With each passing year, it seems the implausibility of there ever being a wholly adequate Dragon Ball Z video game increases exponentially. Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Z is the latest in a very long line of failed attempts by Namco Bandai and numerous third-party developers (this go-around, it’s Artdink of A-Train fame—an odd choice to say the least) to successfully translate the high-energy fight sequences of the animated source material to an interactive medium. While Battle of Z is perhaps the most visually stunning entry in the series, the gameplay is disastrous from top to bottom—a sloppy amalgamation of underdeveloped combat mechanics that emphasizes collaborative multiplayer elements, but barely comprehends what makes a quality cooperative fighting game experience. Overly massive, clumsily destructible stages, a faulty targeting system, and the irrationally forced nature of team-based operations essentially erases the now-and-again necessary one-on-one encounters, leaving an uncomfortable reliance on keeping a four-player squad in balance at all times, a task that’s much easier said than done.
One of the biggest complications with previous DBZ games is the vapid manner in which battles progress. There’s little to no skill required when assaulting opponents; to call it button-mashing would be putting it mildly. Like the Budokai Tenkaichi variations before it, Battle of Z allows for cross-arena hits that diminish fluid movement substantially. Forget about dazzling airborne combos or crafty last-minute special moves, the route to victory in Battle of Z is paved with cheap sniping and frequently unavoidable chase techniques that are as boring to perform as they are annoying to be constantly bombarded by. Apparently, Artdink felt confident they could mask the shoddiness of their lackluster core skirmish dynamics by shoehorning in tired multiplayer components (teammate-propelled offensive chains, the ability to revive weakened comrades), bracketed with a roster of roughly 70 playable characters. Unfortunately, with no local co-op players are limited to a rather laggy online-only affair, causing the notable big-boss throwdowns (including Giant Ape Bardock, Metal Cooler, and Hirudegarn) to chug by at a relatively glacial pace. And while the range of selectable combatants incorporates recently introduced baddies like Whis and Beerus from the Dragon Ball Z: Battle of Gods feature film, a considerable chunk of the lineup is composed of powered-up forms of the same character. The overriding issue is, of course, quantity over quality. For example, there’s regular Goku, Super Saiyan Goku, Super Saiyan 2 Goku, Super Saiyan 3 Goku, and Super Saiyan God Goku, decidedly less formidable on their own then when packed into a solitary vessel. The existence of these evolutions as individual characters means that mid-duel transformations, a highlight of previous DBZ games, have been regrettably left on the cutting room floor.
An array of poor menu design choices coupled with the botched multiplayer scenarios gives Battle of Z a near-failing grade even before the halfway decent solo campaign is embarked upon. As fate would have it, customization is the single-player’s best friend, as unique stat-boosting trading cards give a hefty advantage over jumpy A.I. adversaries. Plot is basically an afterthought in the main mode, implementing the typical timeline carrying on throughout story arcs from the anime offers nostalgic partnering with classic fan favorites and newcomers alike. Yet, for anyone who has played a DBZ game in the past, this all has a tendency to leave a primarily stale taste in one’s mouth. So, the question remains: Will there ever be a developer who can pick up the broken pieces of this once mighty franchise and mold them into a solid fighting game? Even with its exemplary graphics (worth checking out just to glimpse Goku in his crimson-tinged God form), Battle of Z doesn’t do much to indicate such a hopeful turnaround.