LOS ANGELES – Most Dragon Ball Z video games are one-on-one fighting spectacles, which is hardly surprising given how the anime plays out. But the series has dabbled in other genres over the years, from collectible card battlers to role-playing games. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is not the first action/RPG to follow the life and times of perpetually hungry protagonist Goku, but it’s easily the most ambitious — and the prettiest.
I went hands-on with Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot at E3 2019, and even though it’s a little slower-paced than some other recent DBZ titles (Dragon Ball FighterZ comes to mind), I was still impressed by both the scope of the game and how much fun the moment-to-moment gameplay can be. Kakarot isn’t really giving DBZ fans something they’ve never seen before, but they are presenting classic stories in a novel format, and that may well be enough.
Lots to do
First things first: Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is an action/RPG in which you take control of Goku, the main character of the Dragon Ball saga. Longtime fans will know that the game gets its subtitle from Goku’s birth name, as he was sent to Earth as a baby with the expectation that he’d someday destroy the planet. It’s a long story, but the bottom line is that you’ll be experiencing the first major chunk of the DBZ story entirely from Goku’s perspective.
Rather than just shuttling you from one fight to the next, Kakarot lets you fly around huge levels, stopping to pick up side quests and engage in optional activities. My demo was a 20-minute playground in an early level of the game. Ostensibly, my goal was to defeat Raditz: Goku’s evil brother, who’s taken Goku’s son, Gohan, prisoner. But there was no reason to rush right to the fight. As in any other RPG, I wanted to level up and hone my abilities before a big battle.
As such, the first order of business was to fly around the map, seeing what I could accomplish. There’s actually quite a bit of content, and you’ll have to do a little bit of everything in order to level up Goku and his abilities. You can fly through miniature racetracks to collect Z Spheres, which will upgrade your skills. You can go fishing to get crafting ingredients. You can hunt animals (or huge dinosaurs) to cook yourself tasty meals. And, of course, you can fight random battles with a variety of C-grade DBZ goons. (In my demo, I fought off low-level androids from the Red Ribbon army. This will make sense to fans of the original Dragon Ball series, and precisely no one else.)
There are also plenty of familiar DBZ characters with whom to interact. As I flew around, the minimap notified me about various dialogue opportunities. I found the ever-lecherous Master Roshi, who gave me some tips on fighting. Baba the witch explained how Z Spheres work, while Yajirobe gave me a cooking tutorial.
More obscure characters show up, too, in order to give you side quests. My first task was for Eighter: a gentle android from the original Dragon Ball anime. He explained that a group of murderous robots was running amok, and he’d reward me with both experience and healing items if I could bring them to heel.
This gave me a good opportunity to try out the game’s combat system, which bears at least a passing resemblance to the gameplay in the Dragon Ball Xenoverse titles. Goku first approached the Red Ribbon robots from a distance, but when they spotted him, the game’s interface changed from exploration to battle. It wasn’t a separate screen, per se – I was still at exactly the same spot in the environment. But my controls were very different, and Goku’s field of vision automatically focused on his opponents. From here, it was a simple matter of chaining together melee attacks, finishing moves, energy blasts and special attacks to stagger foes, reduce their health bars and eventually destroy them.
Melee combat was especially a treat, since it managed to capture both the speed and impact from the anime. Simply tap the melee button over and over (this was B on an Xbox controller), and Goku will automatically close the distance between him and his foe, then pound the enemy with intermittent strikes. Hitting another button after a melee combo will trigger a finishing move, some of which involve more melee attacks, and some of which involve ki blasts. You can expend energy on special attacks like Goku’s signature Kamehameha blast, or activate your depletable, recharging Tension meter to chain moves together more easily.
At least early on, combat is more about style than depth. Most enemies will go down under a sustained barrage, whether you simply melee them to death or work up intricate combos. It’s not until boss fights where you have to really start worrying about dodging, timing and choosing your techniques carefully.
With five minutes left in the demo, I flew to the crashed space capsule where Raditz had taken Gohan prisoner. With a huge health bar and powerful energy blasts of his own, Raditz was not like any enemy I had fought before. But at the same time, the battle was just as much fun to watch as it was to play, with the two combatants zipping around a huge, open battlefield, throwing punches and ki blasts and seeming to teleport out of harm’s way at the last moment.
One thing worth noting was that while Piccolo, Goku’s loyal frenemy who helped him defeat Raditz in the show, was there to lend moral support, but did not actually participate in the battle. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is very much Goku’s show, and you’ll be in control of him the whole time.
Based on the trailers, Kakarot seems to cover everything from Raditz’s arrival on Earth, up to Goku’s battle with Frieza on the planet Namek. While the game is not fully open-world, there are multiple, distinct levels to explore, each one large enough to smash opponents clear across mountain ranges, just like on the show.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot will come out in early 2020 for PC, PS4 and Xbox One. While it may not redefine DBZ games forever, it’s a fairly novel take on a beloved adventure that’s always ripe for another retelling. Fans who have been with Dragon Ball since the beginning, especially, will probably get a kick out of the game’s deep-cut lore and faithful recreations of famous fights.