Over the years, we’ve had numerous Dragon Ball games in every shape and form. There were trading card games, RPG’s, MMO’s, fighting games, beat-em-ups and more. However, what we distinctly lacked was what the fans have been requesting forever -- a more open Dragon Ball game. And it’s no wonder since the diverse locations, the quirky characters, the flying, the Dragon Ball searching always seemed ripe for adaptation into an open-world format. This is exactly where Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot hopes to find its audience.
Despite repeating the story the fans know by heart, developers at Cyberconnect 2 gave their best to create the most ambitious Dragon Ball game yet. While their undertaking does end up being one of the best Dragon Ball Z games out there, it’s not without flaws which ultimately hold it back from quite reaching over 9000.
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It’s easy to understand why many, if not all Dragon Ball Z games repeat the story seen in manga and anime form. Dragon Ball is a household name and the iconic characters and stories are heavily ingrained in our minds as well as hearts. It’s no wonder then that with Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, we get to go through it all over again -- from Sayian Saga and the arrival of Raditz all the way to Majin Buu.
Considering the fact that the recent Xenoverse titles at least tried to add new and original threads to the familiar stories, this reset to vanilla can feel demoralizing. Luckily, Kakarot, thanks to its somewhat open structure, does fill in some gaps and fleshes out the characters a bit more when compared to the anime. There’s added lines of dialogue, entire conversations, and encounters that really add more meat to the original story. What’s great is that the game isn’t in a hurry to get to the most iconic scenes and often takes its time and lets you smell the roses.
Sure, you’ll get to participate in all the major (and less major) battles from the anime, but you’ll spend an equal amount of time in some less memorable stories or some not seen in the anime at all. For example, the game will let you play as Gohan in his pre-training, whiny state or Piccollo while Gohan was out in the wilderness. You know, when he wasn’t lifting the pyramids.
This meat on the bones of the original story is added between major battles and sagas where the game allows you to roam the regions of the game world. It’s here that you can visit all the famous locales and meet many Dragon Ball characters. Some of them will simply talk to you and share some information about the world, current events or themselves, while others will even have a side-quest or two for you to do.
Like many things in this game, the story and the added tidbits are focused on providing as much fan service as they can. So, if you aren’t tired of going through the entirety of DBZ all over again, you’ll definitely find things to love here.
Fans of the franchise know that if a game is going to be true to the anime, it will have to be multiple things at once. In that regard, Kakarot is probably the most ambitious Dragon Ball game yet. While many of its systems ultimately blend really well together, it does feel like some were given much more attention than others.
The basic gameplay loop is a mix of combat and exploration where you can participate in all sorts of optional activities. The game is ultimately a strange beast in the sense that it’s not a true open-world game but is instead separated into different open regions. Which ones you get to visit and with which characters, however, are completely subservient to the story. This means that, during your playthrough, Frieza saga in the only time in the game you’ll get to free roam planet Namek. You get a bit more freedom in-between the sagas but only when the credits roll, do you get the option to go back and can freely roam each region or use a time machine to revisit missed time-sensitive side quests. Considering that this can take over 40 hours, it’s a long road to complete freedom.
The regions themselves and the exploratory segment of the game is pure fan-service. They feature both large open areas as well as most of the iconic locations from the anime that you can traverse by running like the Flash or by flying. Most of it feels rather empty and static but then there are cities and other areas that actually surprised me with vehicles and a ton of NPC’s moving around. Besides that, I think no one can deny the appeal of finally being able to experience it all by freely flying about.
The regions are also filled with both the story collectibles as well as upgrade orbs akin to those seen in Crackdown. While they are a cheap way of making you explore the regions, they are also the main currency for buying your skills which, when coupled with the satisfying sound of collecting them, really had me hooked. They were certainly much more fun and useful than shallow activities like random fights against easy enemies, hunting, fishing or racing. Even the side-quests would be a complete waste of time if only they weren’t handed out by cool characters from the show who always have something interesting to say.
The other main aspect of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot -- the combat, is a simple and somewhat satisfying affair. There’s only one button for hand to hand combos but you can combine them with flashy dodges, basic and special Ki attacks, blocks, counters and transformations. It all looks insanely flashy but ultimately most battles feel like you are just going through the motions. There’s rarely any planning, strategy, or clever usage of power involved with you being able to easily beat most enemies by repeating the same attack pattern.
What’s worse, the lack of difficulty makes some of the RPG systems completely redundant. Suffice it to say that I went through most of the game almost without dying and only a couple of boss battles made me even consider cooking to boost my stats. Speaking of boss battles, these have additional mechanics to make them more difficult and it’s there that Kakarot comes into its own. Sure, there are a couple of instances where they have a godly amount of armor and unfair attacks, but at least they offer a level of challenge that forces you to be a bit more involved.
Many might find disappointing that you’ll get to directly control only 7 characters, plus a teen and an adult variant of Gohan. Unplayable friendly characters are delegated to a party system where you can take two of them along with you to help out in combat. They will actively participate in it and can end up being useful, especially when going against multiple enemies.
The lack of diversity in playable characters is somewhat saved by their signature, unique Ki attacks and some of the RPG elements that at least paint a better picture at the amount of, and the difference in their power level. One early example is the fight against Dodoria, where you, as a level 16 Gohan can’t put a scratch on him. Later on, you face him as a level 25 Vegeta and absolutely decimate him. While much of it is due to how the story plays out, the power progression is evident even in the non-critical battles and quests and it feels right at home in a Dragon Ball game.
Besides the standard XP leveling and a skill tree with special abilities, there’s a fairly unique community board progression as well as a stat-boosting mechanic in the form of cooking. The not-imaginatively named community board might look convoluted at first but is, in fact, a very fun way of customizing your experience. In essence, every time you meet a certain character, you get their Soul Emblem and can place it across 7 different community boards. Depending on which Soul Emblems you place in one, you’ll get various bonuses that can benefit your playthrough. Each emblem is better suited for a different board and there’s a great incentive to experiment with them with secret combinations granting even bigger bonuses. You’ll be wishing that other mechanics were given such care since the micromanagement of the community boards can often be the most fun thing you’ll do in Kakarot.
GRAPHICS AND AUDIO
Both the graphics and the audio in Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot can be summed up into one word -- authentic. The cel-shaded visuals are entirely true to the anime, and much care has been given to bring both the locations and characters to life in the most authentic way possible. All the important moments from the anime are presented via beautiful cutscenes and the controllable set pieces really make you feel like you are an active part of it all.
Almost every iconic location I visited made me all nostalgic and awed at the fact that I can now freely explore them in detail. Each is also accompanied by a feel-good music track that when coupled with the saturated visuals really makes you all warm inside. It’s precisely this feeling that lets the game get away with situations where authenticity can be to the game’s detriment. Sure, large empty fields don’t always make for an interesting locale to visit, but taking your favorite childhood hero for a flyover often more than makes up for it.
It doesn’t stop there in terms of great visuals with the combat stealing the show. The Ki-based special attacks in particular, really make you feel the power of these characters with beautiful, saturated colors that explode your screen as much as they do the enemies. Seriously, you’ll often find yourself disregarding the lack of gameplay benefit of some of them and pop them off just for the sake of visuals.
As mentioned, the sound is also an area where authenticity wins the day. Kakarot has both the original Japanese cast reprising their roles as well as the ones from the Funimation dub. No voice actor delivered their lines halfheartedly so you can pick whichever one you grew up with and not worry about missing out. The only shame is that, in stark contrast to most of the main story, side quests aren’t voiced at all which can really throw you out of the experience. Furthermore, many simple sounds of the environment and certain in-game actions are outright missing, often making the world feel even more static than it already is.
It doesn’t stop there with the issues, however. We reviewed Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot on the PC and while the performance was buttery smooth, there were some jarring bugs and troublesome visual discrepancies that brought the experience down a bit. The cutscenes are one such segment of the game where, on one hand, you have awesomely detailed, animated ones, and on the other, you have lifeless ones without lip-syncing that look very awkward and stiff. Sometimes characters and the game can even bug out and go completely quiet or even repeat finished conversations.
Worse yet, quest givers can outright disappear, making you unable to finish quests until you switch regions or reload a save. The final issue is the camera, which isn’t always best suited to the high-speed combat and will wildly spin around trying to focus on the enemies flying about. While it’s never game-breaking, it does cause frustration when the only time you lose is because you can’t properly see the enemy. Most of these issues can be fixed through patches but currently heavily impact the game experience.