I’ve been a huge fan of Dragon Ball Z since the mid-’90s. My friends and I would go to Flushing Main St. in Queens, NY and buy third or fourth generation bootleg VHS tapes to watch the series and its movies. Though edited for content, watching the English translation from Ocean Studios was a lot of fun too. While there are many objectively better anime out there, I still highly enjoy and adore DBZ because of the simplistic (and nostalgic) joy it provides.
Yes, I’m a fan of DBZ but I can’t say I’ve ever cared for its many video game adaptations. Most have been fighting or arena battle titles with shallow, repetitive combat. The only DBZ game worth a damn is Dragon Ball FighterZ but that’s mainly because it’s an Arc System Works title with a DBZ skin over it. When it comes to video games, DBZ isn’t exactly super.
The latest DBZ game, Kakarot, takes a different path from its predecessors by allowing users the chance to live in the world of Dragon Ball. The open-world(ish) environments contain iconic locations from throughout the series. Add in all the classic characters, storylines, and true-to-the-series presentation, and you get a title that’s bursting at the seams with nostalgia. Though this helped keep me engaged, the nostalgic factor cannot cover up what is an otherwise bland, repetitive gaming experience. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is awesome if you’re a long-time fan of the series. If you’re unfamiliar with the franchise, you’ll find it hard to get much enjoyment here.
Kakarot follows the four main “sagas” of the series: Saiyan, Frieza, Cell, and Buu. Those looking for content from Dragon Ball GT or Dragon Ball Super won’t find it here. The game does a mostly exceptional job of recreating the series’ most memorable moments. From Goku and Vegeta’s first battle to the final defeat of Buu, scenes come to life authentically. Sure, there are some small differences here or there (mostly with different camera angles and occasional altering of sequences), but it’s extremely close to the source material.
There are three core mechanics at play: Combat, open-world exploration, and RPG progression. Kakarot adequately melds these disparate mechanics into a cohesive whole. No portion of gameplay is bad, per se. They all work well enough. But “well enough” should let you know you won’t find much depth in any one area.
The game’s combat captures the frenetic, over-the-top feel of battles from Dragon Ball Z Nicely. On PS4, you attack with Circle, Dash with X, shoot energy with Square, and power up with Triangle. This makes it so players can effortlessly (and instantly) attack, dodge, and defend at a moment’s notice. Of course, each character can unleash their signature super moves to deal more damage. At first, it’s exhilarating to unleash a torrent of attacks on a foe, kick them away, then hurl toward them and repeat the process. Punching enemies through mountains and hitting them with a Kamehameha or Galick Gun is equally exciting.
The downside is that this all becomes repetitive after a few hours. Major boss battles do not suffer from this. Those always employ some novel methods to keep them feeling fresh and visceral. The problem comes from the endless filler enemies you constantly run into on the field. Most of these battles require little more than spamming Circle until you’ve defeated everyone. If your character is sufficiently strong, he may be able to defeat in-field foes by smashing into them mid-flight — but this is rare. Mostly, you’ll have to suffer through hundreds of similar battles simply to reach your objective.
Kakarot doesn’t feature a traditional open-world environment. Instead, it has expansive (but separate) locations. Each map contains numerous Z-orbs, D medals, crafting items, hidden treasures, sidequests, enemies, and fishing spots. Yes, you can have Vegeta swallow his Saiyan pride and make him fish.
Like the game itself, only the hardest of hardcore DBZ fans will get a kick out of the environments. Visiting locations from the TV series is admittedly cool. If you’re not a fan, you’ll likely find the environments somewhat stale and lifeless. They’re cool to look at and explore at first but quickly become boring. If you’re like me, you’ll eventually get to a point where you stop exploring and just focus on getting to the next mission marker.
You can unlock different attacks, special moves, and passive abilities from each of the characters’ respective skill trees. New abilities require the aforementioned Z-orbs to unlock. Considering the overwhelming amount of Z-orbs scattered throughout each level, you’ll always have enough to gain new abilities. Some abilities do not unlock until you have progressed enough in the story. Others require you to train at designated spots on the map. Overall, using the skill tree is a straightforward and simple process.
There’s a grid-like sub-menu called the community board. Here, players can use collected Soul Emblems that enable stat boosts like extra defense, offense, ki, and more. These emblems are essentially tokens with a character’s face on it. One community board focuses on fighters (which help enhance attacks) while another board may consist of healers (that provide extra defense). You can level up individual emblems by providing them with “gifts.” While interesting on the surface, the community board has little impact gameplay-wise. You can completely ignore it and make it through the campaign with no issues. Still, if you want a diversion I suppose it’s good for that.
DBZ games released since last gen have done a nice job of replicating the anime’s distinctive art style. The problem is that most titles naturally end up looking the same. Instead of having graphics borrowed from modern-day DBZ promotional art (not to mention Dragon Ball Super), Kakarot’s art style is more akin to the first season of the series. Characters and the environment they inhabit feature a mix of both rounded and sharp outlines. This gives the game a fuller, more well-balanced look. This specific art style also amps up the nostalgia since it conjures memories of the series’ earliest days.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot isn’t a revolutionary title by any stretch of the imagination. Its combat, open-world design, and RPG elements are serviceable at best. As a game, it is simply “okay.” However, long-time fans of the classic franchise will find much to love here. This is without a doubt a massive love letter to the series, and by extension, its faithful fans. Kakarot doesn’t live up to its potential but it does provide a solid foundation for sequels to build upon. If any potential follow up can better flesh out the mechanics in Kakarot, we may finally get a truly legendary Dragon Ball Z game.