Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot Review

January 21, 2020
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With more than 30 games to its name, some dating back as early as the 1980s and most only available in Japan, Dragon Ball Z is no stranger to having its story adapted to video game form. But rarely has it been done in such a way that the story has been the star, as opposed to taking a back seat to the action. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is the most comprehensive and loving recreation of the DBZ canon there’s ever been, telling the story through the lens of a free-roaming action RPG rather than a straight-up fighting game like Xenoverse or FighterZ. It’s about as rough around the edges as Vegeta’s personality, but underneath it all is a game that overflows with nostalgic love for the source material.

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Kakarot strikes an unusual genre balance between an arena fighting game and a semi-open-world action-RPG. Put another way, it feels sort of like a Dragon Ball powered version of Yakuza in its free-roaming segments, and then shifting to a traditional Xenoverse/Tenkaichi-like fighting game once combat starts. And as an arena fighter, it’s great. Combat is simple, focused on one-button combos and a customizable selection of four special moves, but loaded with little intricacies that go a long way when it comes to keeping the action from ever becoming thoughtless. You’re always locked on and tethered to your opponent, too, allowing you to move toward, away from, and orbit around them midair with ease, and you can switch between targets with a simple flick of the right stick.

While this may seem very button-mashy – and to an extent it is –  it’s a combat system that nonetheless forces you to be reactive to what your opponent is doing. Most enemies have dangerous attacks that absorb strikes in order to deal one of their own that can immediately stop you in your tracks and leave you stunned, forcing you to carefully balance offense and your extremely mobile defensive options. Fortunately, Kakarot’s combat is smartly designed so that you can always evade to cancel out of a combo and get the hell out of the way when you can see something dangerous is being obviously telegraphed.

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Ki management is also very important, as your ki meter dictates not only your special move usage but also your ability to use vanishes to instantly get close and punish projectile attacks, your ability to use a super dash and follow enemies up after knocking them away, your ability to use a burst of energy to knock an opponent away when they’re about to break through your guard, and of course your various transformations, including going Super Saiyan. I really like the way Kakarot uses Ki, tying just as many useful defensive techniques to it as it does offensive, making it a vital rechargeable resource during battle.

There’s also a tension gauge that fills over the course of a fight, and once it’s full you can activate a Surge mode which allows you to cancel special moves into each other. That means you could string together a series of kamehamehas, one after the other, for massive damage – as long as you have the ki for it, of course. It’s a nice trump card to have once things get tough, and especially satisfying since you get an awesome “Super Finish” animation when you end a fight with a Surge-powered beam attack.

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Since Kakarot is single-player only and doesn’t need to be balanced with competitive play in mind, developer CyberConnect 2 was able to go a little bit wild with its enemy design and give them special moves that would typically be too powerful in PvP. Cell, for example, can split into about 20 weaker versions of himself, all of which start preparing attacks aimed directly at you, while Kid Buu and Frieza can create planet-sized energy bombs that force you to rush out of the blast zone or suffer massive damage. It makes these villains feel appropriately epic to fight.

All of these small intricacies add up and elevate what is otherwise a very basic but flashy combat system. That said, Kakarot is a long game, clocking in for me at around 33 hours, and by the time I was about halfway through I felt like I had already seen just about everything it would throw at me. That made the last half a bit less exciting and challenging than I would have liked.

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Sidetracked

While Kakarot works great as an arena fighter, largely by keeping the action pretty similar to previous games, its RPG side weighs it down.  Sidequests are almost always painfully plain, relying far too much on banal tasks like finding ingredients for a chef to make you a dish, getting mechanical parts for Bulma to repair a machine, or defending a helpless NPC by fighting the same three generic Red Ribbon Army robots that you’ll blow up a million times over the course of the campaign. Worse still, the EXP offered for completing most of them simply pales in comparison to the amount you get for beating main quests, making them feel incredibly unrewarding as well.

There are a scant few sidequests I experienced that broke the mold, like a standout one involving “the ghost of Yamcha,” which has you following around an imposter Yamcha as he goes on various dates after the events of the Saiyan saga. I won’t spoil the big reveal of the quest, but it ended up being very sweet and was a great example of how sidequests could have been used to tell interesting substories about established characters. If more sidequests were like this, instead of a bunch of different variations of fetch, collect, and protect quests, Kakarot would’ve been a much stronger game as a whole.

Beyond that, the other RPG elements of Kakarot just kind of get in the way. Roaming enemies in the field are nothing more than annoyances since the EXP they offer is barely a drop in the bucket when it comes to what you need to level up; many skills on the skill tree are frustratingly gated by combat challenges that are almost always either more trouble than their worth or against enemies that are at such a low level that they can’t even damage you; and the fishing and baseball minigames are good for a laugh, but not much else.

You can also collect various cooking ingredients to make dishes that will provide both temporary or permanent buffs, or you can save those dishes to have Chi-Chi make a full course meal for massive increases in your stats, but that rarely pays off. While thematically amusing, cooking is ultimately a ton of boring and tedious work that’s often better off skipped entirely, especially because you get all of the stat upgrades you need through natural level-ups by playing through the main quest.

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Next Time On Dragon Ball Z

Where Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot shines brightest is in its mostly comprehensive retelling of the entirety of the Dragon Ball Z storyline. Die-hard fans will no doubt notice some parts that are left out, like Trunks’ showdown with Cell in his Ultra Super Saiyan form (or Super Saiyan 1.5, or whatever you want to call it) but, for the most part, CyberConnect2 did a very respectable job of condensing well over 100 episodes of plot into a single video game.

What’s especially notable is how Kakarot doesn’t shy away from the less combat-heavy, more character-driven moments, such as Piccolo’s training of Gohan, Gohan’s entire Super Saiyaman substory involving him and Videl, or Vegeta finally calling Bulma by her name and not just “woman.” The result is a condensed version of Dragon Ball Z that really focuses on the development of its characters, specifically Vegeta, Gohan, and Piccolo, and it’s a great way to watch them grow and change.

Unfortunately, not all of the big moments are created equal, and there’s a bit of inconsistency in the quality of Kakarot’s cutscenes. The most important moments in the story, like the conclusions of each saga, Vegito’s fusion, various deaths, and more are crafted with the type of care and detail you’d expect of CyberConnect2, the developers behind the similarly faithful Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm games. But many others feel like they’re missing a certain level of polish. Some are lacking iconic lines or shots, others have stiff animations, awkward line reads, and one scene was even missing sound effects entirely.

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That lack of consistent polish finds its way into the gameplay at times as well, with tons of annoyingly repeated dialogue lines when flying around the open world. I think I speak for all of humanity when I say that I don’t need to hear Goku state variations of “This looks like a great apple” every single time he flies by a stupid apple tree, nor do I need to hear Gohan say “I think I can handle this” every time he skips past a weak enemy, which is every 10 seconds.

The high moments are high enough that I still believe this is truly the best video game retelling of the Dragon Ball Z story, but it’s disappointing that there’s still so much room for improvement.

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