Here is what I knew about Dragon Ball FighterZ before I played it at Bandai Namco’s Paris expo last month: 1) developer Arc System Works is the seasoned creator of painterly, 2D beatdowns responsible for BlazBlue and Guilty Gear, 2) Dragon Ball is a venerable manga in which absurd hunks with radioactive mullets make planets explode by, as far as I can tell, experiencing really bad heartburn, 3) ???? 4) profit, going by ecstatic reactions to the closed beta. Now that I’ve laid hands on it, I can replace “????” with “FighterZ is quite an accessible fighting game, for all its multiple-decade backstory and arcane terminology”. Fear not, dabbler – if like me you struggle to sort your Gokus from your Gohans and your Ultimate Z Changes from your Sparking Blasts, you can still make headway here by doing quarter circles with your thumbs and sitting back as the TV catches fire.
Even by the genre’s wildly theatrical standards, Dragon Ball FighterZ is over-the-top. Most super moves begin with a close-up of the character’s abruptly 3D face, veins popping, teeth grinding as the raw stuff of kickass bubbles up from the palms of their hands. Every other combo ends with somebody being kicked through a megastructure in the backdrop, right into a different stage – beautifully idiotic transitions that interrupt the flow without throwing you off, inasmuch as everything that surrounds them is just as insane. When a fighter is KO’d, the next in your line-up doesn’t merely hop on-screen but screeches out of the cloudy distance like the Starship Enterprise performing an emergency brake. Arc System’s artists and animators are at the top of their class, and they’ve done an amazing job of capturing the colour and derangement of Dragon Ball’s anime outings. If you’re a fan of the franchise, the game is almost worth owning for its looks alone.
There’s more to it than looks, of course. The fighting system beneath the fireworks is an unsurprising but very slick mixture of concepts from previous Arc games and the Marvel vs Capcom series – light, medium and strong attacks, a projectile or character-specific special attack, throws, dashes and a handy “vanish” teleport that makes it difficult to keep anybody at arm’s length for long. Each player fields three combatants at once, summoning the off-characters to launch brief assists or switching between them to counter an opponent’s mastery of a particular fighter.
All the assists are different, and matching the right one to the situation can be decisive. Gotenks fires a homing stunning projectile, for example, which is useful when you want to punish a retreating foe but possibly not as effective when you’re having your face rearranged. Gohan’s invincible uppercut, meanwhile, is perfect for interrupting a would-be combo finisher. You can also hold a button to charge your Ki and manually power up special moves: the animation here vaguely recalls that iconic shot of Marylin Monroe with her skirts being blown up by a subway vent, except that in this case Marylin Monroe is a screaming bodybuilder from space.
There’s a slight repetitiveness to the line-up, which includes several versions (young, adult, Super Saiyan, good/evil etc) of mainstay characters, but buried in amongst the umpteen variations on Goku are some memorable eccentrics with less obvious playstyles. I’m not sure what to make of universe-killing catgod Beerus, but I’m certainly enjoying his ability to litter the playing field with what appear to be cosmic hairballs. The single player modes should give you ample opportunity to get to know each fighter – there’s a story mode with lush 3D cutscenes that spans three arcs, putting you in the shoes of heroes and villains, and an arcade mode which sees you choosing between enemy teams and progression paths as you climb a competitive ladder. There’s also a practice mode, but story matches throw up little learning exercises on the hoof such as performing an aerial dash three times, so it’s possible to master the systems as you follow the plot.
I went to Paris chiefly for the sake of Namco’s promising Soulsalike action game Code Vein (and the off-chance of seeing what From Software itself is up to), but for all my ignorance of Dragons and their Balls, Arc’s latest kept dragging me back. While hardly an earth-shattering departure for fighting games, it’s a lavish, reasonably newbie-friendly offering and a magnificent tribute to a series that is to anime what Mickey Mouse is to cartoons. If you’re looking for something to blow away the cobwebs – and most of the scenery – this January, FighterZ could be just the thing.
Disclaimer: This article is based on a press trip to Paris. Bandai Namco paid for travel and accommodation.