The phrase “love letter” is thrown around a lot in reviews of licensed titles. For some reason, this always carries positive connotations. Have you ever seen a love letter? They don’t always deserve praise. I would argue that they usually don’t deserve praise. Your average love letter runs the gamut from ineffectual to creepy. My point is, Dragon Ball Xenoverse and its sequel were this type of love letter. Their intentions were mostly good, but Bandai Namco realized that they had not quite penned the love letters to the Dragon Ball series they intended.
Enter Dragon Ball FighterZ. Publisher Bandai Namco has taken a creative writing course taught at their local community college by developer Arc System Works, and their latest love letter has won our hearts as a result. Yes, FighterZ is everything fans had hoped it would be from a gameplay perspective. The presentation is polished, character models look like they were lifted from the pages of Akira Toriyama himself (in many cases they were), and the combat is fast-paced and over-the-top as it should be. You will not be bored by this game. There is no monotonous grinding, the voice acting is well done and not forged together like it so painfully was in the last Xenoverse game, and the combat is fun with the perfect mix of depth and approachability. Arc System Works knew exactly what they were doing with this combat system. The action is easy enough to pick up with its simple, button-mashing combos that those of us who just want a fun time playing with our buddies can get what we want, but the fighting game community will give this game a long shelf life as they enjoy the more complex combos and mechanics beneath the surface.
To those looking to get in on the action, I highly recommend starting with the story mode. The story itself does the job of giving you a reason to have to fight a lot of people, and is filled with little bits of fun banter between characters. Most importantly, the first arc of the story (and there are three, so be prepared to spend more time on the story mode of a fighting game than you ever thought possible) serves as a fully immersive four-hour long tutorial for how to play the game. Many fights, especially early on, have an optional tutorial attached to them which teaches a skill useful to playing the rest of the game. These range from how to maneuver your character to how to time certain blocks and other actions. Successfully demonstrating these skills gives you a tidy little bonus like in-game currency or experience for your characters. But this isn’t the only way the story helps you learn the game. The player begins with just Goku, who for all intents and purposes is the Ryu (the default character/protagonist) of this game. Soon, the game adds allies like Krillin and Tien to the mix and introduces its 3-on-3 mechanic. After each fight, your characters recover some of their health but not all. This encourages players to not only switch characters when one loses health, but with the bonus healing characters who aren’t involved in a fight receive it also encourages the player to rotate their cast of three fighters before each match. Furthermore, combining different characters on your team rewards the player with fun banter between them before the fight begins. It would be easy to just blow through the campaign with Goku and whatever two sidekicks you prefer, but the game makes the player wait to add fan favorites like Vegeta and Piccolo to the party. This means that by the time you’ve finished the first story arc and beaten Android 21, you’ll most likely be at least familiar with the movesets and basic strategies of each of the heroes. From there, the second arc of the campaign familiarizes the player with the villains, and the third (and most difficult) arc serves the same purpose for the android characters. This is a shining example of a game’s design teaching a player without making them sit through a mandatory tutorial that holds their hand and refuses to take the training wheels off until an hour of frustrated gameplay has gone by.
Mechanically, the game manages to be both a fun fighter and lovingly faithful to its source material. Not only are characters’ moves frame-by-frame recreations of the original anime and manga (and there are multiple galleries already existing online which showcase this), but they feel appropriate to the characters who have them. Yamcha for example is understandably insecure about suddenly having to fight with people who he knows to be much more powerful than he is. Therefore he compensates with unnecessarily flashy attacks and dialogue. Something similar could be said of the cheerful Majin Buu, who doesn’t really understand the events unfolding around him but enjoys pummeling people. The timid Krillin plays as a zoning character, who specializes in keeping his foes from getting too close. Vegeta, of course, is at his best when sustaining an offensive approach to fights and occasionally cackles during combat.
With all of that said, I must address the one notable flaw I’ve experienced in my time with the game: the servers. Joining a multiplayer lobby can take a few attempts before succeeding. Even when there appears to be room, the game often informs you that the lobby is full or loses its connection after a few minutes. My initial experience with the game was probably the lowest point for this issue, as simply beginning a multiplayer game took about ten minutes of praying to the server gods (or the server kais, if you will). This came to a head Wednesday evening when the servers were taken down for maintenance, and the issues do not appear to be as severe at the time of writing.
All in all, this is the game fans of the series wanted and more. It’s also the game fans of tag-team fighters wanted. Marvel vs Capcom: Infinite could have learned a lot of lessons from this, but not nearly as many as Xenoverse 2 could have learned. Between a fun, mostly balanced roster, a gorgeous presentation that feels true to the series, and clever design not often associated with fighting games, Dragon Ball FighterZ is the game we as fans have been waiting for.