If you're a fan of Dragon Ball, be it the brilliantly detailed original manga series or the animated adaptation, the chances are that the story is now embedded deep within your psyche – especially if you've played even just a few of the licensed games over the years. It's hard to surprise a fan, then, because they already know the plot inside out from start to finish. Any sort of story mode is just going to be retreading the same ground again and again – and that's partly where the concept behind Dragon Ball XenoVerse comes into play.
Instead of once again watching Earth's greatest warriors kick the snot out of the universe's biggest bad guys, XenoVerse incorporates time travel into a plot about Dragon Ball's history, and how it's being changed by an unknown force. Venturing to different points in the well-known timeline, it's up to you to set history back on its intended course. For example, what if the evil Raditz had avoided Piccolo's killer blow, and had emerged victorious from the fight that was meant to be his last? What if body-switching alien Ginyu had stolen Vegeta's form, and stomped our heroes before Goku ever arrived to save the day?
The developer has clearly had some fun thinking up these alternate realities, and fans should really enjoy some of the more subtle touches throughout the game's story missions and subsequent cutscenes. In fact, the whole title's filled to the brim with references and nods to the original work, while the graphics recreate the universe well, with bright colours, flashy visual effects, and lightning quick animations.
The best part of it, though, is that you play as your own custom character. Choosing from a selection of five different races, which includes Saiyans, Namekians, and even Majin, the character creation isn't the deepest that you'll see, but there are enough cool options on offer to keep most players happy. Your fighter is at the heart of everything that you do in the release, as you level them up, learn new skills, and kit them out with fantastic looking accessories and clothes, many of which are taken straight from the source material. They'll even appear in cutscenes, and although your avatar isn't voiced, the franchise's consistently stellar art style still fills them with personality.
You work together with many of the property's main cast, and the release does a decent job of making you feel like you're playing an important part in Dragon Ball's legacy. All together, the story missions will last you around ten hours, but there's little doubt that if you stick around that long, you'll be trying your hand at a lot of other stuff on the side.
You see, XenoVerse certainly isn't your standard fighting game. It's far more Dragon Ball Online than it is Budokai 3, and as such, if you were looking forward to a somewhat traditional brawler, you'll be severely disappointed. You can still play one-on-one battles both online and offline with a relatively large and unlockable character roster to pick and choose from, but with the way that the whole title's set up, you'll be much better off approaching it from a different angle altogether. Put simply, this is more of a role-playing game than an out-and-out fighter, and although it's difficult to pin the title to any specific genre, the real meat of the release comes from developing your custom character as you tackle myriad optional quests and the aforementioned story missions.
Speaking of which, parallel quests are where you'll be spending a lot of your time. Essentially smaller objectives that have you taking on specific opponents in varying arenas, you'll nab rewards upon victory, which can include new techniques, clothing, or accessories. As far as special moves go, the game features just about every attack that's ever appeared in the source material, and being able to equip you own character with a slew of iconic moves will prove to be incredibly enjoyable if you're a fan.
In many ways, the release is comparable to not-quite-an-MMO shooter Destiny, except instead of jetting off to different planets in order to shoot things, you'll be warping to varying points in time to beat people up. The similarities begin to stack up when you realise that XenoVerse even has loot in the form of equipable skills and wearable gear that boosts certain statistics, along with a hub-like location that acts as the starting point for any adventure.
In this case, Toki Toki City is your hub, where you'll buy, sell, and combine items, as well as pick up your missions. It's also the place where you'll meet other players, challenging them to duels or adding them to your team for the next quest. You can interact through a list of short phrases, from greetings to more specific comments, and you can even perform often comical actions and pull dumb looking poses if you're keen to be the centre of attention. Many of the mentioned interactions are taken from the original work, too, so once again, fans will adore their inclusion and appreciate the attention to detail.
That's not to say that the title's only playable online, though. It's perfectly enjoyable if you prefer to be alone, but you'll be missing out on some brilliantly designed player characters. Indeed, you can take a seat in the city and just watch as countless great looking fighters go about their business, and then you can hit the triangle button if you're eager to take a look at their personal stats, and see what sort of rare gear they've managed to get their hands on. All in all, the developer's built a surprisingly social addition to Akira Toriyama's ever-popular creation, where fans can gather and celebrate his work.
XenoVerse's outer shell is well-realised and very enjoyable, but the core of any Dragon Ball game is always going to be its combat. Unfortunately, the battle system that's on offer here isn't the best that the property has seen, but it still manages to be a competent, and above all, fun take on the source material's outrageous brawls and over-the-top action. Anyone familiar with Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z's mechanics will likely grow into this with relative ease, but here, things are more accessible, and tuned to a much better degree. You can choose to grow your custom character however you see fit, turning them into a long-range powerhouse or a melee combat specialist, for instance, and while some tactics are arguably more effective than others, any sensible build should be enough to see out the game's single player content.
Whether you're taking part in a one-on-one duel or a team battle, combat is quite deliberate, and forces a certain tactical awareness. Alongside your health bar, you've got stamina and ki gauges, each of which are used to perform certain actions. Special moves deplete your ki, while stamina drains every time that you block, dodge, or make use of an evasive skill, meaning that it's particularity important to understand when it's best to use up your resources, especially near the beginning of the game, when you can only seem to manage a single teleportation before you're out of breath.
At first, combat seems quite limited: you make do with the same few basic combos, a couple of not-so-special techniques, and fights quickly become repetitive. However, stick with it, and battles really begin to open up as you make use of longer combo strings, eye-watering super moves, and teleport to your heart's content. As mission difficulty increases, the artificial intelligence gets much cockier, too, which results in some pretty spectacular looking brawls as you and your opponent zip around the wide open arenas, trading blows and firing off massive beam attacks. Of course, all of the classic Dragon Ball sound effects are here as well, which gives combat that much needed oomph.
The game does a lot right with its fighting mechanics, but it can end up being a little frustrating at times. For starters, those looking for a lot of technical depth will be disappointed with the title's accessible systems, while many players will undoubtedly become annoyed with enemies that love to spam the same attacks, which means that taking the fight online against other users can be hit or miss. What's more unforgivable, though, is that even computer controlled opponents will occasionally do the same, repeating a single technique again and again. This is particularly noticeable when certain boss fights are ruined by opponents who'll do nothing but smash you away with an evasive skill every time that you manage to pull off a combo of more than a few hits.
However, these issues aren't quite enough to drag the action down. For every cheap match, you'll have at least a few highly enjoyable brawls, and if a particular mission is really ticking you off, you can always come back to it later after you've powered up your character, or you could recruit a couple of strong allies to help you win. Indeed, every parallel quest can be undertaken as a team of up to three members, and some of the title's best moments arise when you're all playing ping pong with your opponent, smashing them back and forth between you and your new friends. The matchmaking is hassle free, too, and even though we mostly had to team up with Japanese players due to the release not being available in the West yet, we didn't suffer from any obvious lag issues or disconnects.
And finally, for what it's worth, we definitely recommend switching to the Japanese dub – at least until you're finished with the story. Although the English cast perform their parts perfectly well – and even though you can select Dragon Ball Abridged's very own Nappa as a custom character voice in what is an absolutely amazing cameo – the lip syncing is atrocious at points, going as far as to completely ruin the mood of the otherwise very well made cutscenes. Disappointingly, the rest of the game's audio is forgettable, barring the rousing Cha-La Head-Cha-La cover that plays during the title's opening movie – it just never gets old.
Sadly, if you've been holding out for a more traditional Dragon Ball fighter, Dragon Ball XenoVerse isn't it. It is, however, a well realised and refreshing take on Akira Toriyama's universe, which allows fans to appreciate the source material from a whole new angle. Accessible, bombastic combat, entirely customisable characters, and some fantastic online functionality give the game a unique identity, and arguably make it one of the most ambitious licensed titles that we've seen in years.