Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z is a strange beast. It sports some gorgeous looking locations, catchy tunes, and Akira Toriyama's fantastic art style, but those who were expecting a somewhat traditional fighting game in the same vein as the Budokai series or even the Tenkaichi series will be left rather surprised with this team-based handheld brawler.
Beat-'em-up veterans will be disappointed with the title's simplistic mechanics, but there's no denying that the release's systems click relatively well – at least when you've got used to the flow of combat. The game encourages strategy and teamwork rather than charging into the fray and beating your foes to a pulp, and in turn, a sort of structured pace is introduced to each battle.
With the camera a reasonable distance behind your chosen fighter, surveying the often chaotic battlefield is usually easy, and a handy lock-on mechanic that's activated with a tap of R allows you to keep centred on the enemy of your choice. You can then change your target by flicking the right stick, but a lot of the time it's overly fiddly – especially when you're being flanked by the opposition and it refuses to lock-on to the desired foe.
Thankfully, it's only a minor annoyance due to the fact that you'll be relying on your artificial intelligence-driven allies to help deal with groups – and they're surprisingly competent. Alongside backing up your assaults with powerful special attacks and quick combos, they'll also be on hand to share their energy or even heal your health, depending on their character type. Not only do these classes have an impact on gameplay, but they also emphasise the importance of assembling a well-balanced team.
A melee fighter like Goku unsurprisingly specialises in close combat, and his energy bar – a gauge that depletes when using special attacks – is refilled faster when he lands physical attacks. Meanwhile, a ki blast warrior is adept at causing damage from range, and can quickly restore their energy bar through pelting enemies with shots of ki. The two remaining types are interfere and support, both of which play a less substantial role in direct combat, but are able to put a stop to troublesome offensives and heal their comrades respectively.
All of the classes involved adhere to the same control layout, but their skills demand that they be played in a specific way in order to be effective. Trying to deal out large amounts of damage with a support type is never going to be as potent as rushing your adversaries with a melee-based combatant, and spamming energy blasts with an up-close-and-personal brawler will leave you wide open due to their slow-firing projectiles. The strict limitations that are applied to the cast's styles can seem slightly stifling, but the problem is offset by a large character roster, so fans and newbies alike are bound to find a favourite who suits their method of play.
That said, there aren't really that many strategies to employ. If you're being barraged by a ki blast class, you'd best try to get in close, while the opposite is true if you're being chased across the map by a rampaging melee type. This can mean that battles end up seeming quite repetitive, and it doesn't help that your only means of defence is a bland block that's mapped to L. You'll likely find yourself holding the shoulder button down much more than any other input, as you'll also need to press it in when flicking the left stick to perform dodges, which happen to be the only truly reliable way to avoid getting caught in long combos and deadly beams of energy.
Despite its basic implementation, though, going on the defensive is something that you'll need to do constantly. The four-versus-four battles mean that it's possible for an entire team to attack you and you alone, which can be frustrating when you're forced to watch your computer controlled allies do all of the work while you're pinned in place by every attack imaginable. Compounding the issue is map size: from the grassy plains of the Earth to the damaged Namekian homeworld, the arenas are all suitably huge and open. While they offer the freedom of movement that's always been prominent in the source material, it means that as long as an enemy is locked-on, they can hurl projectiles at you completely unopposed, which makes closing long distances between you and an opponent a tedious chore.
As a result, Battle of Z's mechanics may not be the best or the most polished, but there's still a lot of fun to be had in grouping your dream team of Dragon Ball heroes or villains and smashing the daylights out of anyone who stands in your way. Every attack, standard or special, connects with satisfying sound effects and animations which are typical of the anime. Unleashing an iconic kamehameha and obliterating a fast-flying foe who was being kept in place by an ally feels incredibly rewarding, and sending an opponent spiralling into a huge rock structure which then splits into pieces sums up the franchise's trademark action as well as ever.
On top of using enemies as living mining tools, the timeless Dragon Ball Z story also makes a return, although its presence certainly isn't at the forefront of the release. The game's only single player mode has you punch, kick, and blast your way through the usual sagas, defeating and unlocking the likes of Frieza and Cell as you complete a massive amount of missions. But the franchise's actual plot never really surfaces, and instead we're left with short stints of dialogue that inject some very vague context into the situation. It goes without saying that newcomers will be utterly clueless as to what's happening, whereas long-term fans may actually appreciate the fact that they can dive straight into battle rather than watch a re-imagined cutscene of the same plot point for the 9000th time.
Despite the length and extensive coverage of the single player offering, it's still difficult to excuse the lack of a solo versus mode. Some characters simply can't be used in specific missions – for example, you can't go into a brawl with Vegeta and Nappa using those same warriors, or any of the cast that would side with them during the scenario, like fellow Saiyan Raditz. It makes sense when it comes to progressing through the story, but it seems like a shame that you can't go back and create your own crazy combat situations, especially when you want to get to grips with a newly unlocked character.
Thankfully, there's a lot of replayability to be found in missions, partly due to a ranking system that's based on your performance, and the opportunity to collect cards which can then be equipped in order to power up your chosen fighter. The upgrades available aren't original or particularly exciting, but they add further depth to developing your own playstyle. Slap a card that strengthens your capabilities when flying onto a long range attacker like Vegeta, for instance, and you can take to the skies and rain down ki blasts that boast increased damage.
It's clear, however, that the title was designed with multiplayer in mind. There are two modes on offer: co-op and battle. As its name suggests, co-op sees you teaming up with other players and tackling the single player missions. Replacing your AI buddies with humans obviously allows for a lot more coordination, particularly when you team up with users who make use of the Vita's built-in microphone.
It's unfortunate, then, that we found it extremely hard to fight alongside anyone who didn't suffer from a poor connection, which unsurprisingly led to countless brawls where we could barely string together a basic combo because of input lag. At its worst, our battles were rendered almost impossible to win due to our on-screen movements being so far behind our button presses, which subsequently left us wide open to attacks time and time again. If you're fortunate enough to avoid these technical problems, though, Battle of Z proves to be a great way to experience the popular franchise with like-minded individuals, as you work together to defeat its most dangerous personalities.
Similarly, battle mode is just as much of a mixed bag. Aside from some painful lag, pitting two teams of four against each other works better than you may expect. Balanced groups of combatants generally have the advantage, but as with any title in the genre, online play is anything but predictable, and the player count allows for quite a bit of variety – the kind of which you'd usually only find in genres more familiar with team play.
Its power level won't be breaking your scouter any time soon, but Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z brings Akira Toriyama's ever-popular creation to Western Vitas with a bang. While its online components are inconsistent at best, its team-based twist on the series' typically over the top action is refreshing – if unrefined – and fans will jump at the chance to assemble their favourite fighters and take on the universe's most feared warriors.