In the long history of Dragon Ball Z fighting games, Arc System Works has somehow found a new winning formula. As a long-time Dragon Ball Z fan, I've played the fighting games on and off ever since I hand-modded a Game Genie to play Dragon Ball Z: Super Butoden 2 on Super Nintendo. They haven't always been good, but some have been great. The recent Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 saw Dimps offering an amazing arena fighter that felt like the culmination of many of the games that had come before. Dragon Ball FighterZ marks a new path forward.
While Xenoverse is a fully 3D fighter, Dragon Ball FighterZ takes the series back to a 2D plane. It also splits the difference between Arc System Works' technical Guilty Gear Xrd and Xenoverse's more accessible combat system. The 3v3 tag-team fighter plays a lot like Marvel vs Capcom, easy to get into and have fun, but with an additional layer of technical mastery underneath. Players control a single character at a time, fighting until the opponent's entire team is downed.
Dragon Ball FighterZ offers three basic attacks, a dedicated button for the series' signature fireballs, and moves activated by Street Fighter-style quarter-circle commands. Players can switch between their team members at any time, or call them out briefly for assist attacks. The combat here is much faster and aggressive than I originally expected and that's primarily due to the addition of the Super Dash. The Super Dash button combination sends you hurtling towards your opponent, homing in on them no matter where they are onscreen.
The Super Dash means the meat of Dragon Ball FighterZ in is melee range. Like Guilty Gear Xrd, most of the game is about poking your enemy until you find an opening and then exploiting their failure with a crazy combo. The game offers a series of auto-combos if you press the same button repeatedly, but experts will find more mileage and bigger damage in combining combos, timing, assists, Supers, and Super Dash to string together huge chains of pain.
With two players of similar skill level, Dragon Ball FighterZ has less of a flow and more of a twisting torrent. You'll find yourself on a roll, dispatching two fighters on your opponent's team, only to make a mistake and lose one or two of your own. It's a game of heavy pressure, and if your enemy is much better than you matches go by real quick.
Dragon Ball FighterZ looks like it uses the same engine as Guilty Gear Xrd, allowing Arc System Works to pull off an animated style with exaggerated 3D models. Where the game excels over Xenoverse 2 is its dedication to fanservice. While the Xenoverse series allowed you to play versions of certain moments from Dragon Ball history, Arc System Works pulls actual panels from the manga and scenes from the anime whole cloth.
These situations are represented in-game via Super Moves and Dramatic Finish attacks. The former are activated via command motions and use up your Super Bar, while the latter happen in specific situations between certain characters on certain stages. With a total of 23 characters pulled from the series' history and one more created for the game by Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama, there's a lot of great moments here for fans. Teen Gohan's Kamehameha with his father, Yamcha's humiliating defeat by Nappa, Frieza's death on Namek at Goku's hands; these scenes are all recreated in picture perfect form here. It's the most complete love letter to Dragon Ball Z I've seen in a game.
The entire cast figures into the game's Story Mode, which is told over the course of three chapters. It's the tale of the Z-Warriors versus clones created by the Red Ribbon Army. It's Dragon Ball Z, so don't expect a deep, thematic story. Arc System Works went the extra mile and acknowledge the player as an actual part of the story; a spirit that possesses each fighter and allows them to overcome to current obstacle limiting their powers. Every character gets their moment to shine and there are some all-new and unique interactions between characters that are worth the price of admission. The Story Mode plays out on a tabletop game board map with branching paths and also acts as a lengthy tutorial for the game.
What's interesting is that despite bleeding Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball FighterZ still feels a lot like an Arc System Works game. The opening is pure Guilty Gear, instead of something akin to the one of the anime openings like "Cha-La Head-Cha-La", "We Gotta Power", or "Limit Break×Survivor". The general musical overtones are the hard rock Arc System Works fans have come to expect from the developer, with the exception of the Lobby music, which does feel rather Dragon Ball.
Speaking of the Lobby, the entire online Lobby system is pulled directly from Guilty Gear Xrd, with your chosen avatar wandering around a 3D lobby. It drops the arcade cabinet motif for a hub with different areas based on familiar Dragon Ball landmarks like Bulma's Capsule Corp ship, Kame House, King Kai's planet, or Cell's Arena. Each one represents a different game mode, including the Story Mode, Practice, Arcade, Local Battles, or Online Battles. Players connect to each lobby-which are separated by region and hold up to 64 players each-and explore the hub or emote at other players.
Well, their chosen avatar out of the avatars they've unlocked. Dragon Ball FighterZ has its own loot box-style system, similar to the Guilty Gear Xrd titles. As you play through Story Mode, Arcade Mode, and Online Battles, you'll win Zeni. For every 1,000 Zeni, you can buy a Z-Capsule, which contains a random avatar, color, or Z-Stamp emote. Any duplicates you pick up net you Premium Z-Coins, which allow you to buy capsules that guarantee items. There don't seem to be any real money hooks here, and there weren't in the Guilty Gear games, so I wouldn't worry about that coming in the future.
Dragon Ball FighterZ is a class act of a fighter and I'm looking forward to more additions to the game from Arc System Works. (Videl, Broly, Master Roshi, and Mr. Satan are begging to be added to the roster as are alternate costumes for existing fighters.) What's here is a complete package, with a fighting game that's fun for fans, but still has depth for masters. There's a robust Story Mode, a branching Arcade Mode, and a whole host of characters to learn. Arc System Works has poured a deep amount love for Dragon Ball Z into the game and it shows.
Unfortunately, this review isn't done because the online servers for Dragon Ball FighterZ simply aren't live. The only online play I've been able to experience was in the Closed and Open Beta phases of the game. In Closed Beta, online play went well, but a whole day of Open Beta was lost due to server issues and there were some connection problems towards the end of the second open beta day. Since I can't tell how online will shake out, this review won't be scored. I'm feeling good about Dragon Ball FighterZ, but without online, it's missing a big chunk of the experience.