Anime games, and by that I mean games based on long-running anime shows, are great in number and not so great in quality. Naruto, Bleach, One Piece and of course Dragon Ball Z all have a million titles to their name, the vast majority of them being middling or mediocre affairs. After last years Dragon Ball FighterZ, this preconception of mine has shifted a little, to the point where the idea of an open-world Dragon Ball Z game being worth my time doesn’t seem so farfetched anymore. While Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot has most definitely not managed to match its Ki with Dragon Ball FighterZ, it does have… something… to it. Enough polish to entice a cursory glance at the very least. Does it pretty much tell the same story as the anime just in game form? Is it a decent open-world Dragon Ball Z game? Is it actually worth your time? The answer to all three of these questions is “sort of”.
For those not familiar with the anime: Goku is an insane alien who wants to fight everything in order to get better at fighting. That’s basically who he has been since the original Dragon Ball series but in Z he’s now an adult with a young son of his own, Gohan. Over the course of the game Goku and friends will come up against ever greater threats and the writers come up with more and more tenuous reasons for why Goku can’t obliterate the bad guys out the gate or why they can only ever fight each other one at a time. It’s ludicrously stupid, but all the most memorable moments from watching the show as a kid are done justice with spectacularly-animated cutscenes and I still got chills a number of times.
While not quite as impressive as FighterZ, Kakarot succeeds in transitioning Toriyama’s art style to 3D. The animations and various effects of Goku and friend’s abilities always impress. The graphical fidelity isn’t anything to write home about, but it’s pretty clever with hiding its budget.
The open-world is threadbare, being both visually repetitive and mostly devoid of anything worth seeking out. It’s dotted with some cool landmarks, especially for long-time fans of the series and indeed one of the games main strengths lies in just the novelty of being able to freely move around these nostalgic locations in three dimensions. The world of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is only open to a point, with load times between areas being one of the games biggest flaws, on consoles at least. Load times between different sections of the open world are just long enough to be annoying and you’ll be coming up against them often as the story requires that you have travel between them. (NOTE: as of patch 1.04 load times have been noticeably improved, however, this was added after I’d completed the story).
All the sound effects are spot on. Flying, instant transmission, punches and kicks, even the sound made when a character drops to the ground are all ripped straight from the show and sound great. Like a lot of Japanese visual-novel style games, there are only a handful of musical tracks that repeat ad nauseam (the silly song, the triumphant song, the epic song etc), taken on their own they do the job but you will definitely be hearing the same music over and over again.
The fighting itself is simple and flashy, but fun. You spam circle to do regular attacks which automatically develop into a combo, and then hold L1 to bring up a menu of special attacks. These obviously change depending on who you’re playing as: Goku has his Kamehameha, Gohan has Masenko, Piccolo with Special Beam Cannon, and so on. During certain parts of the story, you can add two support characters to your party, which will allow them to join your battles. Holding R1 will then allow you to access two of their abilities, use them enough during one battle and you can carry out a Z Combo: a devastating co-operative attack.
Boss fights change things up a little bit, with some of their attacks triggering a drastic change in cameras perspective or bullet-hell style sequences where you have to fly around balls of energy. Unfortunately, these are rare, with the vast majority of boss fights being button mash battles of attrition. As long as you occasionally dodge and equip healing items you’ll be fine. It was gratifying to complete a boss fight or two in a few minutes knowing that in the anime such progress would’ve taken weeks and weeks.
There’s just the one difficulty setting and I never found it all the challenging. If a boss ever defeated me I’d usually overcome them in a second attempt. This wasn’t really an issue as I was happy to proceed as smoothly through the story as possible, banging my head against tough enemies and complex character builds would’ve made me drop the game in a heartbeat.
There are a lot of side stories to check out, but outside of a few exceptions, they don’t really offer anything unique when it comes to gameplay mechanics or story tidbits. It’s the same formula over and over: talk to a character, go collect an item or fight someone, return to the character. Completing them nets you XP, money and other items, so there is some value to them, but you won’t be missing out if you skipped them.
Ultimately, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is a very straightforward game. You fight enemies who spam their special attacks, some of which repeat mechanics, you meet side characters from both Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, complete side stories and watch a large number of cutscenes which do a decent job in reproducing the anime. There are a number of peripheral systems to delve into: you can make cars and bipedal walkers to race in time attacks, collect ingredients to cook meals for stat boosts, fill out the Z Encyclopedia to learn more about the expanded world of Dragon Ball, collect Soul Emblems to boost various bonuses and even play some baseball.
It’s a shame that all of these things are just sort of there and are both totally unnecessary to complete the core game as well as not being interesting enough to explore on their own merit. Early on in the game there’s a fun quiz you do before Goku embarks on Snake Way which I was hoping was a sign of things to come but it wasn’t to be. It was definitely a missed opportunity to not lean into the slice of life side of things with one-off mini-games and the like. I personally got a lot of satisfaction from reading the Z Encyclopedia entries and meeting all these weird characters in the substories, but if that sort of thing usually bores you to tears, it most certainly will here too.
I enjoyed my time with Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot and it certainly achieves its goal of condensing the entire series’ story into one, open-world game. A lot of the many different systems and activities available, including the combat, may lack depth, but they all serve their purpose and do manage to be occasionally fun. The open-world is drab and empty by today’s standards, and the load times are a huge drag, but the key moments throughout the story are rendered in loving detail, it’s clear the team behind this game are huge fans. It’s not a game that you should run out and buy immediately but if you love Dragon Ball Z then it might just be worth checking out.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot was reviewed on PS4 Pro with a code provided by the publisher.