High-flying acrobatic athleticism. A charismatic, well-drawn cast of characters. Detailed, expansive environments. Massive, dazzlingly colorful attacks consisting of energy blasts the size of celestial bodies. Simple yet alluring good-versus-evil storytelling. With all these elements of the Dragon Ball Z anime series firmly in place before development of a video game has even begun, a question I’ve come to ask myself time and time again with each passing year has been, “Is it really all that difficult to produce a Dragon Ball Z game that equates to anything above the ’meh’ level in terms of across-the-board quality?” Being a follower of the series from a young age, when my capacity for blandness was much greater, it’s been arduous for me to come to accept that the answer is yes. With each fighting-based entry in the series barely holding its own at a sub-par appraisal (save for maybe PlayStation 2’s often respected Budokai Tenkaichi 3), only the most diehard fans of the anime/manga source material will find something to appreciate, and even then, it’s unlikely that any of the games will be able to hold their attention past the well-crafted visual flair and nostalgic value. The latest edition to the DBZ video-game family, Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi, is without question the finest looking game in the series to date, yet when it comes to the core gameplay and presentation of canon-spanning narratives, it’s one of the most hollow and monotonous.
Similar to prior current-gen DBZ fighters, Ultimate Tenkaichi’s battles take place in scaled 3D surroundings, with one-on-one character duels again being the main focus. However, unlike the more fine-tuned Dragon Ball Z: Raging Blast, which actually delivered a decent combat system when it came to practical intuitiveness, Ultimate Tenkaichi overuses context-sensitive control functioning and single taps and/or presses of buttons and control sticks to execute long-winded, cinematic maneuvers that play out much like they would if you were watching the original animation, with all its signature power-level boasting and unnecessary mid-attack they-must-be-constipated hollering. After whittling down your opponent’s health bar via a mixture of sniper shots and quick fly-by assaults, getting closer to your adversary and initiating a chain combo is the best course of action, though executing said combination requires hardly an ounce of proper timing or skillfully linked move patterns like the best fighters on the market. Finalizing battles essentially boils down to who can enter a short set of on-screen prompts quicker, and, after that, who can select the winning follow-up option in almost a rock-paper-scissors type mini-game. All of this is enjoyable for about a handful of matches, but soon grows painfully tedious to the point where watching a few episodes of Goku facing off against Cell or Majin Buu would be far more satisfying.
In addition to typical Ki-energy breakaway blasts used as escape tactics in the tightest of pinches, the most visually appealing aspect Ultimate Tenkaichi has to offer is its relatively lengthy list of character-specialty finishing moves that light up the screen, potentially attracting even the most anti-DBZ crowd. Ultimate Tenkaichi captures the unhinged, handsome glory and intensity these attacks brought to the anime, but unfortunately, laying out Spirit Bombs, Kamehamehas, or Galick Guns on your foes induces yawns at nearly every turn. Once the appropriate level of Ki is obtained, cuing up an ultimate strike is a one-button affair that results in any number of minutes watching a string of cut scenes playing out in the middle of the fight. From here, the proceedings erode themselves into an elementary button-smashing competition, with the offense striving to bring the attack to its fruition and the defense attempting to evade, guard, or intercept the oncoming onslaught. Of the three scenarios, the latter is clearly the most challenging; landing yourself in a position to stop your imminent demise is frequently rewarding, yet it’s troublesome that this miniscule section of the game is basically its singular fun factor.
Ultimate Tenkaichi’s two primary ways to log in playtime are its Story Mode and Hero Mode, both of which are plainly barebones and mishandled. The former, more often than not, dabbles in block-of-text intermissions to progress the tale at hand. There’s also a pair of criminal gameplay offenses by way of non-fighting segments where you simply move your character from one destination to another that’s relatively non-scenic and laughably adjacent, as well as remarkably flawed “boss” battles wherein you face off against giant, slow-moving enemies that sport a limited number of attacks. Hero Mode allows for the creation of a player character from the ground up; customizing your very own Super Saiyan is something DBZ loyalists have been desiring for quite awhile, yet due to the overall weak effort and presentation of Ultimate Tenkaichi, there’s very little incentive to strengthen your customized avatar. The thrill of online play is also diminished over time due to Ultimate Tenkaichi’s lack of depth; playing against IRL humans is as stunningly bourgeois as clashing with predetermined NPCs.
I’m not sure why Spike insists on repeatedly screwing with the formula that finally began to exhibit faint signs of life in Raging Blast, but I believe that the developer now requires something of a personnel rearrangement; these people seem clueless as to what makes for a repeatedly entertaining single or multiplayer fighting game experience. It’s clear that Ultimate Tenkaichi aspires to be as immense as the work that inspired it, and while it does succeed graphically, nearly every other aspect is obviously enervated and, quite honestly, in dire need of some Senzu Beans.