Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot - Mondo Meh?
Dragon Ball Z fandom has always been a part of my life since I was a child. I remember walking into Walmart, seeing the latest episodes of Dragon Ball Z on VHS the shelf and begging parental figures to let me buy three episodes of my favorite show, going to school and powering up before gym class, and talking about how crazy it was that Goku and Gohan were holding their Super Saiyan transformation as part of their day to day as a training mechanism. When I was clearing out some of my belongings before moving recently, I found all my old Dragon Ball Z VHSs with the fun side artwork that would only come together once you had collected all the tapes in the season. I love(d) Dragon Ball Z, and I think that is an important framing piece for this review. You should understand where I am coming from in both my appreciation and criticism for this game, because this is a bad video game that I both love and despise.
CyberConnect2 has shown an appreciation and dedication to the source material for most games under their moniker (unfortunately the Storm series slipped in this respect when it used still image grabs directly from the anime for a majority of the cutscenes). Seeing set piece moments from the show, lovingly shown on screen through assets and rendering techniques that give the game that flattened anime look has always been one of my favorite things about this type of game. CC2 managed to pull it off to some extent. But in some ways, it seems half-baked. There are cutscenes in Kakarot that are exactly what I am looking for, and there are sequences that could have very well just been talking heads on a flat background in terms of what was showing on screen. I know we can’t have all cutscenes in the game at the quality of the anime, but something about these scenes make it look as if they ran out of time and pushed the camera behind the head of the speaker so as to not animate mouth movements for example.
Combat is another area where things are a mixed bag. The combat system itself presents much more complex than it is. There is a lot of potential in the combat given the various mechanics available through ki blasts, melee combat, beam special moves, guard break special moves and stun special moves, air step/dodge on the A button (PS: X), and a guard with parry type mechanism. The game does not limit the rate at which you can press the dodge button and it really evokes an awesome sense of speed with the trademark disappearance that occurs when a character is moving quickly.
All of this amounts to a repetitive mashing of the melee button (Xbox: B, PS: O), air stepping around quickly and hoping that you actually dodged the ability you air stepped around (an air step at the correct time will allow for a dodge which slows down time for a moment similar to witch time in the Bayonetta series). It seemed to me that the dodge timing window was a bit too stingy with regards to invincibility frames; that or I never really found the timing (which if I didn’t, the timing does not seem natural to the movement pattern occurring). The enemies in this game do not follow the standard rules that bind the player character. When you are beating them to a pulp in melee combat, they may just start charging their Ki, an indication a special move is about to be unleashed upon you. At this point, the enemy is immune to any knockback effects, the enemy does not react at all to your attacks, and this process cannot be interrupted. It is fine to allow the enemy to have advantages the player does not; that's kind of how this whole thing works. The problem I have is that there are abilities that seem like they should be in play here that just aren’t.
Earlier I described different types of special attacks the player character has access to. The game does not make any of these abilities matter in practice. You can stun your opponent when they are vulnerable, but as soon as they start the Ki charging state, you cannot bring them out of it through a stun or a guard breaking ability. This seems like a perfect place to make these stun or guard break moves matter. I can count the times on my hands that it seemed like using a stun special was useful. Especially, given I have been victim to many situations where I have stunned the opponent, start wailing on them with melee, and then immediately after the stun wears off, they move into the Ki charging state before I can finish my combo, meaning I have no opportunity to send them flying and use a beam special. This results in backing off and trying again after they execute their special move. If this was 20% of the combat, it would be fine, but I would say this loop of not finishing combos, having status effect invulnerable enemies due to Ki charging, and semi broken dodging mechanics is 70-80% of my experience with the combat in this game, ramping up especially after you get to Namek. The combat system is filled with holes like this. One that comes to mind readily relates to enemy special attacks. If you continue to attack an invulnerable enemy until they are about to use their special, but you use a well-timed Ki burst, the attack will not connect and you will take no damage from the special attack. This is not a mechanic the game is intending (if it is, they probably should have made that clear in some system tutorials), because when you perform this special evasion technique, the enemy looks like they hit nothing at all. You are there, but the attack just phases through you.
In terms of other Gameplay mechanics, the semi-open world is mostly filled with random encounters against the same enemies repeatedly that are easily avoidable and some side quests that range from incredibly flat gathering quests, to even more flat “go to marker, beat up bad guy group made of the same random encounter enemies you are seeing throughout the region you are in.” Flight mechanics take some getting used to (using RB and RT for ascent and decent respectively), but after awhile I was flying through the Z-Orb Rings with ease.
Speaking of, Z-Orbs are a major upgrade system in the game used to progress the Super Talent Tree to level up your Kamehameha and add additional hits to your melee combo, as well as some status effect changes (increased guard break damage on melee, etc.), the second part of which the game does a bad job of tutorializing, but you actually have to equip these status effects similar to how you equip your super abilities in a section called “Know Hows”…
Overall, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot while being a game built for series fans, mostly falls short of matching the nostalgic moments I remember growing up, not because of a failure on the team to deliver a beautifully realized artistic vision of the Dragon Ball universe, but mostly due to a lack of variety. This lack of variety is shown in fighting mechanics, random encounters and in both story and non-story mission structure. I am not saying reliving the memories of this series has not been a good time. In fact, that's the part of this game I have enjoyed the most. Getting to major plot developments and anticipating how these will be played out in game has made this one of my favorite Dragon Ball games (FighterZ is a great fighting game, but that is not something I am looking for). Some of those moments end up happening in fantastically animated cutscenes, but a lot of them end up being relegated to what could have been two talking heads on screen. It's a real mixed bag in terms of visuals, but actually playing it is at best tedious and at worst mondo frustrating.