Not Quite A Super Saiyan
Dragon Ball Z holds a special place in my heart. As a kid, I remember rushing home from school to catch the latest double-bill of episodes on Cartoon Network and I used to watch avidly with my younger brother. We continued this routine right the way through secondary school, culminating in watching the entire series up to the end of the Perfect Cell saga. Since then, the Dragon Ball franchise has continued to grow, with the recent wildly successful Super still going strong as fans eagerly await the second season arriving at some point this year.
When it comes to the Dragon Ball Z video game tie-ins however, despite a myriad of different titles hopping between genres none have really managed to capture the same excitement. Last year’s FighterZ came close, along with the old Budokai games on PS2, but as a pure role-playing experience none have come close to rekindling that same enthusiastic charm and energy the anime has in abundance. Looking to change that this year however, is Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot.
Acting as an open world RPG and faithfully recreating the entire Dragon Ball Z saga from start to finish, Kakarot is a gorgeously animated, aesthetically pleasing game. The cinematics are rewarding after boss fights and seeing iconic moments like Frieza’s transformations or Cell and Gohan battling to the bitter end are done justice, painfully recreated almost frame for frame and with some great voice acting to boot. Unfortunately these moments are held back by an ill-conceived open world that lacks substance and at its worst, sucks the energy and life out of the more exciting parts of the game.
If you’re new to the franchise and don’t fancy sifting through 250+ episodes to get a grasp of the story, Kakarot is arguably the best way to experience this. The story revolves around Goku, one of the last Saiyan in the universe and a prolific fighter race known for getting stronger after every battle. Following on from the adventures of Dragon Ball, Z follows a grown-up Goku, his son Gohan and various other fighters across the galaxy who all come together and fight over lucrative items called Dragon Balls.
It’s a pretty basic set up but this paves way for some really memorable and intricately written sagas to play out. The three most iconic are all brought to life in painstaking detail here, beginning with the Saiyan invasion on Earth then progressing through to Frieza, Cell and eventually Majiin Buu’s respective sagas. Between each chapter are essentially periods of down-time that allow you to level up and prepare for the next fight ahead but these segments are easily the worst of the game.
The open world format is initially pretty impressive when you first start the game, with scope to fly around the map, engage with enemies and collect Z orbs which help level up your abilities (more on that later). Unfortunately the further into the story you get, the more problematic these mechanics become, with lengthy loading times between areas, barren wastelands of interconnected areas that lack the same charm and richness the story has and consequently a distinct lack of fun or exciting things to do.
A lot of the missions on offer here require you to hop on the world map and move to a different location, before talking to a specific character or collecting a certain item and hopping back. Each loading screen takes around 7-10 seconds, depending on your system of course, and after a while this inevitably becomes a real slog to sit through.
Blasting your way through the Dragon Ball story is incredibly good fun though, and just like Xenoverse before it, battles take place on an open(ish) field. Melee combos are mapped to O, blocking is handled with L2, (tapping square acts as an energy blast while X allows you to teleport behind attackers if timed correctly). Square is your normal Ki blast while L1 and either square, triangle or circle handles your special moves. Each character has three main special attacks but you’ll figure out a system that works for you very early on, giving you little incentive to deviate from that tried and tested set-up.
Some of the initial one on one fights are broken up by skewed odds, that may see three of your Z fighters tackle an enemy or vice versa and see you stacked against 3 different enemies. Both of these variations have their own pros and cons, although the Support attacks make some fights a lot easier than they perhaps should be. It’s not the deepest of systems but the different fighters have unique powers and some of the enemies have abilities and special attacks that complement their play-style and mix things up nicely.
In true RPG fashion, a lot of the interest here comes from levelling up your fighters and diving into the skill system. It takes some getting used to but Kakarot features a pretty robust system here that allows you to upgrade skill points using Z orbs collected in the field. This encourages more exploration as you fly through the world and collect these, knowing they have a purpose of enhancing your attacks or unlocking new ones.
Certain points of the skill tree are locked too, encouraging you to visit Kame House on the World Map and engaging in training sessions to unlock new abilities, which in turn require you to collect D Medals dotted around the landscape. Every system ties in nicely to one another, and that’s before even mentioning the different meals you can create to boost your stats.
Soul Emblems add another layer of strategy, allowing you to place unlocked character icons on a board in exchange for bonus stat boosts. On paper, there’s a lot going on here and the mechanics all work harmoniously together and should make for a really rewarded play. Unfortunately some serious issues that are hard to look past hold this one back.
The lack of experience points given in the field between sagas negates any desire to grind out enemies while the lack of enemy variety only further dissuades you from doing this. The long loading screens are a real pain while the relative ease you’ll blast through a lot of the later enemies after some initial problems with Raditz eliminates any need to use food items or items; during the Frieza fights I used one health potion the entire time.
The open world is a joy to fly through but gives little incentive to really explore. Destroying copy-and-paste towers or Frieza ships offers little reward, the long stretches of nothingness soon grows tiresome and the side missions lack any variety and at its worst, feel pretty sloppy and lazy. Collecting the Dragon Balls is a nice fetch quest that certainly garners some nice rewards for doing so but takes far too long thanks to the aforementioned loading screens.
Kakarot is ultimately a game of two halves. On the one hand, this is the quintessential way to experience the entire Dragon Ball Z story beyond watching the anime, with some gorgeous aesthetics, faithful boss fights and some really iconic moments along the way. Unfortunately this is let down by a disappointing and barren open-world structure with little incentive to explore, especially give the long loading times and miniscule experience gains. It’s a game that could have been great, with all the ingredients to produce a spectacular RPG effort but unfortunately fails to hit Super Saiyan status.
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