When Bandai Namco and Arc System Works unveiled Dragon Ball FighterZ at E3 this year, there was a wave of jokes about this being Arc’s answer to Capcom’s Marvel games. At the time, the comparison was mostly a superficial one: like Marvel vs. Capcom, FighterZ is a 3-on-3 tag-team fighting game based on a licensed property, with an apparent focus on frantic combos and big energy beams.
After spending a few hours with the closed beta for FighterZ last weekend, I'd say the Marvel comparison runs a lot deeper. It has an almost identical control scheme, with four attack buttons and two assist buttons. The super gauge fills quickly and can hold up to seven stocks, encouraging liberal use of super attacks. These moves also share the simple quarter-circle-plus-two-buttons motion that the Marvel vs. Capcom series popularised; in fact, quarter circles are as complex as FighterZ’s inputs ever get. Capcom used a simplified control scheme to make its licensed fighting game more approachable for Marvel fans who aren’t necessarily into the genre, and Arc System Works has – rightfully – replicated that almost note-for-note in Dragon Ball FighterZ.
The likeness goes deeper still: FighterZ, like MvC, puts a lot of focus on projectiles and beam attacks that cover huge portions of the screen, while also giving every character the speed and tools to deal with such things. Both games put an emphasis on momentum, spatial control, mobility, and team composition.
I don’t say this to disparage Dragon Ball FighterZ; quite the opposite. Since X-Men: Children of the Atom, Capcom has been refining a solid formula for a licensed fighting game, and instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, Arc saw that and sought to apply the same approach. With the lukewarm response to Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite, fans are going to be looking for something new, that delivers on what made the earlier games so popular, and Dragon Ball FighterZ is well placed to be that game.
That’s not to say that this game has no fresh ideas of its own. Arc System Works has done a fine job of channelling the unique identity of the anime into very workable game systems. Each character can use a Ki Charge to power up, gradually filling their super meter but leaving them vulnerable as a result. The iconic ki-powered flight of Dragon Ball comes through in the Super Dash mechanic, a homing attack that quickly covers ground and can pass through certain projectiles. Almost all characters have ki blasts of some form, and Vanish attacks – a mainstay of Dragon Ball games – are also present.
Between these systems and each character’s unique set of moves, Dragon Ball FighterZ does a great job of capturing the look and feel of the anime fights in an authentic and organic way. When you’re in a bout, you’re probably not thinking “What can I do that will really make this look like a scene from the anime?”; you’re thinking about how you can use the tools at your disposal to win the fight, but the end result is always the same: anime in motion.
The art style certainly helps with that, too. Dragon Ball FighterZ uses the same engine as Guilty Gear Xrd, which is probably the best example of cartoon shading to date. It allows for the sorts of dynamic camera angles that you see in the anime’s carefully-scripted fight scenes, but without losing the feeling of hand-drawn, 2D art.
Despite being a beta test, I didn’t run into any serious network issues. When matched with other players in New Zealand and Australia, I usually got around 5 frames of latency – not ideal, but certainly not unplayable. Some less stable connections had more latency, but this manifested itself in jerky animation slowdowns rather than much more frustrating input lag. Nothing will ever beat playing a fighting game locally, but Dragon Ball FighterZ’s online play is more than serviceable.
My one concern is with the roster. Dragon Ball, as a franchise, has a lot of great characters to pick from, but the current selection of fighters seemed a bit uninspired. Everyone you’d expect to be there is there – Goku, Vegeta, Gohan, Trunks, Cell – but a huge swathe of the roster seems very similar in move sets and how they fight. There are a few exceptions, like Majin Buu with his cartwheels and body slams, but for the most part, there was little to mechanically distinguish one character from the next. Part of this is a Dragon Ball problem, because you can’t really get away with a Dragon Ball game that doesn’t have all the Saiyans, similar as they are, but I hope the full roster brings in a bit more variety. There are certainly plenty of options: Bulma, Chaozu, Master Roshi, and Mr Satan, to name but a few.
We’ll see how things turn out when Dragon Ball FighterZ launches in February next year. From what I’ve seen during the beta test, though, I’m very excited. This is shaping up to be the Dragon Ball fighting game we deserve.
Matt received entry into the Dragon Ball FighterZ beta on PS4, courtesy of Bandai Namco.