Though countless video games have tried, with widely varying levels of success, to ape the dizzying battles that have defined Dragon Ball in its various forms over its 30-plus-year history, Dragon Ball FighterZ is the first game to not just fully match but surpass them in intensity. The most recent Dragon Ball titles have settled for being solid, albeit unremarkable 3D brawlers. Dragon Ball FighterZ, though, gets dragged back into two dimensions by Arc System Works, the undisputed masters of the format who’ve been working miracles for years with the BlazBlue and Guilty Gear franchises. The level of intricacy, detail, and fluidity that the developers have brought to an art form whose purveyors are prone to proudly cutting corners is spectacular, and to put that level of artistry in players’ hands still feels like magic.
Dragon Ball Fighter Z’s unbelievably gorgeous cel-shaded animation bursts off the screen with stunning clarity that even the anime on which the game is based doesn’t achieve by design. The nuclear-scale lightshow attacks that are Dragon Ball’s bread and butter have all been achieved without the use of pre-rendered cutscenes, accessible with the push of a button. In Dragon Ball FighterZ, Goku’s Kamehameha Super attack doesn’t just shoot an opponent with a flashy laser but typically ends with a massive, apocalyptic blast that fills the screen and sees the entire stage transformed into a smoldering ruin. Some of the most devastating finishing moves even end with the screen shifting to a view of the blast shooting out into Earth’s orbit. There’s never been a Dragon Ball game with this level of fidelity to the series’s aesthetic, making this the new gold standard for how these games should look.
As far as how Dragon Ball FighterZ plays, it’s actually on the far other end of the spectrum from the almost clinically technical BlazBlue and Guilty Gear titles. There’s no complex move cancels and mid-match power boosts and desperation tactics to learn. This game is actually closer in play style to the Marvel vs. Capcom titles, not just in its 3-on-3 combat, but in the way the gameplay hinges upon the tried-and-true quarter-circle motion on the D-pad, with the moveset for the entire roster of playable characters performed using some variation of the motion. There’s other little default tricks for each character, all of which are ripped straight from the various Dragon Ball anime—a rush move that starts a defense-breaking punch barrage, a flying homing attack, a teleport move which puts you directly behind your enemy—but for the most part, Dragon Ball FighterZ is sporting possibly the most accessible set of fighting-game mechanics outside of Super Smash Bros.
That accessibility should not be mistaken for a lack of depth. Dragon Ball FighterZ’s fighting system is highly versatile, and while anybody can button-mash their way to a 20-hit combo, veteran players will find all sorts of ways to string together smaller hits into devastating chains, or weasel out from under such a barrage to start their own. The balance of power in a typical match shifts lightning-fast in this game, and figuring out how so many disparate elements fit together in order to allow for maximum damage against an opponent is what will ultimately separate the experts from the casual players.
Those same casual players will still find plenty to love here. Story Mode is easy but longer than necessary, with too many missions rehashing the tutorial; ardent followers of the series, though, will delight in the heapings of fan-service interactions and fun comedic moments that don’t outstay their welcome. Arcade Mode is far more enjoyable as a single-player challenge, with the scaling difficulty adjusting after every match depending on your performance. Online matchmaking is fairly basic and functional, but being able to deny requests to get into an online match while doing other activities in-game is a much-welcome innovation. All sorts of fun stuff can be used in the game’s online lobby, and new multiplayer profile titles, background music, and character stickers can be found in the game’s store, which would raise concerns about microtransactions if Dragon Ball FighterZ wasn’t so blessedly generous with in-game currency earned just by playing in various modes.
Beyond being just an immaculately realized adaptation of the Dragon Ball anime, Dragon Ball FighterZ is a gleaming example of how to craft a fighting game that feels like it has its arms open for everyone to enjoy. Even those players who don’t know enough about the show to know any characters beyond Goku will still be treated to a game that represents a massive visual leap in what’s possible with the genre, the kind of achievement that spawns pale imitators but would require Herculean effort to ever duplicate.