Translating one medium to another is incredibly difficult, even if the two are somewhat similar. That makes the ambition of Dragon Ball FighterZ, based on the incredibly popular anime riffing on Journey To The West, a bit daunting. It wants to be, as much as possible, a playable version of the beloved anime. And, to the credit of Arc System Works, they’ve pretty much done it. Not only that, they’ve managed to make a game accessible even if you’re not a fan, and a quite good fighting game into the bargain.
Hilariously, the game’s story mode, which serves as a broad tutorial, makes absolutely no effort to explain the franchise’s absurdly complicated backstory full of aliens, magic, and punching, and it pokes fun at the concept of licensed fighting games to boot. The Arc team just dumps you right into the game and asks you to roll with it; Goku, the noble protector of Earth, is forced out of his body by a mysterious presence (you, the player) and has to fight many, many clones of his closest friends and allies to rescue members of the team while discovering just why the franchise’s worst baddies are back. If you know the series at all, suffice to say that there’s a lot of respect for the franchise, but refreshingly everyone involved doesn’t take it too seriously. That said, the climb becomes steadily tougher and the stakes steadily higher as you play, forcing you to explore the game’s mechanics and pick your squad carefully.
Most arresting is the graphical attention to detail, which is so dedicated to the illusion of hand-drawn animation they even stutter the frame rates in cutscenes slightly to feel like animation movement. The illusion is not absolutely perfect, but unless you’re scrutinizing the game for details like the fluidity of camera movement or the depth of field of the backgrounds, you could probably convince somebody it was hand-drawn for a few minutes.
It helps that the game itself is a 2D fighter with a deep system that’s easy to pick up and play and that the game eases you into. Arc System Works, which has been around since the 8-bit days, has more or less made developing fighting games its bread and butter with the Blazblue and Guilty Gear franchises, and it brings that rigor to this game while loosening it up just enough to make it accessible. As you play through the story mode, it eases you into how to play the game, something other fighting games could stand to learn from. That said, they do guild the lily a bit too much; the cutscenes run a little long, there’s a mechanic where you only have so many “turns” to explore the map and complete the episode, and the leveling up mechanic is a bit more complex than it needs to be.
To some degree, Dragon Ball FighterZ is limited by both its genre and its license. It’s never going to be any magazine’s game of the year. But it’s so polished and so fun to play for both fans and casual fighting game players alike, that it’s worth keeping on the shelf or taking on as a legit single player challenge.