Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot full review

There's been no shortage of Dragon Ball games over the years but quality has been decidedly up and down - even in the last couple of years FighterZ was a breakout phenomenon, while the manga crossover Jump Force definitely underwhelmed.

On the strength of playing chunks of the game at E3 and Gamescom, I’m cautiously optimistic that Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is one of the good ones - not least because it seems to be making efforts to nail the tone of the series while taking on the unenviable challenge of forcing the story into a videogame-y shape. 

Kakarot is coming out ‘early 2020’ on PS4, Xbox One, and PC, but I got to play two separate sections: one early on in the game, leading up to Goku and Piccolo’s combined fight with Raditz to rescue Gohan; and another from later on, as I controlled Gohan in his final fight with Perfect Cell.

Originally announced only as ‘Project Z’, Kakarot is a single-player action RPG that lets you play as Goku and others (Kakarot is Goku’s Saiyan name, for the non-nerds reading) through the core Dragon Ball Z storyline - starting from the same point as the manga and anime, and going at least up until the end of the Cell Saga, and hopefully beyond - after all, it would be odd for them to have let me play the game's very final fight.

If none of that means anything to you then there’s a very real chance that Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot isn’t the game for you. As a re-telling of the Dragon Ball Z storyline it’s very possible that it will operate as a nice jumping in point for new fans, but that really doesn’t feel like the target audience here.

From the involvement of series creator Akira Toriyama down to the inclusion of a number of niche characters from the original Dragon Ball series (pre-Z, that is) this is obviously a labour of love aimed at capturing the core Dragon Ball feeling.

Most excitingly, that comes down to the heart of the series’ combat: entirely uneven fights. A fighting game like FighterZ obviously has to round every combatant down to the same level to give C-tier heroes a chance against the series’ baddest of bads. Kakarot doesn’t.

The RPG format helps here. Both the Z fighters and their opponents have levels (power levels, if you will…) meaning it’s entirely possible to run up against an opponent that out-levels you. In the E3 demo Raditz was higher level than either Goku or Piccolo, but the two together were enough to take him out - just.

It helps the fight feel closer to how it should - as Piccolo steps out of the fight to power up his Special Beam Cannon I was left scrambling to defend against Raditz’s attacks, just about staying in the fight long enough to whittle his health down enough to trigger the next story beat - but it was a close run thing.

That combat can take place both on the ground and in mid-air, with the usual mix of light attacks, ranged Ki blasts, special attacks (activated by combining the left trigger and the face button), and both block and dodge options. Ki blasts and specials burn through the Ki meter, and you’ll need to sporadically get a bit of distance to top it up.

The camera struggled occasionally to keep up - getting stuck right behind Goku or Gohan at points, especially closer to the ground - but for the most part Kakarot handles the 3D fighting well. Triggering melee attacks will automatically lunge you at your current target, closing the distance quickly, saving you from worrying about navigating too precisely.

This isn’t quite the tight, polished combat of FighterZ, but then it isn’t trying to be. Moving into a fully 3D space introduces a certain looseness, but it also allows Kakarot to embrace the scale and fluidity of the anime’s biggest battles as you knock opponents across the map. And I promise, that at least is exactly as satisfying as you hope it’ll be.

Combat isn’t solely limited to big boss fights. The E3 demo set at the beginning of the game included a semi-open world, dotted with combat drones to fight along the way. This is one of the touches that feels slightly less authentic, but will make more sense in some sections of the story - it’s easy to imagine Namek occupied by Frieza’s forces to fight.

There’s more than just fighting too. The open environment includes side quests, hunting, fishing, and more, though this is where the game feels weakest right now. The one side quest I followed was little more than a chain of trades between characters, and felt like total busywork. I can’t help but worry that Kakarot will take not only the best of the anime, but also the worst, and pad out the runtime with dreaded filler.

It’s also not clear how the devs plan to handle the fact that Goku isn’t actually around for a lot of the main plot of the series. While early promos suggested that the game would follow Goku closely, it's now clear that you'll be able to play as Gohan, Vegeta, and more. That makes a lot of sense for following the anime's story, but I'm not sure how well it will suit the RPG side of things, as there's no sign of a traditional party system, and Namco has mostly stayed quiet about how levelling and progression will work.

Early verdict

The small slices of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot I’ve played offer a lot of hope - with a few hesitations.

The combat is almost spot-on, and feels like the most authentic videogame recreation of Dragon Ball Z’s epic smackdowns yet - arguably the most important thing for this game to offer - and the fact that it now looks like most of the roster of classic heroes will be playable gives me even more hope for what's to come.

It’s just a shame that the RPG elements feel weaker, and I fear there’ll be a lot of time wasted on dull errands and flat mini-games between all those brilliant battles. Let’s hope those elements get beefed up in the time between now and the game’s 2020 release.