When Bandai Namco announced that it was going to be making a role-playing game that covers the entirety of Dragon Ball Z, fans seemed somewhat torn. On one hand, developer CyberConnect2 was going to be at the helm -- the studio behind the largely fantastic Naruto Storm titles. On the other, it's hard to get genuinely excited about the retelling of a story that you've heard countless times before -- and Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is exactly that.
But to be fair, it's a pretty good retelling. In fact, it's the most in-depth and accurate retelling of Dragon Ball Z ever told by a video game -- and that's at least worth celebrating. Again, it covers all four main arcs of Akira Toriyama's eternally popular series (putting you in the shoes of Goku, Gohan, Piccolo, and more), and while it does still miss out on some much smaller details, you could know absolutely nothing about Dragon Ball, play Kakarot, and leave with a far greater understanding of what it's all about. Heck, you might even become a fan.
The storytelling shines during beautifully crafted cutscenes -- many of which look way better than the anime itself. With the Naruto Storm games, CyberConnect2's passion and love for the source material was abundantly clear, and the same is true of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot. Some of the biggest moments in Dragon Ball Z are perfectly recreated -- enhanced, even -- by the developer's flair for eye-watering cinematics. They really are a joy to behold.
However, this is where the title's biggest issue begins to take shape. In short, Kakarot is a very, very inconsistent release. One minute you're watching a downright glorious, fully animated cutscene. The next, you're bored stiff as characters stand in place, spouting dialogue that, for some mad reason, has uncomfortably long bouts of silence between each spoken line. It's great that the game features so much dialogue to begin with, but it could have been presented and delivered much more effectively than this.
At times, it does feel as though CyberConnect2 had to cut corners. Kakarot is a big game -- just seeing out the story will take you a good 30 or 40 hours, and there's a lot of optional stuff to dig into as well. Having played it for at least 50, we'd go as far to say that the finished product feels rushed, like it could have benefited massively from being in development for another six months or so. Perhaps we'll get a Dragon Ball Super-based sequel that improves on the established blueprint, or maybe the upcoming DLC will boast higher quality across the board.
In any case, actually playing Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is fun -- just flying around its numerous open areas is enjoyable, exploring points of interest and taking in the sights. We dare say that the world of Dragon Ball has never been better realised than this -- at least in video games. The cities in particular are lovingly crafted, complete with bustling streets and roads packed with hovercar traffic. The countryside, meanwhile, can seem a bit static, but you're usually travelling at such a speed that the wilderness never feels truly empty or devoid of life. It gets the job done.
In between main story missions -- which are activated by visiting clearly marked icons on the map -- you're usually free to do what you want. There are side quests to undertake, moderately entertaining minigames to master, and materials to gather. Said side quests can vary in terms of quality, though. Most boil down to basic objectives like beating a group of generic enemies or fetching a specific number of items, but they're often elevated by cool character moments and interesting interactions between fan favourites. Some quests, however, are all but ruined by long load times as the game moves you from one area to the next in order to tell the story. Inconsistency strikes again.
And then there's orb collecting, which is... Weird, to say the least. Spread all across the world are orbs that you can suck up as you fly about your business, and you can use them to unlock new super attacks and passive bonuses. It's a strange system that feels like it belongs in a different era of gaming, but fortunately, the act of collecting these ugly orbs becomes obsolete as you progress; later battles reward you with more orbs than you'll ever know what to do with.
Speaking of battles, combat in Kakarot can be hit and miss. The system itself is fine if a bit simplistic. You mash circle to do a basic melee combo, while holding down L1 opens up your special attack options. Defensively, you hold L2 to block and furiously tapping X lets you dash like a madman. There's a lot of mobility on offer here, and the bottom line is that you're going to need it.
Most fights follow the same pattern: launch a flurry of attacks, back off as the enemy builds up for a special move, dodge or block the move, counter with your own super, repeat. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is much less of a button masher than you may initially believe, as success hinges on your ability to strike when your opponent is vulnerable. All of your foes -- even the humble Saibaman -- will power straight through your attacks if you're not careful, and while it does seem stupid that the mighty Goku can't just beat his opponent into a bloody pulp like he does in the manga and anime, needing to know when to switch between offence and defence gives most battles an enjoyable tension.
We say "most" because there are some fights that are simply infuriating. They're not what you'd call difficult in a traditional sense -- Kakarot isn't all that difficult overall -- but they're most certainly cheap. When you're one-on-one, combat is at its best. You're locked onto your enemy and you can attempt read their attacks. However, when you're up against multiple foes, the combat system can really struggle. One-on-one with Frieza? No problem. Going up against Burter and Jeice of the Ginyu Force? An absolute nightmare. It's no exaggeration to say that a group of Saibamen pose a bigger threat than Nappa or Vegeta, purely because keeping track of the erratic little bastards is far more difficult than keeping an eye on a single opponent.
This is where the aforementioned mobility enters the equation. The majority of these group brawls force you to put some distance between you and your foes at all times, lest you eat attacks from every possible angle. It's an exercise in patience that can quickly become a chore, but hey, at least the game's gracious enough to provide you with some staggeringly cheap tools for when you just can't be arsed. Case in point: Vegeta's Big Bang Attack is busted. Completely, totally, and utterly broken. You can stand in place and fire this bad boy off over and over again -- and there's nothing most enemies can do about it. It does huge damage, it comes out incredibly quickly, its blast radius is gigantic, and it locks your opponent in place. Never underestimate the Prince of Saiyans.
Combat's unbalanced, then, but despite its fumbles and its lack of depth, it's fun and flashy enough to keep you invested, and pulling off perfectly timed combos, counters, and dodges feels great.
But hold on, isn't Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot supposed to be a role-playing game? Well, technically it is. Goku and pals level up throughout the story, there are damage numbers, stats, and various progression systems -- but don't go into it expecting any real depth. There's no need to grind, for example, since the game's key story fights keep you at a manageable level throughout. Collecting Soul Emblems -- character-based medals -- and cooking meals provide various stat and gameplay bonuses, but you'll be absolutely fine without ever touching on these systems.
A lot of Kakarot feels a little superfluous, but there's one extra that we really do appreciate, and that's the game's impressive encyclopedia. From full character biographies to detailed breakdowns of the original Dragon Ball manga and subsequent anime, the encyclopedia is both an educational tool for newcomers and a time sink for existing fans. You can even watch back those gorgeous cutscenes or listen to catchy tunes from the show. Lovely stuff.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot's inconsistent quality holds it back from being a great Dragon Ball game, but ultimately, its high points do outweigh its problems -- especially if you're a fan. This is quite easily the most accurate retelling of Dragon Ball Z in a video game, and it's packed full of additional character moments and thoughtful little details. That said, it's difficult not to feel as though the game could have used more time in development or a bigger budget. CyberConnect2's admiration of the source material shines through, but at times, it's hard to ignore all of the corners that have quite clearly been cut. Kakarot's good fun and a decent way to spend 40 anime-soaked hours, but it could have been something more.