E3 2019: Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot

I am a Dragon Ball Z nerd. I was first introduced to the series in college, when my dorm had access to Cartoon Network (something I didn’t have back home) and it’s anime block, Toonami. Dragon Ball Z may have debuted in Japan on April 26, 1989, but the cartoon has a timelessness to it that surpasses the dated animation of its earliest seasons. A few years back, I had a chance to review the Blu-Ray editions of the show and discovered that I still carried a torch for what could easily be compared to as a soap opera for boys. Re-watching Goku’s quest to become the very best and combating the colorful villains that gravitated towards him was still cool, outrageous, and awesome.

I say all this because I consider Dragon Ball Z Kakarot to be the DBZ video game I always wanted. I appreciate that modern consoles allowed the myriad of Dragon Ball Z fighting games to incorporate cell shading tech to make them look more and more like the cartoon (kudos to Dragon Ball FighterZ for being the best at it). Fighting games, no matter the license, don’t do anything for me because I find them kind of boring and no amount of story is ever enough to pique my interest. Dragon Ball Z Kakarot isn’t a fighting game, which is why I’m excited about it. As a semi-open world, character-driven role-playing game, you’ll experience the entire Z Saga arc as Goku, from his first encounter with his Saiyan brethren and battling Frieza on Namek to, presumably, the Cell Games and the vicious encounter with Majin Buu.

The timed demo I played at E3 took place at the beginning of the Dragon Ball Z series, where Goku, now an adult, comes face to face with his past after the Saiyan Raditz arrives on Earth. A little background to set the scene: Goku is a Saiyan, born as Kakarot on the planet Vegeta to a warrior race the delights in combat and conquest. Originally sent to Earth to conquer it, catching a bump to the head caused him to lose the memory of himself and his phone. Taken in by a kindly old man named Gohan, he named the boy Goku and taught him to be a good person and help others. He went and traveled the world and met new friends, competed in martial arts tournaments, fought off an evil army, and join a quest to find the mysterious wish-granting Dragon Balls. Dragon Ball Z begins with Goku as an adult and new father who is forced to endure his long forgotten past catching up with him.

The demo put me in an open field on Earth where I could either fly directly to the boss encounter with Raditz, who had captured Gohan, or explore the world around me to find collectibles, interact with people, and earn experience points from fighting random battles. Traveling with me was an AI-controlled Piccolo (not the instrument), Goku’s one-time rival turned valuable ally and powerful Z Fighter, who would help me fight and deliver exposition while we noodled around the map. Because I wanted to level up Goku for the upcoming fight and see what the open world was like, I spent a good chunk of time exploring the map, noting at how well developer CyberConnect2 has nailed the show’s noted visual style, easily adapting Akira Toriyama's style into 3D textures. The cell shading tech for these games only gets better with each new release and I can’t wait to play through the later sagas that benefited from better color palettes (the Namek Sage is very green and very yellow).

Combat can happen anywhere and anytime. Instead of using complex button patterns and combo moves like the fighting games, Dragon Ball Z Kakarot relegates hand to hand martial arts and Ki blasts to a simplified control scheme that uses the face buttons and bumpers. There’s a really great sense of freedom in movement during battles because you can take them to the skies or on the ground at the drop of a hat. Most of the low-level enemies I encountered looked like old Red Ribbon Army rejects and were easy enough to take down without sustaining too much damage. I was more thankful that I really didn’t have to babysit Piccolo as he fought enemies on his own. He’s a capable fighter in the show and because I didn’t have to worry about him, I could focus on my contributions to the encounter.

Strong as Goku becomes over the course of the cartoon series, don’t expect to start the Raditz fight as a Super Saiyan 3. To mirror Goku’s progression over the entire 291 series run, you’ll power up appropriately when the story calls for it, discovering new abilities with him. I’m already sitting at the edge of my seat just thinking about the fight with Frieza when Goku becomes a Super Saiyan for the first time. That’s such an iconic moment that I hope the game does it justice. Weak as he might be at the start of the game, Goku can still fight well but you might be expected to stay on the defensive for a while. This was most apparent during my one on one battle with Raditz, whose attacks largely kept me blocking and waiting for openings to strike. Goku’s relative weakness didn’t stop me from charging my Kaio-ken power and launching the sweetest looking Kamehameha blast into Raditz’s dirtbag face. Talk about satisfying!

Dragon Ball Z Kakarot will primarily tell the major events of the cartoon series but the Namco Bandai reps on hand mentioned that the side quests offer new and original stories. As if the game weren’t already a fan service goodie bag, many of these quests are given by characters Goku met during the original Dragon Ball cartoon. One quest had me speaking with Launch, a woman whose personality changes from hot and cold and back again every time she sneezes. Another had me chatting with Nam, a warrior introduced as a finalist in one of the earlier Tournament sagas.

My time with Dragon Ball Z Kakarot was way too short, which is a pretty good indicator of how I felt about the product at this stage in its development. On an aesthetic level, the game gets everything right: the character models, landscape, color palette, and the original Japanese music soundtrack that gave me chills. CyberConnect2, who is no stranger to adapting anime into video games, has gone out of their way to emulate the look and feel of the television show (like putting in episode title cards) and mimicking the fast, furious, and frenetic martial arts combat. I was sold on the on top of the video game portions of it. As a long time fan of this cartoon series, the game makes my heart sing and I’ll be counting down the days until I can play the full version.

Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.