Over the past 30 years since its debut in Shonen Jump, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball manga has seen more than 50 video game adaptations, becoming not only one of the most successful manga and anime series of all time, but also one of the highest grossing video game franchises too. Despite this, even the biggest fans of the manga and its anime adaptations (such as myself) can tell you that Dragon Ball has had a historically patchy relationship with video games. Being such a financial juggernaut, the series has more often than not fallen into the trap many licensed games tend to, with a lot of the series’ video games not amounting to much more than cheap cash-ins or under-developed messes that managed to sell well because they had Goku on the box. Regardless, and to my surprise, with the revival of the manga and anime with Dragon Ball Super, this console generation has seen a surprising turnaround for Dragon Ball video games. The Dragon Ball Xenoverse series has been a massive success for Bandai Namco and has been supported consistently for almost 5 years now, and the Super Dragon Ball Heroes card-based series has been a hit on Nintendo Switch. That isn’t even to mention Dragon Ball FighterZ, which is undoubtedly the absolute peak of the Dragon Ball video game franchise, bringing the series into the fighting game community as an absolute mainstay that is still part of major tournaments to this day.
That brings us to CyberConnect2’s Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, yet another unfamiliar territory for Dragon Ball games, promising to be the series’ first console action-RPG, a re-telling of Dragon Ball Z’s story with a huge open world to explore, lots of side-activities and even some side-quests that promise to fill in the blanks of Dragon Ball Z’s many mysteries and unanswered questions. It’s a lot to promise to fans that may have initially skipped on what was ‘yet another retelling of Z’, but if there’s one word to describe CyberConnect2’s efforts with Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, it is definitely ‘ambitious’.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is, you guessed it, based off the story of the Dragon Ball Z anime (or the second half of the original manga) featuring the return of Goku and the introduction of his son, Gohan, and follows the main 4 story arcs: the Saiyan Saga, the Frieza Saga, the Cell Saga and the Buu Saga. While Kakarot doesn’t go out of its way to adapt any of the films, even the canon ones such as Battle of Gods and Resurrection F (which are technically part of Super anyways), certain filler episodes and arcs are adapted into charming side-quests at certain points in the game. That should give you an idea for what Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is going for. This is a game made with the dedication to referencing all corners of the Dragon Ball franchise, including cameos and references that only those who have been with Goku’s adventure since day 1 will notice. Fans of the series will find a lot to love with Kakarot’s storytelling and side-content, but just as CyberConnect2’s Naruto games were as well, Kakarot also acts as an adequate recommendation to those wishing to experience the Dragon Ball Z story without reading the manga or watching the original 300+ episode anime or the 100+ episode Kai re-cut. It is easily the most accurate and dedicated re-telling of the Z story outside of the main anime adaptations.
As you make your way through the Dragon Ball Z story, you’ll get to explore a faithfully recreated open-world as multiple characters. Despite its namesake, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot doesn’t only see you controlling Goku as for a few major parts of the main story, Goku is nowhere to be seen. Instead, during these sections you can control characters like Vegeta, Piccolo and Gohan. Since Dragon Ball Z was originally intended by Akira Toriyama to be a passing of the torch to Gohan, expect to be controlling Goku’s son a lot. Aside from main story chapters, the player can use the open world to hunt or fish for food, search for the Dragon Balls across the world, train to level up skills, or complete side-quests for familiar characters. Kakarot’s side-content doesn’t make for the most engaging gameplay, but just exploring this fleshed out, fully realized Dragon Ball world is unlike any other experience the franchise has ever come close to, and completionists will find themselves chipping away at side-content for hours on end.
As an action-RPG, and with source material such as Dragon Ball Z, a lot of Kakarot is focused on its main combat mechanics, and as far as games in this series go, it’s certainly an upgrade from a lot of other 3D combat-arena style fighters, but judging from its past, that’s really not saying much. What is refreshing about this game’s combat is how important the RPG mechanics feel in the long-term. Leveling up matters majorly in DBZ: Kakarot as enemies that are a few levels below you can be taken out in a matter of seconds; however, enemies a few levels above you can give you a very rough time. Each character’s abilities appropriately reflect those they had in the narrative, so you won’t see Goku going Super Saiyan until the end of the Frieza Saga. With that in mind, each character feels incredibly accurate in power to how they were portrayed at that point in the story. The Saiyan Saga’s Vegeta feels like an absolute force to be reckoned with, and his boss battle will give you some trouble if you’re not properly prepared. This is the type of dedication that makes Kakarot feel so successful as a Dragon Ball RPG, even if the repetitive nature of combat encounters can grow somewhat tiresome by the end of the Cell Saga. The major flaw to both exploration and combat is that the game’s camera doesn’t seem excellently implemented for how dynamic these styles can be, constantly getting caught above or below the player, especially when locked on to an enemy during combat.
On the technical front, it should come as no surprise that Kakarot is definitely a visual downgrade from Arc System Works’ Dragon Ball FighterZ. Despite using Unreal Engine 4, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot isn’t the sharpest looking of the anime games to be released in the past few years, and apart from those found in the gorgeous pre-rendered CG cutscenes, the low-quality animations and character models are often disappointing. What is nice is the smooth 1080p/60 frames-per-second playback, even among the sprawling open-world; however, terrain textures and lack of detail around the world leave a lot to be desired from the game’s undoubtedly impressive visual flair during combat and, again, those pre-rendered cutscenes. During key moments of the story, CyberConnect2 use their incredible skillset to recreate scenes from Dragon Ball Z in a gorgeous style that only feels like an evolution of their Naruto games’ and truly add to what makes Kakarot feel like such a fresh and loving recreation of this story. That said, every cutscene outside of these feels extremely stilted, with the player cycling through (fully voiced) text boxes while the characters animate very stiltedly. The worst aspect of these cutscenes is that the player has to manually press the button for the dialogue to continue with no option to let them automatically play naturally like most other RPGs with cutscenes like this, such as Persona or Fire Emblem. What at least helps is that almost all of the main story’s cutscenes, high budget or low, are fully voiced in both Japanese and English from the anime’s voice cast, all of which are returning from Dragon Ball Z Kai or Dragon Ball Super.
CyberConnect2 have once again helped to adapt another Shonen Jump manga into a fun and dynamic video game, and to bring us back to what I said earlier, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is by far the most ambitious anime game of its kind that I have played in a while. While it doesn’t do anything to redefine JRPGs or move the genre forward, it brings a Japanese franchise more deserving than any other into the JRPG genre with so much dedication that it’s hard for anybody with any sort of love for Son Goku and his friends to not jump on board given how much justice CyberConnect2 has done to both Toriyama’s manga and Toei’s anime. Here’s hoping we get to see more RPGs of this kind from CyberConnect2, hopefully based on the original Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Super, or heck, even another Shonen Jump property (Hunter x Hunter, anyone?) sometime soon.
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Release Date: 17th January 2019
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