Maybe not what you’re expecting, but in a good way.
Dragon Ball is something I did not obsessively get into until recently. When the anime had its first, successful run on American airways, this 7-year-old girl was more into shows like Sailor Moon and Pokémon, which pretty much dominated the time slots on pandering children’s programming blocks like Kids’ WB or Toonami. Everyone I knew who was passionate about Dragon Ball was a guy, so I was conditioned to believe it was just another thing “for boys”.
During a time I was pessimistic about my career prospects, I was for some reason inspired to properly sit down and watch the original Dragon Ball anime series: all 153 episodes. I was immediately hooked and it was then I watched all 291 episodes of Dragon Ball Z (not Kai, though). My third eye opened and I unlocked the Kaio-ken technique. Akira Toriyama may just be another human, but he is horny, reckless, and mad with power—and I fell right into His Plan.
Dragon Ball is a loose interpretation of Journey to the West, which is not only one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature but is one of the most important pieces of literature of all time. But unlike Journey to the West, Dragon Ball broke cultural barriers in ways that are near unfathomable. Not everyone may be able to tell you who Sun Wukong is, but Goku is one of the most recognizable icons anyone can discern no matter what country you step in. (He is up there with Superman and Jesus Christ!) It is hard to imagine how far-reaching something like Dragon Ball would end up producing countless pieces of media under its name since its conception as a silly manga series that serialized in the late 90s. And yet, with so much it has already offered, there’s still more to come.
There have been about 96 officially licensed Dragon Ball video games released thus far—not even counting other games where Goku is featured as a playable character! Over half of these have never been localized outside of Japan and many of these titles have been lost through obsolescence. So instead of thoroughly going through every single one of these 96 games, I will instead beg the question: what makes the latest installment in the eponymous long-running franchise, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, stand out specifically?
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is an action role-playing game developed by CyberConnect2 and published by Bandai Namco Entertainment. The game loosely follows the plot of the Dragon Ball Z anime series with a few new additions as you play across its cast of main characters.
You travel across familiar locations in third-person with flight as your main mode of transportation. As expected of a Dragon Ball game, there is a heavy emphasis on combat as you will encounter numerous enemies and scripted boss fights. You must fight your way to victory through a combination of punches, kicks, and ki-blasts, which can either be strategic or totally made up of button-bashing mindlessness.
Kakarot has elements of RPG progression, in which characters’ moves must be unlocked through a skill tree and via the story’s progression. Although you can climb your way up through light grinding, there are multiple ways to power up. You collect a token from some characters that you are introduced to for the first time. A system called Communities lets you link these character tokens across a series of nodes, which can help you gain certain stat bonuses or item benefits. In addition, hoarding Ki Orbs, differently colored types of orb collectibles that are scattered across the map and collected in flight, are spent to unlock more abilities in training modes at certain points in the game.
There is also a Cooking system, which concocts meals that yield higher benefits than regular items and produces effects like temporary stat boosts simultaneous to healing. For that reason, foraging items such as fruit, meat, or fish, is integral to fulfill recipe requirements. Fishing is a whole other mechanic, but it is also one of the simplest fishing systems I have ever experienced in a game. Your character simply has to find a fishing spot on the map and everything plays out via a quick-time mini-game where all you have to do is press the right buttons flashed at the right moment. It’s quick, quirky, and does the job. Goku’s version of it will see him pulling out and fishing with his tail, in blatant homage to the original anime series when he was often seen doing it as a child. (Why does he have his tail as an adult if it was cut off? Don’t worry, it’s explained.)
So with that all said and done—really, what makes Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot so special?
Other Dragon Ball games have focused on the original Dragon Ball in disregard to Z. Games like the Dragon Ball Z: Budokai games and FighterZ are just straightforward fighting games with new original stories for those respective titles. Dragon Ball: Advanced Adventure, a game for the Game Boy Advance, only focuses on a loose interpretation of the events of young Goku’s life, with many omissions. The Dragon Ball Z: The Legacy of Goku games do attempt to center on the arcs of Dragon Ball Z, but they have been criticized for their choppiness, unnecessary new material, and easy difficulty. Some of these creative choices were probably in pressure to create a Dragon Ball game to reach out to a younger demographic.
The only exception to all of this is Dragon Ball Z: The Legend, a game released on the Playstation that never saw the light of day in the United States. It was the first Dragon Ball video game that attempted to adapt the entirety of Dragon Ball Z in one, contained game. In that regard, Kakarot is technically not doing anything new with its own reiteration, but it is the execution that makes it unique and distinguishable from The Legend.
In spite of what teasers initially led people to believe, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is not an open-world game proper. Instead, the game is divided into multiple sections with the aforementioned RPG elements that can only be freely explored until certain progress is made. These areas do have a semi-open world aspect due to the maps’ expanse with ample room to literally fly.
Despite this somewhat misleading description of the game, it truly does feel like you’re freely traveling across vast, familiar grounds that are unmistakably Dragon Ball—from Diablo Desert to the Southeast Mountains where Goku’s home is located. This is something The Legend lacked since it only used 2D sprites across a scrolling, pseudo-three dimensional map. It became so motivating to discover all the little things the game offers once I got into the momentum of flight. Other games like Xenoverse and the now-defunct Dragon Ball Online similarly evoked this same feeling, but they are centered on an original story through the outside perspective of an original character you create. In Kakarot, you are Goku and you are reliving the very events of Dragon Ball Z through his body and onto the next character.
Love and thought were clearly put into Kakarot, and it is clear that a game like this would not have existed had the franchise not withstood all the criticism and commentary from fans it has piled up over the years. Besides the obvious jokes being thrown out into the wind (Yamcha sucks, haha), numerous Easter eggs and gags are planted throughout the game for you to find, assuring you that the original Dragon Ball has not been forgotten. Roshi’s lecherous nature is certainly something Kakarot does not avoid and one particular subquest forces you to find his misplaced “dirty magazine”. After that, the dirty magazine becomes a recurring item you can find throughout the game. You can also examine specific glowing spots marked on the map that provides a little factoid in relation to the series’ past lore. For instance, when you first arrive at the Kame House, a tidbit can be read reiterating the time when a much younger Bulma and Goku first met Turtle.
Plot holes and narrative issues people have brought up over the years—especially in regards to the characters that have come and gone, thrown under the bus and forgotten—are addressed. Some subquests reintroduce you to these characters in a new light and force you to interact with the otherwise normal citizenry of the world from time to time. For instance, Kakarot now suggests that Yajirobe was actually pivotal to Gohan’s growth after Piccolo took him under his wing for training. In that segment, you play as the defenseless, young Gohan and must re-learn how to forage food. It is additions like these that are heartwarming and the sort of thing that I have always wanted to see in new Dragon Ball material. Familiar faces find a new purpose, invoking more dimensionality to the world that was always there but was carelessly ignored as the series transgressed into a more action-focused story with a tighter cast.
Shops and small towns are scattered far and wide, where NPCs can be interacted with. Kakarot reminds you of the normal, everyday ongoings of the planet if the series wasn’t so centered on the Z Fighters. There were still some missed opportunities (I regret to inform that there is no walking simulator segment for Snake Way, despite this iconic path having appeared as a genuine level in other Dragon Ball games), but additional dialogue, both humorous and serious, added during pivotal scenes and moments of idle time to further flesh out characters we thought we fully knew in subtle ways. It shows how far this series has come to finally reach self-awareness, and that just maybe, Goku is not that bad of a father after all. It is through here that Kakarot prospers in story and writing, but elsewhere it unfortunately falters.
There are times where Kakarot feels rushed and incomplete. Some of the RPG elements of the game feel a little lackluster, shallow, and don’t truly add a significant advantage to the playing experience. Most of the time, I felt as though I made my way through battles by sheer strategy and reflex like any other fighting game.
The aesthetics of the game is a highly subjective area, but I personally think the game’s color palette is too saturated and gaudy. I have to admit I am highly spoiled by how good a Dragon Ball game can look through what we have seen in FighterZ, but something about the 3D rendering of the objects in this game also feels lacking, unfinished, and untextured. This unfinished quality carries through, where at times where the map feels open, but at other times it can feel more empty instead, failing to the illusion of the spaciousness it wanted to convey.
Character models also sometimes awkwardly snap into their next pose or animation unintentionally if you run through dialogue too quickly. What’s most grating is that a particular bug exists where sometimes NPCs outright disappear from their location, making a quest completion impossible until you “refresh” them back in by doing something else first, like leaving the map.
Kakarot suffers the most from its unmappable controls and wonky camera. Combat actually feels great and looks excellent with its explosive visuals, so I am going to assume the rush of the fight masks issues I may have missed entirely. Walking on the ground is also fine most of the time, but occasionally, when you need to jump and run at hyper speeds, things can get a little out of hand with the whiplash of the camera.
Flying, though—which is what you do for 90% of the game—is the worst! Please visualize this to understand: the left analog stick is how you move left and right. To speed up, you press the left analog stick down. Strafing up and down is controlled through the right trigger buttons. At the same time, you must simultaneously keep your thumb on the right analog stick, because the camera sometimes does not know what to do with itself and needs to always be manually adjusted. If any of this was remappable at all, this would not be so frustrating. And yet, I am a forgiving person.
As much as I love Kakarot for all of its absurd qualities in spite of all its flaws, when will I get the Dragon Ball game that lets me be some wealthy dweller of West City? Kakarot showed the endless possibilities that can be explored in a more open world-ish Dragon Ball game. The little sprinkles of slice of life are the most endearing parts of the game, and I want more! How stressful would it be living right next door to Capsule Corp, constantly within radar of their experiments? It’d be funny if I was a farmer (sans shotgun) getting their crops constantly ruined on the daily to a group of stupid aliens constantly starting fights and flying about. How nightmarish would it be to live as a construction worker of this world when buildings keep getting destroyed on the daily?
Although I think Toriyama does not know what he is doing half the time (that, and I genuinely believe he has been detached from the franchise creative-wise save for the occasional new visuals once in a while), his strengths have always come through in comedy and worldbuilding. Things like the technology of Capsule Corp are genuinely interesting and it is disheartening to see new installments franchise undermine aspects like these that make the world so interesting. Kakarot taking some of these things into consideration is a refreshing move. Many people may enjoy Dragon Ball for its action and compelling characters akin to the zany universe of professional wrestling, but I have learned to really embrace it through its utter weirdness and ridiculousness. Dragon Ball’s origins coming out of one man’s obsession with automobiles and toilet humor should not be erased!
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is all in all one of the best love letters to Dragon Ball fans as of recent. For that reason, it is certainly not a game I would recommend for any newcomers to the series when its best qualities shine through . Although my personal gripe remains within Kakarot’s offering of a huge world that can still do so much more, and with so much more polish, I don’t doubt all the times where the jokes have landed and where the references were appropriate that I had a huge smile on my face. Kakarot is not a perfect game, but it is another strong entry that advances Dragon Ball in a positive direction that acknowledges the best qualities of what makes many adore the franchise so much. If something needs to exploit nostalgia more than ever, it definitely should be this series!