The prospect of playing through the story of Dragon Ball Z might seem divisive to some given the storied video game history of the series, but Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot takes an interesting enough twist to make it all feel fresh again.
Developer CyberConnect2 has attempted a gaudy feat with the early 2020 release, promising a Dragon Ball RPG of sorts with somewhat open-world vibes.
Gaudy, indeed. And Kakarot, if nothing else, is impressively true to the source material as it smartly tackles one of the most beloved manga and anime series of all time. While the gameplay side is something of a mix between old DBZ games with some extra systems splashed atop, the entire package is nothing short of a love letter to the series and its fans.
Graphics and Gameplay
Visually speaking, Kakarot is a stunner of a game.
Whether it's flying around one of the more open-ended maps or engaging in one of the many fights, there are fleeting moments when it looks just like the anime. This is especially the case in cutscenes, but the vibrant colors and faithful adaptation of both the world and characters make for a visual treat throughout.
It helps that the whole presentation package was clearly a focal point. The world's many environments, if not planets, look unique and pop with color. The sound design, from the tried-and-true soundtrack to the numerous recognizable ki blasts and sheer battle sounds from the anime, is exemplary.
Voice acting is a big part of the presentation's triumph here. Every character doesn't sound perfect, by any means, but this is largely a well-acted, faithful rendition of the script. The lip-synching is a mess at times, but it's a small complaint when otherwise taking in the superb visuals. In a battle is where the voice acting struggles because of so many repeated lines (Vegeta's "I can't believe it!" has serious meme potential).
As visually immersive as the portions of maps in varying locales are, they aren't all too interesting to explore. Exploration consists largely of flying around and collecting orbs, gathering things like fruits and meat off deer or hopping into a first-person mode to shoot ki blasts at mineral deposits or dinosaurs. It probably sounded better as an idea than in practice, but Gohan running around getting into tussles with dinosaurs was restricted to filler episodes in the anime but takes a central point in the open-worldness of the exploration.
On a bit of a gameplay slant, Kakarot doesn't make a great first impression because one of the opening acts is merely escorting a whining Gohan around a limited map while collecting apples.
Thankfully, things open up from there. The battle system gets expanded upon, and the RPG side of the game—be it cooking up dishes for stat buffs or aligning heroes in communities for varying bonuses—greatly expands.
In a fight, Kakarot doesn't feel terribly different from past Dragon Ball games. Players can charge up ki, shoot ki blasts, execute super attacks or go on the defensive via dodging, timed counters and straight-up vanishing.
Feeling familiar to past games doesn't mean it isn't fun, though. Ducking and dodging an opponent's attacks en route to laying down the hammer on them in a combo that ends with a big special, sending them careening through the environments, feels great.
And this is especially the case once the game opens up and lets big parties form. It's a blast to combo special moves together. Early on, making Krillin use his Solar Flare, for example, stuns the enemy and permits massive combos from the player's character and others. There are also gargantuan, unblockable Z-Combos that open up. All of this expands greatly the further a player gets into the story and party options increase.
It wouldn't be Dragon Ball Z without transformations baked into the combat too. Players build up a surge state over time, which they can then unleash for additional damage doled out or to reduce damage taken. This is a separate and more consistent mechanic than outright transformations, be it Kaioken, Super Saiyan and beyond. The surge quickly becomes the deciding dynamic in fights and an equalizer of sorts against tough odds when deployed properly.
Things can get too messy, though. Damage numbers and other items popping up on the screen don't overwhelm, but it's sometimes hard to see where an enemy is attacking from, particularly when they are doing special moves. And the game often rips players out of a combo or planned attack to show the enemy have a scripted moment before the attack, dashing all momentum. The intent is clearly to capture the anime feel of the battles, but it's disruptive.
And while a lot of this sounds great, it does start to wear thin after some significant time in the game. Middling difficulty and a lack of variety in enemy types often shuffles a player into doing the same old thing to progress (charge ki, set off a combo, special, repeat).
Note that on the gameplay side, controls can take quite a long time to get used to as well. On a PlayStation controller while flying, ascending and descending are both awkwardly tied to the right bumpers by default. In a fight, one left bumper blocks, another modifies special attacks, one right bumper modifies party member's attacks and a combination of them shifts to modifying outright transformations. This isn't to say controls are bad, but those early hours are a time sink in accidental gaffes because the combat punishes players making untimely mistakes.
By and large, there seems to be a give and take with most aspects on the gameplay side. If players can forgive some repetitive combat and borderline boring open-world loops because of the setting, they will have a great time.
Story and More
Kakarot treads familiar territory and, in doing so, throws down a bit of a line that will probably see players fall to one side or the other. Series veterans are probably tired of Goku-based games retelling the Z saga again. But for players new to the series, Kakarot is a great way to get into the thick of things.
As far as faithful adaptations go, Kakarot does a good job of consolidating a lengthy series into a video game format. It chooses to skip some interesting things for the sake of keeping the plot moving (it feels like not focusing on Goku during Snake Way was a missed opportunity) but smartly packs in lore and context.
It's outside of the main story where things fall a bit flat. Taking an all-powerful being and going into detective vision in search of apples isn't all that interesting. Thankfully, intermission periods are skippable for those who want to keep the mostly well-paced story moving.
While the sidequest aspect of the game loops in some awesome nods to the anime and manga via side characters at times, rarely does it offer up meaningful story bits. Completionists will surely have some fun, but a lot of these seem to be "fight off the bad guys who just showed up" or "go fetch item X."
Kakarot gets touted as an RPG but falls a bit short in this regard. There is one big exception: It's neat to see an RPG-level system in place that reflects power levels from the manga and anime. It feels like an uphill, hopeless battle when some of the weaker Z warriors team up with the player to take on the just-arrived Raditz early in the game. That's a nice touch.
But beyond that, there isn't a ton going on RPG-wise. There are a ton of cooking recipes possible that boast ingredients either from the game world or vendors who offer stat boosts or simply refill health—but it takes so long to do just one meal at a campfire!
Community Boards are another stab at RPG-styled progression that look intimidating at first but don't have a ton of depth. There are several boards to choose from, and players can plop down different arrays of character-based soul emblems for different passive bonuses, ranging from in-battle boosts to post-battle drops, cooking bonuses and more.
But those boards aren't overly deep, and neither are character skill trees, where players spend the collected orbs to unlock attacks. The tree is big, but there aren't too many tough decisions to make because even a slight grind seems to result in a ton of orbs to use. The roadblock is level requirements before spending orbs, but it's also something easily blown through via a small grind.
And speaking of grind, it never felt difficult to straight up grind in order to overcome something. Some smart uses of stat bonuses from meals and failing and learning during a fight (which is the Saiyan way, folks) seemed to do the trick most of the time.
In-battle proficiency is going to determine who rises to the top of the speedrunning community for this particular release.
And there is some interesting potential in this regard with Kakarot, which the makers have dubbed as a game hovering around the 40-hour mark. A speedrun won't take nearly as long, though.
Fighting well, meaning pulling off combos with teammates and knowing when to block and/or counter will negate a lot of the open-world stuff. There isn't much of a reason to sidetrack and go hunting for ingredients or items if one is blowing through the fights as the story goes along. A brief bit of flying for orbs to power up characters in the skill tree wouldn't hurt, but that's going to come down to player preference.
Kakarot throws out assists for those looking to save time too. Cutscenes and dialogue are skippable. The map permits fast travel. The game's version of detective vision plainly paints where and how to keep progressing the story.
Should the speedrunning community latch on—and it might—it's going to be fun to see how low the any-percent times can fall.
Kakarot's premise and hints of direction since getting announced created a groundswell of hype.
While the game is a little more shallow than some might have hoped, with its foray into elements that aren't straight-up fighting, Kakarot still lands a solid punch as a great way to recite the core of the Dragon Ball Z universe's story.
A gorgeous and faithful, if not overachieving, adaption of the source material, Kakarot is a fun romp for all types of players. Despite some shallow flaws, it's an immersive offering in the universe that doesn't overly innovative for games as a whole, but it's fun in its own right.