Review: Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi

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Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi is a snazzy title. But I have a couple other titles that more aptly describe the actual content of the game. Ultimate Dragon Ball Z For Dummies is a good one. Or how about Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Rock, Paper, Scissors Showdown? Yeah, I like that one better!

Ultimate Tenkaichi is the latest in a long and typically solid line of Dragon Ball Z anime fighting games from Namco Bandai. I hesitate to even classify Ultimate Tenkaichi as a fighting game though, because it doesn’t deserve to be in the same genre as games like Street Fighter, Tekken, and Virtua Fighter — or even previous Dragon Ball Z games for that matter.

Let me walk you through the combat system real quick. Your chosen fighter lines up on one side, directly opposite from your opponent. That’s normal for a fighting game. When the bout begins, you can walk and fly around the arena in full 3D — up, down, side to side, and all around. To fight, Square is your workhouse Rush melee/ranged attack for combos, Triangle is your one-hit Smash attack mainly used as a defense breaker, Cross is your dash move, and holding down Circle activates automated defensive maneuvers. Again, that’s all standard.

However, when a fight actually begins, all forms of control are essentially stripped away from the player. Every single fight unfolds exactly the same way. You mash the Square button for a basic combo attack until a button prompt pops onto the screen giving you the choice to enter an elaborate chain attack sequence by pressing Square or Triangle. This is a ‘rock, paper, scissors’ choice – if you guess the correct button the attack continues and you proceed to watch a flashy barrage of explosions and Ki blasts splash across the screen, only tilting the analog stick and pressing the same button as the chain starter to modify the attack as prompted. If you hit the same button as the opponent, they counter and the combo ends. Then you repeat the same process until the fight ends, hopefully with your chosen DBZ warrior standing proud in victory.

Defending attacks is even sketchier. When you guess wrong and get sucked into a chain attack, the game prompts you to mash the hell out of every face button on the controller. If you mash them hard enough, you may just break the combo in mid-stride. But it’s all so random. Defending against Super and Ultimate attacks is similarly condensed into QTEs and ‘rock, paper, scissors’ mechanics. With a special attack on the way, two things can happen: Sometimes you’ll be prompted to press either left or right on the analog stick to determine if you dodge the initial attack or not. At other times up to three button options will be displayed, depending on how fully you’ve charged your Ki gauge (while standing idle, holding the down arrow on the d-pad charges Ki), and you have the choice to block, evade or deflect the attack. Then guess what happens? Yup, each option leads to some form of a QTE sequence to determine success/failure.

I understand that a Dragon Ball Z game needs to be skewed to a younger, more casual oriented demographic. But that doesn’t mean the developers had to make a game that damn near plays itself. If I were a hardcore Dragon Ball Z fan (I’m not, but at this point I have watched the anime and played enough of the games to establish a fair point of reference), I would be offended at the developer’s lack of trust in my skill and intelligence to grasp a standard fighting engine. As it stands, the fighting system is so shallow and devoid of balance, refinement and strategy. You don’t need to learn move sets because all characters control exactly the same. You don’t need to master any of the controls because everything boils down to one or two button presses and a roll of the dice. Pretty much everything a fighting game needs in order to function is nowhere to be found. You literally have more control during the loading screen mini-game in which you move a cursor across the screen and shoot at capsules like a shooting gallery until the battle begins. But even those come so frequently that you’ll wish there was something to be gained for your participation.

Worse still, the ‘rock, paper, scissors’ QTE approach means luck of the draw wins out over actual player skill. When it’s easy and you’re winning, it’s a reasonably fun anime brawlin’ spectacle for a fight or two, before quickly becoming a mind numbing bore. But as the fights get tougher and you end up failing because cheap AI and luck of the draw take over, the game pushes you to unhealthy levels of frustration.

Ultimate Tenkaichi sure is light on gameplay, but two things it does have in droves are style and modes. Although dreadfully simplistic from a control perspective, the battles are often spectacular to behold. Dragon Ball Z’s manga origins are authentically represented through game’s use of cel-shaded polygonal graphics, bright colors and showering particle effects that burst forth as series icons do battle over mountains, oceans and grassy plains.

HD cutscenes pulled from the anime are used for plot advancement throughout the lengthy story mode, which consists of right around 50 battles and is likely to take around 10 hours or so to complete. I only say likely because I couldn’t stomach the combat system long enough to see exactly how long it lasts. It’s a policy of mine to never call a game quits before the credits roll, but after roughly five hours and 30 battles, each the same as the one before it, I couldn’t take the boredom any longer. I did, however, sink a handful of hours into completing the Hero mode, a secondary story in which you get to create your own fighter and customize his skills and appearance. The character creation isn’t incredibly deep, but you do get to earn experience and level up stats sort of like an RPG, and traditional pattern-based boss fights break up the monotony of the standard bouts.

Outside of these main story modes, you can play quick one-on-one or team battles and 16-character tournaments, or engage other real players in online battles of ‘who can guess and push the correct button more than the other’, unlocking new maps, costumes, movies, songs, and entries in the character profile encyclopedia as your Dragon Ball Z career progresses.

Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi is overflowing with tens of hours of storylines and unlockable goodies, but the core of the gameplay is so fundamentally flawed and dumbed down to the point where the flickering glimmers of hope that do exist become shrouded in a darkness of frustrating QTEs and luck-of-the-draw button presses.

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Pros:
+ Gorgeous manga-style graphics, animations and anime cutscenes
+ Good amount of modes and unlockables

Cons:
– Horrible ‘rock, paper, scissors’ QTE-based combat system
– No depth or nuance to the fighting mechanics whatsoever
– Limited character customization in Hero mode
– Frequent capsule-shooting load times

Game Info:
Platform: Reviewed on PS3; also available for Xbox 360
Publisher: Namco Bandai
Developer: Spike Co. Ltd.
Release Date: 10/25/2011
Genre: Fighting
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-8 (1-2 offline, 2-8 online)
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!