I have always enjoyed Akira Toriyama’s outrageously popular Dragon Ball Z series. The art work is great, the characters varied and the action throughout quite unlike anything else on TV. The videogames though? Well, they’ve always come up a little short haven’t they. While rarely anything less than competent, whether developed by Dimps, Media.Vison or Tenkaichi’s very own, Spike, the Dragon Ball series of videogames has always struggled to match up the show’s famously epic battles to a set of mechanics that deliver the speed and pyrotechnics fans of the series would expect with a tangible control scheme that gives the player adequate control of their actions.
Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi, while failing to nail that much sought after balance, does come closer to achieving that lofty goal than any of its predecessors while delivering a ton of content and, without question, the finest visuals yet seen in a Dragon Ball videogame.
Now, I don’t want to get carried away, but I really can’t stress enough just how utterly fantastic this game looks. The Dragon Ball videogames have always been an attractive bunch but this one leaves even the most recent offerings looking decidedly last-gen. From the incredible animations, beautiful locations and fantastically drawn cast of characters through to the epic scale battles and real time environmental damage, it’s hard to imagine anyone coming up with a better looking Dragon Ball videogame. It really is getting to the point at which additional processing power wouldn’t be able to improve on what has been delivered here. Other than potentially improving from an artistic standpoint (goodluck with that), I simply don’t see how technical advancements could push the visuals forward. It already looks better than the show on which it is based, and unless someone wants to go for a more realistic visual style, it feels like Ultimate Tenkaichi may have reached the ceiling from a visual standpoint.
In fact, the only potential improvement I can actually think of is in the game’s environmental damage. While already extremely impressive, this damage often disappears after a large strike has taken place, thus leaving the stage back in its original form. Emergent gameplay built out of ever changing environments seems like the next logical step and surely the only way that this game could look any better than it already does.
Improved visuals aren’t what’s going to keep fans happy though – it’s the improved gameplay. Getting that balance between being visually respective of the source material while also delivering combat mechanics that feel varied and responsive is obviously the key concern of any developer taking on the franchise, and, in fairness to Spike, they have made a very decent stab at it. While still based around that familiar mix of close quarter fighting and long ranged, projectile based combat, Ultimate Tenkaichi does a better job than ever of bringing these two forms together into one seamless battle system.
Although initially daunting for any newcomers, the battle system isn’t actually all that complex once you get used to it. Both forms of combat are made up of weak and strong attacks with combos and special moves used to keep the battles flowing. The core of this comes from Ki and Spirit meter management – utilising these allow you to pull off the scenery destroying energy blasts while also contributing to the all new ‘Attack Clash’ system. This system allows you to pull off huge combos by delivering on-screen prompts mid-attack. These are essentially glorified QTEsthat allow the game to deliver all the visual panache that the series is famous for while still making you feel involved in each move’s success. While this doesn’t exactly equate to the full control fans will have been hoping for, it’s certainly visually arresting and contributes greatly to the game’s hit and miss counter system.
By initiating an ‘Attack Clash’, you leave yourself open to reversals due to the 50/50 nature of the attack. While brilliant when pulled off, having one reversed on the flip of a coin when you are the one doing the attacking can prove hugely infuriating. The same goes for the ‘Recover’ system. If on the receiving end of one of these beastly combos, you can mash the buttons like a lunatic to break the combo. While a great idea on paper (being pummelled with no chance of response would be a depressing experience), the whole system feels far too vague to be of any great use…..vague or not though, it won’t stop you smashing the buttons until your fingers and thumb are red raw.
The biggest problem with the combat however, and one that has plagued the series since its inception, is the lack of variety. The amount of moves in any one battle may seem extremely varied but the problem arises when you realise that you are using the exact same techniques regardless of which fighter you choose. Be it Goku, Vagete or Piccolo, each of their moves may be visually unique but on an underlying mechanical level, there is very little difference between any of them. Once you learn the basics, regardless of your chosen fighter or the enemy being faced, your actual strategy isn’t likely to change.
Before getting too bogged down with criticising the game though, I must stress that, despite its problems, Ultimate Tenkaichi really is a great deal of fun. The first few hours in particular are almost mesmerising. The battles themselves run at an electric pace and look utterly fantastic. They’re fast, fluid and quite unlike anything else the fighting genre has to offer. The combination of close quarter and ranged combat feels genuinely unique thanks to the scale of each battle and the power of some of the more ridiculous attacks available. It’s just a shame that when the initial wow factor wears off, the games cracks and underlying lack of depth start to become more apparent.
One thing that can’t be criticised, however, is the game’s huge amount of content. While home to basic exhibition battles, a Tournament Mode (essentially Ultimate Tenkaichi’s arcade mode) and a very competent online offering, it’s the array of story modes that really steal the show. With a collection of story modes covering all of the major Dragon Ball franchises, and one unique story mode based around your own custom created character, Ultimate Tenkaichi truly delivers an embarrassment of riches for fans of the series.
Playing through the key moments of each series is great fun and the inclusion of clips from the original anime is a very nice touch. The boss battles are literally beyond belief, with epic battles against the outrageously over-sized types of Giant Ape Vegeta adding another unique twist to this already distinctive fighter. The only problem, is that far too much of the story is told via scrolling text which, given the visual nature of the show, is highly disappointing. Oh, and before I forget to mention it – the load times are far too long. They’re not the worst I have encountered this generation, but they’re certainly up there. Still, excessive reading and long loading times aside, the numerous story modes deliver the oft told stories well and, if nothing else, are a great excuse to revisit your favourite moments from each series once again.
Beyond the giant boss battles, the big new addition for Ultimate Tenkaichi, and one that will surely get Dragon Ball fans excited, is the introduction of Hero Mode. Using your created character, built from a decent selection of Akira Toriyama templates, Hero Mode tasks you with taking on a whole new story while beefing up your Saiyan’s battle stats in the process. While actually considerably shorter than the core Story Mode, Hero Mode’s unique story and levelling abilities make it an appealing and potentially addictive proposition – believe me, if you’re a fan of the series, it won’t be long until you are hooked on building your puny fighter into a true Super Saiyan warrior.
It might not deliver that perfect balance fans had been hoping for, and the lack of depth that has so often plagued this series still sullies the game’s long term appeal, but despite these issues, Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi is a unique, outrageously beautiful and highly entertaining fighter. It has more content than anyone could have realistically hoped for and the chance to create your own Super Saiyan in that classic, Akira Toriyama visual style is something no fan of the Dragon Ball universe will want to miss out on.
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