In the original Dragon Ball Z anime, fights are not balanced. Goku and his pals often end up in situations where they are outmatched by a far stronger and more experienced opponent. The series has had frequent fighting game adaptations, most recently Dragon Ball FighterZ, in which all of the characters must be balanced for the sake of fairness, even though that’s not true to the story. In Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, Bandai Namco’s upcoming single-player role-playing game, Goku will be outmatched. He’ll start from the bottom and work his way up the Saiyan food chain, just like he does in the anime.
“A lot of the recent Dragon Ball games have put the focus really heavily on the player-vs.-player aspect, where both characters are somewhat on equal footing,” explained Kakarot director Hara Ryosuke in an interview with Kotaku at Bandai Namo’s E3 booth, via a translator. In this game, he said, “the footing won’t be equal” for Goku and the player.
The demo that I played ended with Goku facing off against Raditz, a mysterious Saiyan warrior whose defeat in the anime also results in Goku’s death (Goku does come back to life after that, but it’s still a setback). The Kakarot demo that I played faded to black right after Goku appeared to defeat Raditz, but in the upcoming full game, I don’t think this particular face-off is going to end so neatly.
“The boss fights are intentionally unbalanced just to depict that difference in strength between where Goku is and where these bosses are. The idea is to immerse the player into what Goku is feeling in those different moments,” said Ryosuke. That will include some dramatic visual set pieces, too, just like the anime: “There are going to be a lot of battles where the enemy will throw a barrage of ki blasts that just fill the screen. Nappa has this massive explosion attack that also blows up an entire area.”
Although Goku has a long way to go, he was no slouch in the demo I played. When he comes in for a landing after flying around, he creates a mini-crater in the ground. In combat, he can shoot long-distance energy blasts or swoop in for a flurry of punches that can be chained into a basic combo. These two basic attacks can be used to easily dispatch the demo’s low-level Red Ribbon Army baddies, but I was glad I boned up on dodging and blocking before I reached Raditz. Also, an option will sometimes appear for Goku to perform a dual attack with his ally in battle. In the demo, his frenemy Piccolo accompanies him, which makes sense since this demo loosely follows the plot of the first arc of the DBZ anime.
Goku also has some special attacks that players can throw into the mix, like the Kamehameha. Meanwhile, he has two meters that charge up during battle, “tension” and “ki.” When both are full, Goku can perform a “surge,” which boosts his stats and allows him to cancel combos into other attacks. This slows down the tempo of the fight briefly; enemies sit back to allow Goku a dramatic beat to charge up, again like the anime.
Dragon Ball Z’s unusual pacing during fights—characters frequently pause to charge up or trade insults with one another—played a role in how the fights in this game were designed, said Ryosuke. “There are a few fights that come to mind where the conversation is interrupted by this very heavy clash, and then we go back to an emotional scene. Trying to fuse all of this together is something that we paid close attention to.”
Because Goku starts out in the DBZ anime as a strong character who still has a ton of martial arts left ahead of him to learn, he fits the mold for an ideal hero of a single-player action game. Over the course of Kakarot, Goku will of course go on to learn more and more complicated attacks. “Whether it’s the Spirit Bomb or the Kaoi-ken or Super Saiyan, he will as a character unlock those moments and those abilities as the story progresses,” said Ryosuke.
Ryosuke believes that Kakarot will appeal both to newcomers and lifelong Dragon Ball fans. For the newcomers, he says, “I equate this game to watching the anime from episode 1.” But there will be plenty of meat for longtime fans to chew on throughout the journey as well.
“I think a lot of fans are going to respond, ‘Oh, we already know the Dragon Ball Z saga and all the stories,’ but upon closer examination—we did a lot of research for this—we discovered, ‘Oh, wow, we forgot about these scenes,’” said Ryosuke. “There are a lot of moments in there that I think were very beautiful that haven’t really been fully explored and represented. We all remember the epic battles and the very famous memorable scenes. But there were a lot of day-to-day activities and character developments, a lot of jokes and some banter that were forgotten by time, I think. We thought the best way to capture all of these elements and package them was in an action RPG, which is the origin of this game.”
As Ryosuke noticed in revisiting the source material, Goku’s life is about so much more than fighting. He’s also a husband, father, and friend who likes to eat food, fly around on his cloud, and shoot the shit with the people he meets. Kakarot appears to have just as much shooting the shit as it has fighting, if not more. I spent a hefty chunk of my demo playtime on mundane activities like going fishing, accepting side quests from Dragon Ball side characters like Launch and Eighter, and trading quips with Piccolo while flying around the handful of areas available.
Kakarot isn’t an open-world game; it’s a series of specific areas and boss fights that have to be visited and completed in a certain order, presumably the same order that Goku comes across each of them in the source material. The game does encourage exploration of those limited areas and appears to include plenty of side quests.
By including cameos from side characters and introducing small plotlines for them that were never in the anime, Ryosuke hopes to answer a question he expects many fans have had: “What are these characters doing now? If you like Dragon Ball, I think you’ll have the same question. We worked really closely with of course Shueisha and Toei Animation to figure out how these substories are going to unfold.”
In the lead-up to E3, I’ve been rewatching all of the Dragon Ball Z anime, and although it prepared me for Kakarot, it also put me into such a nostalgic headspace that I found it very easy to ignore the cracks that I spotted in the demo of this game. There are some problems, though. The fights against the waves of Red Ribbon mechs got repetitive fast, for example, perhaps because Goku hasn’t learned that many different attacks yet. Flying from place to place, either with the Nimbus or not, looked cool but didn’t feel good control-wise. Also, as Goku flies around, he’s supposed to collect spheres in the sky that help him recharge his ki, which is a weird Mario-esque mechanic that, as far as I know, is not based on anything in the source material. I didn’t have a sense of how important it was to collect these spheres, and it wasn’t fun either, due to the unintuitive controls for Goku’s flying.
I could ignore those rough edges with ease, though, because of the surge of warm nostalgic feelings I experienced whenever Bulma called Goku on the comms, or when Raditz sneered at me that I wasn’t worthy. Ryosuke told me that the creative team had endeavored to get back as many voice actors from the original series as possible, both in English and in Japanese. The characters look right, sound right, and talk right. In battle, Goku may not have all of his flashiest moves yet, but even without them, chaining combos already has its moments of feeling freewheeling and powerful. There’s plenty of room for that to get even better with a wider variety of attacks and combos later in the game. And of course, there’s the basic storyline at the core of this game, one that already worked great in manga and anime form. Kakarot has the same heart as the original series, the same sense of humor, and the same corny melodrama. I don’t know if a Dragon Ball novice would enjoy this game or not, but I feel sure that I will.