I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Dragon Ball Z. On the one hand it was my entry into the world of anime, and so there’s a sense of sentimentality towards the property as well as my love for some of the plotlines and characters. On the other hand, it’s full of missteps and a power scale that kind of crumbles under its own weight (a problem further exacerbated in Dragon Ball Super) and a sense of time that rivals my dad’s time management skills. I both love and hate it for how stupid it can be – it’s part of the charm for me. As far as the franchise’s video game adaptations have gone, I’ve found myself quite enjoying the likes of Xenoverse 2 and FighterZ for their own unique ideas, but haven’t really played anything in a while that lets me truly live out all of the moments from the show. This is where Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot aimed to change things. A large-scale RPG set within the timeline of Dragon Ball Z from its very first saga to the very last saga is right up my alley, and yet I can’t help but feel Kakarot (the game, not the character) could have and should have been so much more.
Kakarot places players in the shoes of various characters from Dragon Ball Z within their respective sagas. Being able to live the key moments of the different sagas is a fan’s dream and Kakarot does a great job at delivering this experience. Early on, there are some great choices made to the gameplay and pacing which serve as narrative devices. One of the earliest instances is when you first assume the role of Goku and are outside, going fishing with Gohan. Instead of tearing ahead like most games, you have to calmly walk around and learn the game at the same time. Not only does it serve as an effective tutorial phase but it also communicates the relationship and nature of both characters and it’s not something you really get to see in the show. To this end, Kakarot does an excellent job. Fans of Dragon Ball Z will absolutely relish the opportunity to place themselves in the shoes of the characters they love, and I am no different. My favourite moments from each of the sagas all translate quite well to a game, but this isn’t exactly news given how the Xenoverse games afforded the opportunity to play through some of the key moments in each saga (and even in other series’). I found myself really happy to be playing a real part in intense moments like Goku’s first transformation into Super Saiyan or when the Z-Fighters first witness Perfect Cell’s power.
Even though Kakarot does a great job of letting fans live through famous moments in the series, it does a bad job at the same time. Some of the best parts of any show or anime are the little details put into specific scenes that really cement the characters and their motives. Unfortunately, in an effort to be a little more respectful of the player’s time, the game either glances over these details or just straight-up skips past them. One of the best examples is during the Frieza Saga. When Goku sees that Vegeta has died, he acknowledges Vegeta’s ideals and shows how much respect he has for the Prince of All Saiyans by giving him a proper burial. It’s one of my favourite scenes in the whole series due to how perfectly it communicates Goku as a character, on top of all his actions during the same saga. In the game, however, this moment is completely skipped over and Vegeta’s body is just left there for the rest of the scene. The first Super Saiyan transformation also feels kinda dulled down as the framing doesn’t properly show how Goku is tapping into unfamiliar territory and power, rather it now feels he’s using power that he was holding back as a last resort which is not what the Super Saiyan transformation was. The game also skips over some details during the Great Saiyaman section, so now Videl almost stumbles across the revelation that Gohan is the “Golden Fighter” rather than actually cluing in properly like she does in the show – it completely undermines her sharp wit as a character and makes her seem pedantic and overbearing instead.
While Kakarot is a game mainly made for fans of Dragon Ball Z, it also makes absolutely no effort at easing people into the story or the world properly and this could not be more evident than with the side quests and memorial spots. Kakarot does this thing where it regularly references Dragon Ball, the series that came before Dragon Ball Z (naturally), whether that be through engaging with those characters, like Android 8 or Launch, or by reminiscing about events from the aforementioned series. Its done in a way that can feel like it’s coming out of nowhere, though. As someone who adores Dragon Ball (as well as Z and Super) I loved it, but it still felt incredibly disjointed. It also frustrated me as it felt like the game was acknowledging the existence of Dragon Ball while also pushing it to the wayside, like so many other games do. Perhaps an expansion which acts as a prologue and plays through the events of Dragon Ball would have been a better way to deliver those ideas, but I digress. With all of these missteps, Kakarot feels like a game that doesn’t fully understand how to be great for fans or for newcomers.
In terms of actual game design, Kakarot is pretty average. It features fairly run of the mill delta scaling, making it near-impossible to fight anything that’s a few levels higher than you are, which is frustrating. The game will happily throw in enemies that are of a significantly higher level, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It’s always cool when a game makes something available to you before you’re really ready and gives you the option to bash your face against a wall to try and beat something you perhaps shouldn’t be fighting yet. Kakarot does this brilliant thing where your damage dealt or received is multiplied or divided depending on how much higher or lower your level is compared to the opponent you are facing. It eventually caps out at a point where you’re doing an almost negligible amount of damage per hit, especially towards the later-game enemies that have over a million health or more. You don’t get to reasonable levels to fight these things until much later than when they originally appear, so that begs the question: why have the enemies up there in the first place if you can’t feasibly fight them until later? It’s not even a matter of grinding up to an appropriate level, as the experienced gained from general fights in the open world is so minimal that you’ll be spending hours getting yourself to the appropriate level every time. This is all without factoring in how the open world sections are designed. To put it bluntly – the open world is terrible. You’re placed within these large, empty areas that are just littered with Z-Orbs (a currency that is solely used for upgrading abilities) that just add a lot of visual noise to the scenery. The game quickly turns from an action RPG to a bloated collectathon and it, quite frankly, sucks. Most of the items in the open world can be picked up from proximity when flying around, too, so you don’t even have to properly explore areas. It just feels like the areas were made big for the sake of marketing how big the game is.
The standard world design isn’t even the end of it, either. As is to be expected with an RPG, there are a number of side quests and objectives to complete throughout different stages in the story. I’ll admit that some of these missions are really cool and fill in some of the details between the sagas, but there are others that are nothing more than meaningless fetch quests full of silly, silly writing. Most missions are a mix of fetch a few things, punch a few things, travel from point A to point B and not really anything else. Plus the world is made up of various, sizeable areas that aren’t linked to one another, so instead of streaming everything in like a normal open world, you’re forced to load in and out of each area – kinda like Borderlands but with far more loading. Even with the game installed on my PC’s M.2 SSD the loading screens were so prevalent that I was sick of them. To add further insult, there are sections in the more linear moments of the story where you’re placed in the open world and immediately corralled into going in a specific direction – what’s the point of placing me in an open world if I can’t explore?
As for visuals, Kakarot is both incredible and awful at the exact same time. The individual models for each main character like Gohan or Piccolo look incredible. You can very clearly see how much time and effort went into making sure they looked as accurate as possible, while also beefing up their details. I haven’t enjoyed the detail in anime-style character models like this in a long time. Everything else, however, is pretty average. Environmental details just aren’t very good, with quite a lot of the textures being muddy and low quality.. I found myself very unimpressed with those details while at the same time absolutely loving some other areas, like how lovely the grass can look once it’s rendered in. The grass waving in the wind in Namek reminded me of Breath of the Wild. The quality of the cutscenes in Kakarot is also incredibly inconsistent. Some cutscenes are pre-rendered and beef up the post-processing effects while running at 30 frames per second; others are in-game and so run at the game’s framerate, and then there are some plain terrible cutscenes that feel like they were recorded without any semblance of post-processing. Aliasing is a massive issue here as well, and everything just looks blurry. Also, the PC version of the game sadly doesn’t support high framerates, nor does it support ultrawide properly, it just has pillar boxing on the sides (and no one wants that). At least mods can work quite easily, I guess? It also ran perfectly fine for the entire time I was playing it.
Kakarot’s sound design is pretty decent at least, with most (if not all) of the sounds from the anime translating perfectly into the game. There were some odd moments where the sound design was either terrible or just nonexistent, though. During the Buu Saga for example, in the scene where Dabura appears before the Z-Fighters and the Kais, the sound effects were completely missing. As a result, things that should have had impact felt like nothing, followed by random grunting. Normally I’d be really into that, but this was neither the time nor the place for it.
The more I think about it, the more disappointed I find myself with Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot. It had all the right ingredients going in but it can’t help but feel incredibly undercooked. Like, if Gordon Ramsay were looking at it he would scream, “It’s fucking raw!!” While I do appreciate being able to actually play through the events of DBZ in the shoes of its characters, there are just so many shortcomings. Its world design, skipping of details and reliance on delta scaling hold back a game that is otherwise full of potential. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to recommend this game for either fans or newcomers, at least until it winds up in the bargain bin.
Reviewed on PS4 and PC // PS4 code supplied by publisher