Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot Review
One for the fans
It’s been weird to see the resurgence of Dragon Ball in the past few years. The one-two-three-punch of Dragon Ball Super, Dragon Ball Super: Broly, and Dragon Ball FighterZ have turned the sci-fi martial arts anime from a nostalgia property to a relevant part of pop-culture in 2020. For my money, I most often remember Dragon Ball as it was in the 90s, as something I watched in middle school and into high school. So seeing Bandai Namco release Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot intrigued me, as it re-tells the story of Dragon Ball Z’s 291-episode run in the form of an open-world action RPG. Unfortunately, the series doesn’t lend itself to the open-world formula very well, and while it’s a lot of fun to see climatic fights play out in well-crafted spectacle, there’s too much wasted downtime in between.
The story of Dragon Ball Z is broken up into arcs or sagas, and Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot calls them episodes - there’s the Saiyan Wars, the Frieza Saga, The Cell Games, etc. Each arc has its own plot, character development, and themes, so it’s difficult to evaluate Kakarot on storytelling as it’s a series of different stories within one game. Instead, we can focus on how the game tries to condense over 100 hours of anime into a 30-40 hours video game. And that for the most part, it is a success. The highlights of the anime are all included, and the fun details remain the same. Captain Ginyu still gets turned into a frog, Goku still goes Super Saiyan to defeat Frieza; the major story beats are all present and competently translated.
But the developer CyberConnect2 is completely at a loss as to what happens between those moments. The ostensible solution is to use filler episodes and side-characters to flesh out the content with side-quests, taking some liberties with the Dragon Ball canon. For instance, Android 8 first shows up while Goku is going after Raditz as a side-quest-giver asking you to fight off a horde of angry robots from the Red Ribbon Army. This type of quest is common during the downtimes of the game. If you’re not fighting in one of the series’ noteworthy battles, you’re fighting hordes of low-level enemies. The other activity the game is fond of is fetch-quests. Characters constantly ask you to gather certain fruits, locate certain parts, or find the special trinket they lost half-way across the map. Sometimes quests will be a mix: find five items, then come back and have a fight, then find three more items, then the quest is over. It’s painfully dull.
You also find yourself constantly cycling through characters as the main heroes are off training or being dead (characters die and are resurrected constantly in Dragon Ball Z). So the game is frequently shuffling around your power-level. Jumping perspective like this works better in an anime, or even a fighting game, where you’re not worried about character levels or inventory (which is shared between all characters), but in an RPG it’s jarring.
There are small tasks that are used to pad the content. Various-colored orbs can be collected to achieve new rankings in a skill tree. Ingredients can be turned into food for minor boosts. There’s a community board where you can give gifts to different characters. But most annoyingly, you’ll constantly have encounters with the numerous low-level enemies floating in the world that give chase if you get too close. These random battles feel painfully like time killers. The many mini-games are serviceable. There’s nothing really memorable that happens in them, but largely the game plays fine.
That’s because the combat in the game is all about being over-the-top. That’s usually a good thing. When you’re battling Vegeta or Cell and the camera goes from a free third-person view to locking onto one enemy, it feels like you’re in an intense do-or-die fight. While in combat, you can alternate between melee attacks and ranged ki blasts, then trigger special attacks by pressing L1 and one of the face buttons. The special attacks look great, and when you’re in larger battles, it feels satisfying to pop-off a spirit bomb on Frieza or turn Super Saiyan. But the same combat transition is used for every small fight as well, making them take far longer than they should.
Presentation has a few rough spots. Specific cutscenes that are meant to replicate moments from the show look pretty good, they’re colorful and dynamic. It’s a little weird seeing the cell-shaded video game come so close to iconic animation of the show, but just feel a bit off. It’s not quite as good as the animation in Dragon Ball FighterZ, but some moments have clearly received a lot of attention and detail. That being said, most of the game at large looks flat, boring, and dull. The open-world is poorly designed with little clumps of shops in some areas and massive expanses of space that are just barren. I almost always was zooming around the map at full speed, because there was so little to see in the world.
The game uses the same musical theme over and over, which doesn’t help the presentation and the delivery of the dialogue is stilted and awkward. Trying to parse out who actually counts as the original English voice actors is a little tricky, due to the different dubbings in the early days of the show, but the voices most commonly associated with each character has returned and that’s impressive. However, the way the game presents the dialogue feels like something out of previous generations as there are strange breaks between sentences and none of it feels conversational.
The game runs fine, even when you’re in the middle of intense fights. I never saw any frame rate issues and a day-one patch helped a lot of the loading times. Again, much of the presentation feels weird because the game seems to be slowly loading up lines of dialogue, but as far as gameplay, that’s all smooth.
When I first heard about Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, I wondered how CyberConnect2 would manage to reformat the Dragon Ball Z story for a video game, how they would translate the world of the anime into one that could be explored. With Dragon Ball seeing such a comeback, it felt like the perfect time to deliver an RPG that reinvented Dragon Ball Z into something new. But Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot doesn’t attempt anything resembling creativity. It’s not a bad game; there is a clear competence in how it’s designed. It’s just a boring game, one that has a fun hook, but can’t figure out how to translate it into a larger concept. Dragon Ball Z fans will enjoy replaying some of the series' highlights, but the long gaps in between those highlights make for a disappointing game.