in the more muted Marvel movie inspired colour palette of Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite will find themselves much more at home here, where the screen is constantly awash with a new technicolor explosion of some sort. The game has a masterful sense of space, with the camera whipping in for close-ups of characters and then back out again, everything convincing enough that were it not for the life bars you could be convinced for a second that, yes, this is the anime.

But, okay – let’s quickly talk about the gameplay, because some of it is pretty unique and intriguing. There’s a pretty standard Light-Medium-Heavy set of attacks plus a dedicated special button and buttons for assists and tags, and though this feels fairly traditional to both tag-based fighters and some of the past work of ArcSys there are tweaks and changes here that really make DBFZ feel more unique – and notably, much more Dragon Ball.

For one, there’s an instant teleport attack that’s performed with two buttons (Y and B on Xbox, for instance) – that’ll immediately put you behind your opponent, and makes for an interesting little metagame where you can use this ‘vanish’ move to get yourself out of danger on wake-up or simply mix up a combo when your opponent might have a chance to block. There’s a seemingly universal air dash that sends you barreling towards your opponent, but if it hits it pushes you away, ensuring that it can be used to close gaps or force people into the corner but not necessarily as a combo starter or extender. These sound like small things, but their impact on the flow of fighting is significant.

Much is taken from other team-based fighters such as launcher attacks, hefty health bars and a concept of ‘grey life’ that can be recovered gradually once a character is tagged out. Some other things have been changed in interesting ways, the most substantial of which is a pretty simple idea – when a character is KOed there’s a little cinematic sequence where they fly in and clash up-close with the current opponent (it looks a little like the wager mechanic from Injustice without the gameplay impact), but this crucially removes the wake-up metagame where you’re forced to guess what might be coming your way as your new character enters the fray. This resets the situation, giving the downed player a better chance to recover than in similar games.

Most of these changes plus universal dash moves with simple inputs mean that DBFZ feels like a more aggressive game than even something like Marvel. This is something which honestly feels pretty fitting for a Dragon Ball game. Like most versus games this is intensely momentum-focused, your ultimate goal to lock your opponent into a combo and then hold them there, but much of DBFZ seems dedicated to resetting that pressure frequently to force the exhilarating to-and-fro of players trying to catch each other out for that elusive first hit.

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“DBFZ seems dedicated to resetting that pressure frequently to force the exhilarating to-and-fro of players trying to catch each other out for that elusive first hit.”

ArcSys continues its trend of trying to simplify fighters with some drastically pared-back commands and the ability to basically hammer one button and see some flashy combos with little effort. This sounds cheap, but it really isn’t – the basic stuff you’ll see isn’t going to dominate the tournament scene, but it does give players a feeling of progression – ideally folk will start with those simple, mashy combos and graduate to the deeper stuff.

Like most tag-based games, it all looks a bit crazy and difficult-to-follow at first. Once it clicks, however – boy, it clicks. It feels wonderful to play, slick and swift, running incredibly smoothly on the Xbox One version I got to try out extensively. My criticisms are few right now – I’m unsure about the momentum-sapping cinematic intros after a character is KOed (the stop-start momentum is smart but that might be a step too far) and the stages feel a little lifeless. Beyond that, however, this just looks like an amazing fighting game coming out at a really amazing time to be a fighting game fan.

Most exciting of all to me right now? Namco has already confirmed that the game will have some sort of meaty fighting game story component as popularized by Mortal Kombat and recently seen in Tekken 7, and with the entire Dragon Ball sandbox to play in there’s a hell of a lot of potential for a really excellent fighting story. We know little about that right now, but with this source material it’s difficult not have a little faith that it’ll be suitably over-the-top and crammed with fanservice.

As it stands now, though, Dragon Ball FighterZ already feels like a potentially brilliant package just for the three-on-three multiplayer action, the insane-looking supers and the snappy, satisfying combat. I’m keen to play more, and release isn’t that far off – it’ll be out nearly in 2018.

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