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Monday, February 3, 2020

Dragonball Z: Kakarot

Billed as an action-RPG for Dragonball fans, and it certainly does its best to deliver on that, though some of these elements were overstated in marketing.  But is this still a game worth a look for genre fans, or is this one just for the die-hard fans of the manga/anime franchise?

There have been many Dragonball games over the years owing to the franchise's explosive popularity in the '80s and '90s, and due to its subsequent international releases and a recent revival of the series in Dragonball Super, it remains one of the most successful anime franchises of all time even today.  The most recent of these, and one that saw a fair bit of hype before its release, was Cyberconnect2's Dragonball Z: Kakarot.  Billed as an open-world RPG, and utilizing their flair for over-the-top action and animations as seen in games like Asura's Wrath, it certainly generated quite a bit of buzz.

The gameplay is not quite as open-ended as that description would suggest, but they did make efforts to have it feel like such a game in many respects.  The story is primarily based on the second series, Dragonball Z, though some moments from the original are viewable as collectible items strewn throughout the world (primarily in key story locations).  While not one large contiguous game world, the maps you're taken to are quite expansive and have plenty of things to do in them, and there is a fairly extensive crafting system, allowing you to hunt and fish in order to collect components to create meals for temporary stat boosts.  One also curiously has the ability to find spare parts and assemble a hovercar  - not particularly useful as transportation seeing as you can fly at rather absurd speeds, but they can be used in a racing minigame at least.

The game is also mostly linear from a storytelling point, though you're given some opportunity to free-roam between missions and complete side-quests - some in the form of side-stories, but most in the form of roaming the map to find collectibles.  Orbs, crafting items and destroyable Red Ribbon towers that grant some bonus items can also be discovered.  One can also visit training grounds to unlock new moves once you're powerful enough to overcome the battles within them, though these tend to only become available between significant moments in the story.  It is even possible to grind a level or two by fighting random enemy spawns, though these tend to be relatively inefficient for leveling; generally you're better off just buying a few recovery items and then fighting story battles, as characters tend to gain several levels from those instead of having to fight a couple dozen random encounters on the overworld.  Moreso as character skill growth is quite stifled by this - the overwhelming majority of skills aren't unlocked (or upgradable) until you hit certain story beats, so there's little point to grinding.  Once nice touch, though, is that dashing into an enemy significantly weaker than the player will cause an instant defeat, awarding the player the experience without a fight (a similar mechanic was employed in Mother 3 for the Game Boy Advance).

A relatively creative element of the game is the Community Boards, which are the main incentive to complete the various sidequests one encounters in the game.  By doing so one will frequently earn character tokens, which can then be placed on one of several "Community Boards" to unlock bonuses - generally a small boost to all characters' stats, slightly lower prices in shops, extra bonuses from cooking meals and healing items, and so forth.  Each token has different starting and maximum stats (boostable by using items), and when certain combinations are placed in linked slots on the same board, one can earn a substantial number of bonus points.  Befitting the universe of Dragonball, there are quite a large number of these (over 100 at a quick estimate), and maxing them all out will take quite a bit of doing, so it's a large and game-spanning sidequest.

But of course, no Dragonball game would be complete without over-the-top, high-flying combat, and Dragonball certainly delivers on that front.  The action takes place in real-time, though if you press a button to bring up the special attack or assist combo menu, it goes into slow motion to give you time to read and select what you want.  One can block and dodge attacks, as well as spend a significant amount of their energy meter to perform a quick counter - breaking away from a blocking state to zip behind the enemy and land a heavy blow on them.  Firing energy attacks around constantly isn't a good idea as enemies will frequently dodge them - instead they're best used as combo finishers, or when you whittle down an enemy's stun bar through persistent melee attacks.  While you only control one character at a time, others may help you out in a fight, and you can team up with them once their gauge fills to do a combo animation or multi-pronged energy attack for significant damage.  While most of the weaker foes can simply be mashed through, story battles generally require a bit more thought - oftentimes they'll unleash lengthy attack animations that you'll simply have to avoid and wait out, but more often, they can go into an unstunnable state and, if you keep attacking, they'll generally knock you back, cause a stun and then do a big attack for hefty damage.  Basically, knowing when to attack, attack at range, and retreat are all key factors.

So yes, combat certainly matches the feel of the show overall, and is quite a bit more strategic than I expected it to be.  Terrain even gets deformed while you fight, with some parts (mostly mountains and trees) getting smashed to rubble as characters and attacks collide with them, so that's a nice touch.  However, I think some key parts of this could have been better implemented.  One can enter one of several powered-up states (Kaioken, Super Saiyan, etc) as they become available in the story, though these often tend to be more trouble than they're worth, as they rapidly drain your HP and energy meters for only a marginal boost in damage output.  As they also don't seem to significantly affect enemies' stun meters or hamper their ability to launch into their lengthy attacking animation states, I found it was more practical to just stay in base form and use standard combos and the occasional beam attack as a finisher.  Many beam attacks also feel underpowered for a good portion of the game, costing large amounts of energy but doing relatively little damage; I still used them as finishers, but it's a little strange to see Frieza shrug off so many Kamehamehas and Spirit Bombs, for example.

But regardless, I had a fair bit of fun with Dragonball Z: Kakarot.  While I wouldn't deem it an amazing game, it's one that has quite a bit to offer for die-hard series fans, paying homage to its story and huge universe of characters on a backdrop of humor and numerous optional objectives to complete, as well as containing plenty of the over-the-top action that made the franchise famous.  If you're a fan of the series it's one you'll probably want to check out, but if not, well, it's one you can safely skip.

Developer: Cyberconnect2
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Platform: Playstation 4, XBox One, PC
Released: 2020
Recommended Version: All versions seems to be relatively identical.