‘Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot’ Review: The Familiar Saga Is Still a Literal Blast

     January 20, 2020

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot gives gamers everywhere a chance to experience the world-famous saga of the Saiyan Goku (a.k.a. Kakarot) … for like the sixth time, now? There’s the original manga from Akira Toriyama that first arrived more than 35 years ago; then the fan-favorite anime adaptation that has seen its original release, a variety of Westernized dubs and censorship oddities; a number of edits and re-releases to streamline storytelling and boost Bandai sales; and a ton of video game releases that have retold the world-famous story again and again in different ways. Somehow, the tale of Goku and his battle against invading Saiyans, evil emperors, and power-hungry villains remains timeless and endlessly enjoyable, as evidenced by just how much fun I’m having playing this latest release. (And yeah, I bought this one myself; no free review copy here.)

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot presents that same story but tells it in a new way, allowing gamers to step into the martial arts-appropriate shoes of their favorite fighters to participate in the battles, friendships, and exploration of various worlds. It’s technically an RPG, but it’s not super customizable; it’s basically a hand-holdy/guided RPG on rails that tells you which character you’re going to play (and, by extension, when you’re able to upgrade that character’s stats), where you’re going to go and when. Those restrictions are the downside that comes with following a preordained story that plays out episodically, broken up only by “Intermissions” that give you a little more freedom to play around, complete side quests, and pump up your stats. (Oh and you can totally miss side quests because they’re time/episode-dependent, which sucks.) It’s a little frustrating that you can’t veer far from the narrow storyline, but the slight reward here is that you get a chance to visit places like Orange City, Goku’s home, Yamcha’s desert hideout, and Gohan’s high school. It’s not a fully immersive RPG experience, instead offering a slight nod of the head towards DBZ fans. (For what it’s worth, I’m having a blast revisiting the story, even though I’ve only got about 12 hours invested and am in the first half of the Frieza saga.)

Image via Bandai Namco

Another aspect of the game that pulls back from the RPG tradition is the combat style; it’s closer to a fighting game (one of many in the DBZ universe, either on PC/console or mobile), which makes sense considering developer CyberConnect2 made its bones making fighting games for the Naruto franchise. When the fighting isn’t a little frustrating (wandering camera angles that always seem to keep enemies off-screen, wonky flight controls, and janky combat mechanics that are more obtuse than necessary), it’s a pure adrenaline rush. Early fights are clearly for tutorial purposes, but boss fights force you to pay attention, strategize, and maybe even retry the battle a few times. (I *may* have had to fight Radditz like three times…) And as soon as you get the hang of fight mechanics in one episode, the next episode will quickly kick you in the teeth and strongly encourage you to change tactics; the sense of difficulty and progression here is palpable and it makes fighting fun, even as it increases in frequency.

If you find yourself getting manhandled (or … Saiyanhandled?) by even low-level enemies, make sure you’ve been building up your skill tree and assigning both moves and knowledge traits. The game never mentions either of these necessary mechanics, even in the encyclopedic entries. In a world where video game manuals no long exist in the physical sense, gamers are increasingly reliant on dev reports, early reviewer write-ups, and scads of how-tos on blogs scattered across the web; it’s a messy system, but the info is out there.

Image via Bandai Namco

Other early tips include:

  • DO be sure to take your time and explore as much of a given area as you’re able to in each episode, otherwise you might miss out on side quests and easy experience/items.
  • DON’T feel like you have to collect every colored Z Orb; just get as many as you need to level up your characters’ skill trees. The same goes for fighting every minor villain that pops up.
  • DO check in with Master Roshi for your training rewards as often as you’re able since he’ll give quite the number of support items.
  • DO explore when you can; you’ll come across some hilarious in-game references, discover nods to Dragon Ball‘s original manga/anime run before the Z, and connect characters in ways you might easily have missed over the franchise’s 35+ years.

Some other minor setbacks in this title include the occasional wonky bit of dialogue (though I did enjoy Krillin telling Bulma to go back to Earth twice in a row with two slightly different inflections), slight story changes (it’s no longer over 9,000), and some strange performance gremlins (every time there’s a lot of particulate matter–like big explosion or full-screen dust cloud… which happens a lot–my PS4 Pro sounds like it’s about to take off). Despite these flaws, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is an absolute blast to play, a nostalgia-fueled action-RPG that is tailormade to the DBZ fans out there.

Image via Bandai Namco

I’ve listed just about everything that doesn’t quite work right in this game, but the more intangible parts of DBZ:K work incredibly well. Revisiting the personal stories of Goku and Gohan (which feels like a rushed, sillier version of Kratos and “Boy”), the rivalries between Goku and … everyone, and the heroic sacrifices of the Z fighters was more emotional than I expected, especially when it came down to Piccolo and Gohan. (I’m happy to say that the early stages of this game focus more on the youngster than his dad, and as a longtime Gohan fan who feels like the character never lived up to his potential as the series went on, this was a nice touch.) It’s worth playing this game just for the little in-between moments: You find out what Chi-Chi is up to when she’s at home (which is more than just cooking for Goku and Gohan, thankfully), you’ll visit Capsule Corp in West City (where citizens offer hilarious commentary on all the destruction caused by Goku & Co.), and get to hunt as many dinos as you want. (Okay the cooking system is delightful, and a modern staple of Japanese anime games, but the “hunting” system is downright hilarious; you basically ki blast dinos and punch/catch other animals to get their meat, thankfully without skinning animations. Fishing is even sillier thanks to a prosthetic “fishing tail” for Goku and Gohan, developed by Bulma. Vegeta is stuck with a basic fishing pole.)

Image via Bandai Namco

I don’t know how folks who aren’t familiar with DBZ will respond to this game, but I can’t imagine it has a lot of appeal for them above and beyond what other action-focused RPGs offer. Kakarot is a nostalgia play, through and though, and it excels at that. It’s absolutely gorgeous, arguably more dynamic and powerful in its epic moments than even *gasp* the anime itself. Sure, the pacing is quite a bit faster than the anime, so there’s not as much time in the build-up to those powerful and sometimes heart-breaking turns, but man do they pack a punch.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot may not be the most technically refined or user-friendly, especially for newcomers to both the narrative and the playstyle, but it’s hands down my favorite franchise experience since the original anime. This one’s for the fans.

Grade: 8/10

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