Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot Review: The Balls Are Inert

In Akira Toriyama’s legendary Dragon Ball series, the titular seven orbs — when gathered together — allow their bearer to summon the dragon Shenron to grant them a wish. So say you’re a big Dragon Ball fan, and you decide to wish for the perfect game. Maybe you wish for a game that lets you play as an original character helping out Goku and friends (Dragon Ball Xenoverse). Maybe you wish for a slick tournament fighter with an original story (Dragon Ball FighterZ). Or maybe you just want to see what happens when you mash together your favorite fighters into entirely new beings (Dragon Ball Fusions).

So what I’m wondering is, who wished for Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot?

Everything about this game is baffling, starting with its title. “Kakarot” is the birth name of Dragon Ball protagonist Goku, a name that represents his alien heritage. He never uses it himself, and the only person who does for most of the series is his rival Vegeta. So why isn’t it just called “Dragon Ball Z: Goku?”

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot

But that’s another problem — Dragon Ball Z is already the story of Goku. Unlike the earlier Dragon Ball which featured an ensemble cast who all played different roles, Dragon Ball Z is almost exclusively about Goku’s quest to be the strongest fighter in the universe. And this game follows the narrative of the series, meaning that it’s the same story you’ve already seen played out in a dozen games before. Weirdly, that means you’re not even playing as Goku half the time.

Aware that it is treading familiar ground, Kakarot promises side quests, new character interactions, and world exploration to the DBZ story. But these additions can’t salvage what is ultimately a repetitive, mindless game that neither provides a good entry into the series nor does anything new to bring in longtime fans who have seen this all before.

Dragon Ball Xenoverse Minus Xenoverse

Kakarot‘s gameplay is split up into exploration and battles. In the former, you run or fly around the map, collecting items and accepting side quests. The movement feels kind of awkward and at times is arbitrarily restricted. For instance, the introduction sequence of the game requires you walk extremely slowly as Goku so that Gohan can follow behind you. When he gets too tired to walk, you pick him up and walk at a tenth of your full speed the rest of the way.

The world is divided into a number of different areas, each accessible via a world map. From a distance, the landscapes are actually kind of attractive. But up close, you start to notice rough textures, low-poly models, and repetitions of the same few non-player characters.

Your actions in exploration mode are pretty limited. You have a “ki sense” (that I couldn’t stop thinking of as Batman’s Detective mode) which throws an ugly filter over the screen and helps you locate items. You can throw ki blasts in a first-person perspective to break rocks and get items or to take down dinosaurs and enemy bases. This is not fun. Come to think of it, it’s actually kind of impressive how Kakarot makes the premise of a superpowered martial artist shooting lasers out of his hands at a dinosaur boring.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot

Periodically, you’re assailed by random enemy encounters of varying difficulty levels. On Earth, they’re almost exclusively “Skull Robots” based on a one-off character in Dragon Ball. On Namek, you’ll be fighting nameless Frieza goons. These encounters are mostly optional both in the sense that you don’t really need the experience and items they reward you with and that they are avoidable if you just keep flying past them.

Whether you’re fighting trash mobs or story bosses, combat plays out the same. It’s modeled on the earlier Xenoverse series, in which characters face each other in a three-dimensional space. You can use melee attacks, ki blasts, dodges, and powerful super moves to defeat your foes — but whatever you choose, combat is repetitive and inconsistent. It also seems like a step down from Xenoverse, in that you’re basically just mashing the attack button or charging up your super again and again.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot

And you’ll realize pretty quickly that some supers are more useful than others. Kakarot has the same problem as Xenoverse here, which is that beam attacks like Goku’s signature Kamehameha can be simply sidestepped by enemies, making them useless much of the time. On the other hand, rapid-fire supers are nearly-guaranteed hits.

Fights drag on far too long because enemies have enormous health bars that take ages to whittle down. Long boss battles are one thing if what you’re doing is interesting or fun — I love Monster Hunter World and Destiny 2, for example. But here, there’s no real strategy required, just charge up and spam fireballs. Some enemies will occasionally launch attacks that force you into weird little minigames to avoid them, but these are more awkward than interesting.

If Kakarot‘s combat were just dull that would be bad enough, but it’s also extremely unpredictable. Difficulty spikes show up at seemingly random points in the game, attacks sometimes send enemies flying and sometimes don’t, and the camera is all over the place, often seeing fit to lodge itself into the ground in its attempt to follow behind your character.

So the combat is bad, which isn’t great for a game focused on fighting. But Kakarot isn’t just an action game, it’s an action RPG.

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Balls, Orbs, and Medals

Kakarot is mechanically overwhelming, throwing system after system at the player in the first few hours without doing a great job of introducing any of them. There are Communities, Meals, Items, Z Orbs, D Medals, and a wealth of other things to keep track of. But pretty early on I realized two things about all these mechanics — they’re all pretty shallow, and none of them really matter.

Let’s take Z Orbs, for example. Each character in the game has a massive skill tree comprising different bonuses and super abilities. These upgrades are gated by level, then actually unlocked by spending Z Orbs. There are six different kinds of Z Orbs, and each unlock costs a different amount of each kind. How do you get them? Well, they’re kind of hard to miss — they’re fucking everywhere, strewn across the world in paths and rings to the point that the game looks like Dragon Ball meets NiGHTS.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot

In most of my time with the game, all Z Orbs did was make a mess of the map. On a couple occasions I remembered their purpose and went into my Super Tree menu to unlock new abilities, only to find that the vast majority required that I be a higher level. So I spent a few to get a minor bonus, then went back to forgetting they existed.

While Z Orbs are a pointless currency, the Community system is actually kind of a neat idea. You collect “Soul Emblems” throughout the story, which are really just representations of different characters. (Why does everything in this game have to have a bizarre name?) You can place these emblems on different boards, which are each centered on a specific character and focused on granting certain bonuses. For example, the Z-Fighter board centers on Goku and emphasizes combat. Placing different emblems on it increases the board’s rank and improves your battle abilities.

It’s a little abstract, but it’s a neat idea — and it’s made more interesting by the limited number of spaces on each board and the fact that certain groupings of characters give you even greater bonuses. Some of them are obvious, like Goku and Gohan’s “Ultimate Father and Son Team” bonus, but some reference more obscure bits of Dragon Ball trivia — Vegeta’s “Self-Destruction Expert” made me laugh.

But, like the Z Orbs, none of these bonuses really seems to matter. Master Roshi’s board can get you more money from selling items, King Kai’s can increase your XP gains, and Chi-Chi’s gives you better food effects, but none of these feels really earthshaking.

And let’s talk about cooking for a second. One of Goku’s few distinguishing characteristics is that he loves food, so a cooking mechanic makes sense to incorporate. And there are plenty of other games to draw on: Monster Hunter World‘s ritualistic pre-battle spreads, Breath of the Wild‘s little experiments, and even Fire Emblem: Three Houses‘ use of meals to bring characters together. So what does Kakarot do?

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot

This is the most joyless depiction of food I have ever seen in a video game. Yes, there are scenes where characters scarf down a comically large number of plates, but to trigger those you have to get Chi-Chi to cook a “Full Course Meal,” which requires a lot of ingredients. In my time with Kakarot, I saw this scene precisely once. Maybe that’s on me for not cooking more often, but I was S and A-ranking nearly ever battle without using food anyway.

Again, none of these mechanics feels really essential. For the most part Kakarot is very easy, and the few difficulty spikes I came across were easily cleared by going into battle with a healing item ready. The RPG elements feel tacked on, especially the idea of Goku and friends “leveling up.” Levels are an arbitrary measure of experience and power in most RPGs, but DBZ already has something like that — it’s called a Power Level. Why not just use that? So many questions.

Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot

The Legend of the $uper $aiyan

As a childhood DBZ fan, I have played a lot of games based on the series. From ROMs of French SNES fighting games to MUDs to imported PS1 titles to Quake hacks, I’ve seen far too many to count over the last couple of decades. I tell you this not to establish my series cred but to make my perspective on Kakarot clear — to me, it doesn’t bring much new to the table, and what it does isn’t interesting.

There are moments of joy to be found in the game, to be sure. I screamed the first time I saw Vegeta whip out a fishing rod on Namek, and encountering the oft-forgotten Launch as Gohan was a treat. But these instances were few and far between, glittering specks in a game based on a series that’s long since been mined for all it’s worth.

Give me a Dragon Ball Z: Piccolo. What was he up to in between Dragon Ball and DBZ? Give me a Dragon Ball Z: Yamcha, a game about the strongest Earthling in the world who still has zero impact on a cosmic scale. Hell, why not Dragon Ball Z: Mr. Satan, about the World’s Greatest Martial Artist slash scammer who befriends a superpowered genie and ultimately saves the earth in the final battle of the series? There is so much in the franchise that hasn’t been explored and sadly probably never will be.

I just want to see Dragon Ball games about literally anyone but Goku. Depending on the depiction, he’s either Superman or a selfish guy who just wants to be the strongest dude around, and neither of those are interesting. But if it has to be about him — and it probably does — why not an adaptation of Super? I just don’t understand why, in the year of our Supreme Kai 2020, we’re still getting games about the series. It’s money, right? It’s money. But is this what Goku would want?

This review is based on a dozen hours with the game, which took me into the Android saga. Very little changed mechanically or presentation-wise during that time.