The pairing of DBZ and Arc System Works is a match made in fighting game heaven.
Who’d have thought: matching one of the most iconic action anime of all time with one of the best fighting game developers in the business turns out to be a good idea. Dragon Ball FighterZ, from developer Arc System Works, successfully adapts the fast and thrilling pace of a Dragon Ball fight into a three-on-three 2D fighting game built around a beginner-friendly combo system and some of the most gorgeous and true to the source cel-shaded art styles around.
Despite the visual chaos, Dragon Ball FighterZ’s mechanics are actually deceptively simple and easy to learn. There are just four attack buttons: light, medium, heavy, and a special attack button typically mapped to a projectile. There are no complicated special move input commands, like dragon punch, charge, or 360 motions. If you can throw a fireball in Street Fighter you can perform just about every single move and technique in FighterZ. That’s great, especially since you’re required to handle three characters at once.
The one place where its simplicity goes too far is that each character has two highly damaging auto combos that you can execute by just mashing either the light or medium attack buttons. Add on to that the ability to use a safe-on-block homing attack that can quickly close the distance and enable those auto combos to land, and you have a system where low-skill tactics are very effective. A skilled player will still likely prevail because a well-timed down + heavy attack can punish those homing attacks. But it can be tricky to time those, especially if lag is involved, which makes it frustrating when your opponent decides to spam the move. More importantly, it’s just not a very entertaining fight.
FighterZ is fast, fluid, and cerebral.
But when you’re matched with another player of the same skill, FighterZ is fast, fluid, and cerebral. It hits that sweet spot of being easy to learn, but hard to master, but most importantly, it feels like Dragon Ball. There’s just something so satisfying, and so uniquely Dragon Ball about taking someone up into the air, smashing them away at high speeds, teleporting behind them, pinballing them back, and then finishing it off with a huge energy blast.
The roster of 24 characters is pretty great. Oddballs like Ginyu earn their spot on the roster with unique mechanics, such as summoning individual members of the Ginyu Force to perform an attack instead of having a traditional projectile, or Nappa’s ability to plant Saibamen that eventually grow and fight. Arc System Works has found a great balance between making each character similar enough that they’re easy to learn and also adding enough depth and nuance to give them their own distinctive feel.
It starts off fine, but by the end of 10 to 12 hours of this slow-moving and derivative plot I had all but checked out.
In the single-player campaign, FighterZ’s lengthy original story involves an invasion of mysterious clones and the mysterious appearance of a new character in Android 21. It starts off fine, but by the end of 10 to 12 hours of this slow-moving and derivative plot I had all but checked out. Clearing out weak clone fighters between important fights feels like padding. Sure, you level up and earn new skills, but their benefits, such as slight boosts to health, defense, or special attacks, are hardly noticeable once you’re in an actual match.
They real reason to play the single-player campaign is the fanservice converations between unlikely pairings.
The real reason it’s worth playing for Dragon Ball fans is the special fanservicey conversations before a match. Pairing Gotenks and Ginyu causes them to get into an impromptu pose-off with each other; another has Piccolo and Tien chatting about how Piccolo is a better grandfather than Goku; and just about any scene with Yamcha is worth seeking out because of how painfully aware he is that he’s by far the weakest fighter in FighterZ. Canonically, at least. Seeking out moments like these was by far the best part about the Story Mode.
If you want to test yourself against the AI, FighterZ’s unique approach to Arcade Mode is definitely the way to go. As you fight through specially themed teams of fighters you’re graded after each battle, and that grade dictates the path that you take: high, middle, or low. There’s no real difference between the paths outside of their difficulty and the specific characters you fight, but It can be extremely difficult to remain on the high path the whole way, which gives you something to strive for as you play. The downsides are that there’s no way to restart a losing match, and sometimes the difficulty spikes can be huge from one match to the next.
The most charming parts of FighterZ can be found in the lobby.
The most charming parts of FighterZ can be found in the lobby, in which your chibi avatar can communicate with other players through emotes and funny stickers that use screen grabs from the show, which you can find more of in loot boxes. While loot boxes are almost always terrible, they’re actually not that bad here. FighterZ is very generous with in-game currency, and by the time I had completed story mode, a few runs of Arcade Mode, and some combo challenges, I’d unlocked a ton of stickers, more titles than I would even want to choose from, and all but seven avatars – all without spending a penny.
As far as online play goes (in the beta, which Namco Bandai reps say is representative of the final version), my experience has been about 50/50. There were times when it was so smooth I might as well have been playing against someone right next to me. Other times, it was an infuriating lag-fest that would usually end with a disconnect. That’s something we have to hope Arc System Works will stabilize soon.