So, uh, do people still really care about Dragon Ball Z these days?
Seriously. While it’s definitely a cultural touchstone and some hefty 90s nostalgia for nerds around my age, it’s not a franchise I’ve consciously thought about in probably a decade.
As far as I know, the Dragon Ball franchise has been kept alive through the will of the companies that own it. The Dragon Ball Z fighting game series have hovered in the peripheral vision of the fighting game community for a long time, handled by teams concerned with faithfulness to the series over rewarding game design. They weren’t bad, but they just couldn’t compete with the mainstays.
It’s then a surprise that Dragon Ball Z: Battle Of Z departs from previous monotonous game releases and approaches something close to current trends: this time it’s a Hunting Action game.
Killing With Friends
Originating from the likes of Phantasy Star Online and codified by the Monster Hunter series, Hunting Action has become my new favourite genre. Games in this category revolve around co-op play, with groups of players taking on short missions against ever larger foes.
Being someone who prefers to play alongside others rather than against them; and who prefers their gaming in short bursts, that type of game system fits perfectly with me.
Battle of Z fits all those trappings. The game consists of a chain of missions spanning all the story arcs of the franchise, turning each notable battle into a miniature skirmish that is mercifully free of actual storytelling.
Picking from a pool of characters that widens as you play, teams of four head into a mission, beat the stuffing out of the target, and unlock the next mission in the chain. Occasionally it’s against a giant foe with destructible body parts. So far, so standard.
Real Saiyans Wear Pink
The character roster is both the biggest draw and the most annoying flaw with the game. I won’t front, I had some powerful waves of nostalgia wash over me playing as Piccolo (who was totally my dude back when I was nine), fighting the Ginyu Force, and listening to Frieza’s fiendishly camp voice acting. I surprised myself with just how many names and locations I remembered.
However, the game’s desire to stick to the show accuracy is so strong, it limits what you can do as a player. Most saliently, you’re prevented from choosing characters for a mission that wouldn’t make sense in the original story. There are missions where anything goes, but they’re buried deeper into the game. Oddly, duplicating characters is just fine, so you can take on a mission as four identical Vegetas or with every form of Cel, if that’s what you’re into.
The iconic special attacks of the cast look and feel hefty to fire, complete with sound effects from the show. The actual damage they do can sometimes feel a little underwhelming though.
Characters level up from battle (though it’s not immediately clear what that does – I’m still unsure) and have have their stats boosted by equipping cards won from fights. Considering one of the big draws of Hunting Action games are the suits of armour and ridiculous weapons you can obtain, these cards feel like a poor substitute.
You can recolour the clothes of playable characters (I immediately made everyone garishly neon), but it still felt lacking. I suppose it would stop being accurate to the show if I put Goku in a tunic made from Majin Buu’s skin. A missed opportunity.
How to Hunt Giant Monkeys
In most Hunting Action games, there’s a general theme of being underpowered, and working around that. Attack animations are long, or vulnerable. Enemies hit for high damage. Aerial movement is limited or non-existent.
But since Dragon Ball Z is entirely about overpowered beings fighting even more overpowered beings, the formula is tweaked to reflect this. Chiefly, all characters are capable of flight, so the majority of your movement options focus on aerial acrobatics.
The freedom of the Y-axis gives combat a very different tone from its peers (Monster Hunter can get downright claustrophobic at times), but flight is also rather broken strategy-wise.
Without drowning you in extreme detail, being in the air lets you dodge attacks much more easily than when grounded. On top of that, it’s easy to put distance between you and your opponent, and ranged attacks (everyone has a basic fireball by default, others are more specialised) move a lot faster than melee attacks.
It didn’t take very long until I realised I could win most fights by hanging at the back as Piccolo (naturally), alternating between hails of fireballs and dodging until everything died.
No man is an island, consoles are a fortress
Part of the big draw to games like these is the multiplayer experience. Team composition and working with allies against tough foes is a great feeling. Battle of Z is built for this, with characters being clearly labelled as melee, ranged or support.
Not all these roles are created equal. I love playing support-type characters, but the controls are ill-suited to targeting allies, and characters with healing skills often have the lowest health. Once hit it becomes difficult to escape further damage, so playing aggressively as support will get you killed very quickly.
There’s a move to launch nearby foes, and allies can add in their own hit via quick time event as the victim sails past. Landing a successful chain of attacks between players is definitely satisfying and powerful, encouraging team co-operation a little more.
I’m sure the multiplayer experience of this would be a little more well-rounded, but unfortunately, it’s not something I got to try. I played the Xbox 360 version for this review, and had prior assumed that the co-op modes would be available locally (I had even roped in a friend for the event). Not only was this not the case, I don’t have a Gold subscription, barring me from the multiplayer content.
Yes, this is a situation unique to the console version, but it struck a nerve. For a game where co-op is the meat of the experience, to not have that function locally, even on the PS3, feels like a massive oversight.
Most Hunting Action games are on handheld platforms, where split-screen would obviously be untenable, but it’s also easier to link with other players. As such, the PS Vita version of Battle of Z is a more logical fit.
As far as I can tell, none of the game’s content is missing for the Vita version (though I can’t say anything about its technical optimisation), and it comes with up to eight-player Ad-Hoc play.
That said, Vita already has so many strong titles that do Battle of Z‘s job with higher polish and more content. I enjoyed the memory flashbacks to watching Cartoon Network on a Friday afternoon, but those memories are no replacement for varied content or strategic play.
If you’ve already had your fill of Soul Sacrifice, Toukiden: The Age of Demons and Ragnarok Odyssey, and you just can’t wait until the sequels for those series drop, then Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z is a competent replacement.
Beyond that, decide based on how hot and bothered Goku yelling makes you. I won’t judge.