The first time you experience Dragon Ball, it’s magical. Whether you watched the anime on late-night television as a kid, read the manga on a whim in-between college semesters, or dove into the series as an adult, there’s a reason so many people across the globe hold this story so close to their hearts. This long-running franchise has delivered countless story arcs that masterfully combine goofy anime antics with shocking encounters and oh-so-satisfying battles.
As Dragon Ball became Dragon Ball Z and the franchise continued to expand in breadth and popularity, video games began to be released that added an initially ground-breaking level of interactivity to these iconic Dragon Ball Z stories. As time went on, though, it was the same early story arcs of Dragon Ball Z were adapted, retold and summarised in dozens of video game adaptations of this intergalactic action series. By now fans likely don’t want to play yet another arena brawler that makes you re-live the Saiyan invasion and the onslaught of Cell. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot aims to give these familiar stories a fresh coat of paint with a more focused, RPG-oriented experience, but does it do enough to warrant seeing Raditz get a hole in his gut for the millionth time?
In terms of presentation, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is certainly a clear upgrade over previous video games in the franchise. After spending over a decade crafting well-animated and visually stunning story scenes for the Naruto: Ultimate Ninja Storm series, developer Cyberconnect2 brings that same expertise and love of the craft to the table for Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot. While there aren’t minutes long QTE-filled animation extravaganzas in this game, many of the pivotal moments throughout the story are told with cutscenes that feature absolutely stellar animation.
They can’t keep that up across the whole game, so most of the story is told through somewhat clunky RPG-style cutscenes that will be familiar to anyone who’s played narrative-heavy JRPGs like Dragon Quest XI or Persona 5, but there’s a surprising amount of Dragon Ball Z’s story in the game because of it. Rather than playing out like a slide-show of greatest hits that only experienced Dragon Ball fans would understand, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot does a great job of delivering the full narrative of these early arcs in a way that will even leave first-timers satisfied.
Of course, this being a video game, the biggest moments don’t play out in the cutscenes. You won’t watch Goku and Raditz duke it out in a gorgeously animated CG cutscene, but will have to fight through these pivotal battles for yourself. Unfortunately, it’s here that Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot fails to do the heavy lifting required to make these all-too-familiar storylines worth revisiting.
If you’ve played Dragon Ball Xenoverse, you’ve played Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot. If you’ve played any of the older Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi games, you’ve still basically played Dragon Ball Xenoverse. Battles boil down to the tried-and-true arena brawling action that we’ve already seen from so many other Dragon Ball video games. One button punches, another does ki blasts, a third button charges said ki, and holding down a shoulder button lets you access special moves.
While the restrictive stamina meter of Xenoverse thankfully doesn’t come into play here, combat still sometimes feels sluggish due to a handful of minor components. Firstly, you can’t chain together standard attacks and special moves cleanly; there’s always an awkward amount of time you need to wait after doing a standard attack to be able to bust out a special move, and in that time the enemy has likely already launched their counter-attack. Secondly, there’s a huge focus on position and defensive play here. You’ll need to wisely weave between attacks and utilize your block button, because mashing out attacks blindly will lead to a swift defeat.
While the core combat doesn’t do anything new, auxiliary RPG systems do add some extra layers to the game that make things a little more interesting. Skill trees are massive, and while they’re mostly linear unlocks, the feeling of progression you get from slowly expanding your repertoire of abilities for each character is pretty satisfying. There’s also a unique Community system where helping characters gives you medallions and a series of boards upon which you can place said medallions. Linking together high-level medallions or medallions of characters who are connected to each other in the story will yield a variety of in-game bonuses based on which of the Community boards you prioritise. These bits help add a little depth to the game, but the experience and levelling system consistently felt unnecessary.
Battles always moved just a bit too fast for the steadily growing numbers constantly being thrown in your face to really mean anything, and the game is paced in a way where your characters are pretty much always levelled up just enough to tackle the next fight, meaning I never really thought about my level or grinding for experience.
The game tries to make the world feel alive by letting you explore wide-open environments with a variety of side-activities, but this aspect feels a little half-baked as well. While flying around the environment as Vegeta or hitching a ride on the Flying Nimbus as Goku is satisfying, most of the things you’ll be doing in these environments are picking up skill orbs, activating simple side quests, or simply going to the next main mission.
Still, just the act of soaring through these vistas is gorgeous, as is the rest of the game. While it’s not as sharp as Dragon Ball FighterZ, the vivid colours and stable framerate make every scene a joy to look at. The audio could be better, though. While the presence of a dual audio option is wonderful, the script is filled with unnecessary pregnant pauses in the middle of sentences that really don’t need them. I also encountered an glitch where the end of sentences would occasionally be cut off mid-word.