Dragon Ball FighterZ, the gorgeous DBZ fighting game from Guilty Gear developer Arc System Works, won't be out until early 2018, but Ian Walker and I got to play a demo at an event in San Francisco last week. After (virtually) beating the snot out of each other, we talked about it.
Image credit: Bandai Namco.
Nathan Grayson: Ian! We both played Dragon Ball FighterZ, a game whose title fills me with a great sadness, but whose everything else seems pretty dang neat. We'll get to the fan service-y stuff in a bit, but first: as a fighting game person, what did you think of how it felt, the rhythm of combat, and whatnot?
Ian Walker: The entire package felt pretty unique. Dragon Ball FighterZ cribs a lot of gameplay mechanics from other series, but it doesn't feel derivative. It obviously has the three-on-three nature of Marvel vs. Capcom, but also mixes in a bit of King of Fighters by essentially resetting the battlefield when a character is defeated. The movement is what really sets it apart.
In addition to lots of airborne stuff, it also has a homing dash and incorporates the franchise's ubiquitous "instant transmission" as a neat surprise attack that we used a bunch.
Nathan: Yeah, I really took a liking to the instant transmission teleport attacks (BUT ACTUALLY, insufferable DBZ nerd correction: only Goku can use instant transmission, which he learned from aliens after the Frieza saga. Everybody else just goes really, really fast, making it appear that they teleported to our slow, stupid human eyes). They definitely worked better as a means of escaping from attacks than engaging them, though.
The developers limited them to single strikes instead of combos, making them useful as quick counters, while homing dashes felt like a more natural means of combo engagement. I liked that! I think teleporting behind people and just wailing on them would have felt pretty cheap.
Ian: Oh totally. We, as newcomers to the game, were already using them to tag each other during errant supers. They're definitely strong as quick punishes, but like you mentioned, they're limited to simply tagging someone who over-commits and, I believe, extending combos. Plus, they require meter, so you have to balance your usage with other game mechanics.
The homing dash is really the star of the show. I hate to keep bringing other series into the discussion, but Arcana Heart incorporates a similar technique, and it really adds a new layer to combat that makes Dragon Ball FighterZ feel even more 'anime' than games like Guilty Gear and BlazBlue. Being able to get in your opponent's face in just a split second means even mundane matches have the potential to turn into over-the-top slugfests.
Nathan: Yeah! It very much struck me as a game of opposing momentums. Like, I couldn't just sit back and try to take counter-shots. I had to charge ahead and create openings, which is very, you know, Dragon Ball Z.
Ian: Every fighting game is about momentum, to be honest, but Dragon Ball FighterZ is probably one of the best fighting games to translate that to on-screen action.
Nathan: Movement feels so aggressive, and then you combine that with mechanics that require you to hold adjacent buttons (not in an uncomfortable way, mind you), and you're just, like, manhandling your controller. It feels so true to the source material in that respect. It's what I imagine having angry, screaming anime men for hands would be like.
Ian: It's stuff like this that makes the inclusion of a power-up technique kinda ... weird? The only times I used it to build meter were by accident (I'm really bad at playing on pad), and the base resource gain is pretty good considering you can build up to seven stocks for super attacks.
It's probably hard to get away from stuff like that due to the "screaming anime men" that make Dragon Ball Z what it is, but it feels really out of place in a such a fast-paced game. Plus, you can't cancel out of it, so you're either a sitting duck or wasting opportunities to pressure a downed opponent.
Nathan: The opportunity cost of it is just so high! Since there aren't really any lengthy stuns and opponents can dash right to where you are or teleport behind your back and kick your spine up and out through your nostrils, you don't even get much time to build meter off it. The best time to use it, weirdly, is when somebody else is using it. But even then, why not just counter them? It's odd.
Ian: I guess a big plus is that it lets you gain access to the game's wide variety of destructive energy balls and laser beams. I'll admit, I'm a pretty casual Dragon Ball Z fan (who wasn't a DBZ fan in the '90s?), but even I was getting pretty hype over these stage-destroying supers. One in particular -- Android 18's tag team attack with Android 17 -- is stylish as hell, and I love that Krillin subs in to join his wife if he happens to be on the same team.
Nathan: Yeah, the supers are a tremendous high point. Teleporting in and busting out a kamehameha that fills the screen is some next-level nerd fantasy fulfillment, and as you pointed out, the character team-ups are magnificent fan service.
The Krillin-Android 18 one, especially, shows that the developers are going the extra mile on that front. It's the kind of thing where I can just imagine somebody thinking, "OK yeah, Android 17 and 18 work together for a super. Sure, whatever. But what if..." and then the game actually rewards them for it.
And the show is rife with scenes they could use for those sorts of team up attacks, too. I'm actually kinda kicking myself for not testing a dual super with Goku and Gohan, or Piccolo and Gohan, both of whom I'm sure will have great ones. Like, they basically have to do some variation on the scene where (technically dead) Goku helps Gohan blast the shit out of Cell with a family-style kamehameha.
Ian: I'm pretty sure one of Gohan's supers is like that without any special team requirements!
Nathan: Speaking of, I'm glad the differences between characters are more than surface level. Having Piccolo's ranged attack be stretchy, grabby arms instead of kai blasts was a nice touch. Gave his character a very different dynamic, which you reacted to surprisingly quickly after I wouldn't stop grabbing you every time you got in range. And then, speaking of grabbing, Android 16 just, like, latched onto people and bulldozed them. He's this game's Zangief.
It's a nice change from the older Dragon Ball Z games, where everybody felt like a slight variation on the same character. Also, ancient hot take: Budokai was bad. It was really, really bad, and I hated it. I think people accepted it at the time because there hadn't been a DBZ game in a million years, but holy shit, it was abysmal.
Ian: Yeah, that's why Dragon Ball FighterZ is so exciting: a legit Dragon Ball Z fighting game. When players step up to try it out, it's obvious what everyone is capable of from the get-go. Android 16 is the grappler. Android 18 is capable of rushing down opponents and playing a weird sort of mixup game with her. Android 17 tandem attacks.
Krillin's basic projectile doesn't head straight towards the opponent, but instead flies up into the sky and comes crashing down. Just like any competent fighting game, each character has strengths and weaknesses that set them apart, which is doubly important when it comes to such a storied franchise.
Nathan: And then of course, Majin Buu sits on people, and Frieza just kinda stands still, very casually, and commits genocide on the other team. The characters' styles really do emphasise what they're about on the show. We even recreated the famous canon scene where Krillin savagely kills Majin Buu!
Ian: Oh yes, that very much canonical and much-beloved sequence. In all seriousness, though, Majin Buu's cookie transformation super is the greatest thing I saw during our entire session.
Nathan: Hahaha yeah, it's not Buu unless somebody gets transformed into a cookie (or candy). Speaking of small fan service-y things, the game uses perspective super well, too.
It spends so much time looking 2D until a blast goes flying off into the distance and destroys a building, or somebody punches somebody else through a series of massive rock formations, and I yell, "HOLY SHIT," because it just comes out of nowhere. I feel like that stuff is overused in the show, but in the game it punctuates big attacks just right.
Ian: I think that really speaks to the care they have put into making the game at least visually accessible to casual players and spectators. We both were focused on how the game played, but I feel like you (as a bigger Dragon Ball Z fan) were pointing out stuff that actually appeared in the show in some form or another on a consistent basis.
It's not just meant to be a competitively viable game (fingers crossed), but also a smorgasbord of distinctly Dragon Ball Z aesthetics. At least that's the sense I got.
Nathan: Yeah, and those aesthetics inform the game's visual language. They convey the stakes of the fight and how much damage characters are taking. For a game about big men yelling, it's deceptively smart!
Ian: I'm really excited to see more! Dragon Ball FighterZ was nearly impossible to play at Evo due to the constant crowds, so getting some time to finally sit down and experience the stuff I saw in tournament footage was great. We're really entering an amazing time to be a fighting game player, competitive or no.
Nathan: Yeah, it's a really promising game, despite a few odd mechanics and environments that are colourful and stylistically accurate, but otherwise feel kind of lifeless. I'll need to play a lot more before I'm certain it's great and has staying power, but I like it a lot so far. Still holding out for an all-Krillin mode, though. Krillin deserves more love, even if he has to get it from himself.