It's been a while since Akira Toriyama first introduced us to Son Goku and his friends in the '80s, and yet, Dragon Ball is still a force to be reckoned with in popular culture. Thanks to the new films and the Dragon Ball Super anime series, the franchise has gone through something of a renaissance in the last couple of years, which has also opened Dragon Ball up for new fans as well as old.
Dragon Ball and video games have walked hand in hand all the way from the start of the franchise, with more than 70 games released on home consoles from, NES through to our current-gen consoles. The recent titles have focused on creating original stories, like Dragon Ball Xenoverse, or releasing your inner brawler, like the eminent 2D fighting game Dragon Ball FighterZ. However, it's been a while since we were last able to play throughout the original Dragon Ball Z storyline. This is something Bandai Namco now wishes to mend by releasing Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot early next year, a new game where you can (re-)experience Goku's story, video game-style.
The most unique aspect of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is that the game is an RPG, not primarily a fighter (although it's Dragon Ball, so of course you can expect plenty of fighting). You'll find a game with an open world and structure, where you may travel around the world map freely in search of main and side quests. The central story will mostly stick to the established Dragon Ball Z story, but there are many details that can still be told between the frames, and this is something the game offers for both old and new fans.
The game wants to serve as an entry point for those unfamiliar with the Dragon Ball Z story instead of just retelling it for veterans. If you've ever been curious what Dragon Ball Z is all about but find watching several hundred episodes of anime or reading 42 manga books to be an overwhelming task, this might be the game to keep an eye out for during the coming weeks. Here you'll find the entire Dragon Ball Z saga retold, from the introduction of Goku's son Gohan just before the last Saiyans attack Earth, to the battle against Majin Buu. We can't say for certain how long the game is, but for those familiar with the story, we were able to reach the battle against Nappa and Vegeta when the three hours demo session came to an end (with another 15 minutes, we bet we could have made Vegeta scream "It's over 9000!"). We figure the game will at least give you 25 to 30 hours of solid gameplay, depending on how much time you'll spend on the side activities, but that's just an educated guess.
Speaking of side missions: Bandai Namco tells us that Akira Toriyama himself has been involved in creating new material and characters, which should be juicy news for old fans. Just don't expect any literary masterpieces, as the side missions in the first three hours mainly consisted of helping old friends kicking someone or something's butt. Some of the side quests do give you a hint of the upcoming main events, though, and might even add some extra context to the established main story. It's nothing mind-blowing, but it certainly adds an extra touch. Besides the side quests, you can also battle wild monsters, bad robots or destroy the remaining fortress of the evil Red Ribbon army. You can even battle some tougher enemies with higher levels than normal, and if you choose to battle them you can expect more and stronger opponents to appear on the map.
The game also adds activities you can complete besides side quests, such as cooking and fishing. The latter involves a great deal of humour if you're playing as Goku. Fans of the very first comic book and manga episode (of Dragon Ball, that is, not Dragon Ball Z) may remember how Goku used to fish with his tail when he was a child, a skill he now wants to impart to his son. But since Goku no longer has a tail, how can he teach Gohan this useful skill? By having Bulma invent a prosthetic tail he can use for fishing, of course! It's weird and absurd, but it's hard not to laugh when the muscular Goku dips his tail in the water and starts waving his butt towards Leviathan-sized monster fish.
The game is set in an open world, where you can fly on your own or travel around using vehicles from the series (like Goku's Flying Nimbus cloud). You won't find anything surprising or revolutionary when it comes to the open world or levelling system, but still the first three hours are never boring. On the contrary, the introduction of the open world and RPG mechanics feels like a nice change of pace for Dragon Ball games. It's fun to explore the open areas with their distinctive Toriyama design, where you can expect all sorts of creative and strange beings waiting for you. The world might appear somewhat empty at first glance, but there's still room for exciting appearances and activities here, and more time with the game will reveal whether the world has more to offer than meets the eye.
The strongest card Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot can play is the fact that it's a Dragon Ball game. If you have any memories with the original anime, you don't need more than the opening screen and the theme song "Cha-La Head Cha-La" blasting out of the speakers before you sit with a wide and joyful grin. Seeing the classic story and the old characters again is a pleasure, and even when you know how the narrative goes you want to squeeze an extra fifteen minutes into the game just to see your next favourite moment of the saga appear on the screen.
Everything comes wrapped in a visual style that brings out the original Toriyama design, though the game appears to be using the same graphics engine that Bandai Namco's been using for most of its anime games this generation. It can certainly hold its own, but Dragon Quest XI has shown us just how beautiful Toriyama's style can look on the video game screen. Still, the game flows smoothly without any hiccups or problems, and the action-packed cutscenes bring out the best of the engine, re-creating some of the best moments from the anime.
When stripped to its basics, however, Dragon Ball will always be about one thing; extremely strong fighters flying faster than the eye can see beating each other back to the last millennium. This is well known terrain for Bandai Namco by now, and the game doesn't appear to be much different than earlier three-dimensional iterations of Dragon Ball games. You'll fight mostly hovering in mid-air, with dedicated buttons for attack, block, dodge and blasts that channel your inner 'ki'. By holding the left shoulder button, you can access special attacks, and you'll have access to more of these as the story progresses and the characters learn new moves. During the story, you'll also have teammates and allies by your side, whom you can command by using the right shoulder button. The system seems easy to learn yet it still demands your attention, and using the right moves at the right time is especially important during boss fights, which can prove to be quite a challenge.
This is a game that might have flown under your radar during a busy video game season, but come quiet January and Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot might be one to keep an eye out for. It could be the perfect game for old and new fans to experience the classic story, and the open-world structure makes it more accessible than the combat-heavier games we've seen the last couple of years. Old fans like ourselves can expect a joyful reunion with the story, to the point where we had to think where the box of old manga books is stashed during our trip home from Stockholm.