On the surface, Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z looks like a shallow mess of unbalanced gameplay mechanics meant solely to satisfy die-hard fans of the DBZ anime and manga franchise. However, when you sit down and actually play the game, you realize that it’s so much worse. In an attempt to simplify Battle ofl Z’s mechanics and introduce new team battles, Namco Bandai has managed to remove what little depth Dragon Ball Z fighting games had to offer.
Battle of Z controls a lot like the Dragon Ball Budokai Tenkaichi fighting games that released last generation. Unlike traditional fighters, you control your character from a behind the back perspective and use action game-style lock-on mechanics to face your opponent. Stages are excessively huge and a big part of every fight is chasing your opponent down. Unfortunately, you can lock on to your opponent from anywhere at any time which makes any other movement kind of useless. After you have locked-on you can just move mindlessly forward until you confront your opponent, and no amount of dodging or weaving will allow him to outrun you.
Once you and your opponent get into fighting distance it’s time for the slow and repetitive battle to begin. Your attack options in Battle of Z are depressingly limited. You have one button for melee attacks, one button for ki blasts and then a couple buttons for your signature moves, but you’ll really only be mindlessly mashing the melee button most of the time. The ki blasts are useless. They do next to no damage, move far too slowly to actually hit anybody, and even if they do make contact they don’t cause enough hit-stun to matter. You can basically fight like they aren’t even there.
Signature moves, like the iconic Kamehameha, are cool to watch but don’t do much. Usually they just lump a big pile of damage on the opponent, which is great in terms of numbers but is not interesting to actually do. You’d think that you could fire world destroying death beams across the map to chase a fleeing enemy, but you’d be wrong. Most of these attacks only reliably hit at close range and even then they feel like a gamble.
This leaves us with the melee attack which is probably the most boring implementation of a melee attack in a fighting game ever. You have one attack. Just one. Mashing on the melee button makes you launch into a canned string of hits that always looks the same and always does the same amount of damage. You can’t alter your attacks by holding a direction or changing your timing or even pressing another button. There’s no real cancel system or combo system to speak of either.
Battle of Z attempts to innovate by introducing the concept of team battles. In fact, Battle of Z does more than introduce team battles, it demands them. Basically, every battle in the game is a team battle, even battles that, in the anime, were traditionally 1v1. It’s easy to assume that the basic combat mechanics were toned down in order to make way for more interesting team mechanics, except the team mechanics actually make the game less fun.
Now characters can attack opponents together which, once again, looks cool, but doesn’t do much other than increase damage. You don’t even have to do anything special to initiate a team attack. There are also team “combos,” where you complete a hit string and then an ally intercepts the opponent to start his, but since many characters’ hit-strings are copy-pasted from one another, it only serves to reveal the game’s sloppy presentation. Furthermore, since all you are doing is mashing the melee button to attack, this doesn’t even feel like a new mechanic. You are just doing the same thing you would be doing anyway.
Allies can also revive each other on the battlefield, which is kind of cool, but totally takes away the threat of defeat. You only have five seconds to get to a knocked out ally before they fall. That’s more than enough time. You never even pay attention to your health because it doesn’t matter if you die. Even if you fail and are wiped out, the battle picks up right where it left off. The enemies you killed are still dead. It’s like there’s not even any penalty for losing. You have a limited amount of revives, but it’s next to impossible to ever run out unless you are being incredibly careless.
You’d think that this team battle thing would make the game a blast to play online but you’d be wrong. Eight player matches sound good on paper, but in practice they are an exercise in frustration. Are you attacking someone? Not for long, because someone else is going to punch you in the back of the head while you are preoccupied. Don’t worry, because the same will happen to them resulting in a chain of backstabbing chaos that is the furthest thing from fun.
The lackluster co-op mode offers you a chance to play with friends, but sadly, playing with other people just isn’t as fun as teaming up with the computer. A.I. teammates tend to chuck energy at you like crazy, allowing you to be the superstar of the battle. Real players, however, tend to keep energy to themselves, which actually means you feel weaker than you do in single-player. You’ll blast through the same enemies on the same stages at the same difficulty in single-player far faster than you will online, which means there’s no real reason to play online unless you really want voice chat with DBZ fanboys.
If there’s any reason to play Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z, it’s the graphics. They are actually quite impressive and for a battle or two it’s kind of fun to watch mountains blow up as you fire ki lasers through them. The voice acting is also pretty good, well in-line with the anime’s standards, if not a little better. It’s worth mentioning that you can play as Goku in his “Super Saiyan God Form,” which is a new form only recently revealed in the brand new movie Dragon Ball Z: Battle of the Gods. If you really think a brand new transformation that is nothing more than a hair palette swap is just too cool, you might want to give the game a try.
The Dragon Ball series is kind of bizarre as far as fighting games go. It’s a licensed franchise built off of an anime IP that stopped making new episodes in 1998. At this point, nostalgia is basically the only thing keeping it alive. “Fandom Fighters” like this are always marketed toward die-hard fans who are more than willing look past shallow gameplay mechanics in order to button mash their way through an epic fight between iconic anime characters, but Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z, has finally found the tipping point. It’s just hard to have fun with this game. You can’t lose yourself in the corny anime nostalgia because every single battle feels like a shallow slog. The cut scenes between battles aren’t good enough reward, and you never feel awesome enough in battle to warrant putting up with the button mashy chaos. There is no amount of nostalgia that can save this game from its own flawed mechanics, and even lifelong fans are likely to step away from Battle of Z feeling unfulfilled.
This review was based on a purchased retail version of Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z for the PlayStation3.