Punch this in the Dragon Balls.
If you haven't read my 'D' review for Dragon Ball Z: Infinite World, don't worry... you're not missing much. Having watched every episode of Dragon Ball Z and owning nearly the entire series on VHS (yep, that's a lot of tapes), I can't deny the Saiyan within me and say I'm not a fan of one of the most important Japanese animations in history. However, I cringe whenever a Dragon Ball title manages to creep its way inside of a mailing envelope that I have to open. What? No one else on our staff is into Dragon Ball? Am I the only one? Yep, get the Asian guy to review the Asian games that have Asian men screaming attacks with Asian names. I see where this is going.
Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi is yet another Dragon Ball Z title, another filler game to satisfy the annual allotment of franchises based on Japanese animes, like Naruto or Bleach or whatever Shonen Jump is into these days. The default response by a critic to these games should be one of vacant numbness—and rightfully so. How many times do we need to follow the story of Dragon Ball Z until we realize it's just a vehicle for over-muscular alpha males to fly, grunt, yell, blast energy balls, hit each other, literally go all ape-****, and do anything but real martial arts for the sake of a power fantasy. In fact, removing all the dialogue would probably make the series better, but at the very least, there's an option to select the Japanese dialogue for Story Mode. Not hearing the English dubbing usually makes any Japanese animation much easier to not turn off.
If there's anything remotely redeeming about Ultimate Tenkaichi, it's that the story follows the series canon to the letter, all with gorgeous cel-shaded animations that unsurprisingly makes the entire world look like Dragon Quest VIII. (I have no idea, though, why “Dragon Ball Z” is in the game title when characters from Dragon Ball GT are included, but anywho...) The main mode goes through the Saiyan, Freeza, Cell, and Buu sagas (plus a piece of Dragon Ball GT) without skimping on too many details, moving along at a steady pace without any unnecessary side missions or cut-scenes where the environment gets blown up for the zillioneth time. Ultimate Tenkaichi even goes as far as giving the enemy a free energy attack to wipe out the player's character if that's what happens in the actual story. It's annoyingly authentic and conjures the question as to why there's a fight at all, but changing the plot would be blasphemous.
The trouble, though, is that the combat system seems to have taken one too many shots to the proverbial balls. What made Dragon Ball Z Budokai 3 a fairly solid fighting title has been steadily stripped of its vitality in the last several years, and it has been watered down to what is now a repetitive, luck-based mashfest that wants to be complex but has little depth. Given a few hours of playtime, several layers of strategy begin to emerge and the first few fights can be fast and furious, but the monotony soon drags the combat out.
The worst offender is that all of the characters essentially have the same moveset: the same attacks at 2D melee range, the same attacks at over-the-shoulder 3D blast range, two energy Super Attacks, and one energy Ultimate Attack that can be activated once the player's or the opponent's health bar is low. Dismissing the fact that Krillin shouldn't really be able to do anything to Perfect Cell, any fighter can knock out any other fighter by stringing some overly powerful chain combos and spending spirit energy on Super Attacks. Balancing the character roster is the foundation of any strong fighting title, but doing it by making every fighter the same except for their appearance is a weak way to achieve that.
The other notable offender is that winning boils down to coin flips and roshambo. Chain combos inflict thousands of points in damage, and performing them requires the player to press the button that the opponent doesn't. Get it right and the chain combo goes into auto-drive for about twenty seconds as the opponent gets pulverized. Get it wrong and it's just one light counterattack, so the reward is overwhelming in the favor of the player who gets the chain combo in first. That means working with a priority system that is as basic as possible: guard beats light attack, heavy attack beats guard, and light attack beats heavy attack. Other than that, players are limited to guarding, building ki, and moving around. That's about it.
There are no complex inputs, no intricate zoning methods, no demanding controls that would scare its intended audience away. Those who care or who read the tutorial will figure out that chain combos with the light attack drain ki more, chain combos with the heavy attack build energy extremely fast, and evading an opponent's Super Attack successfully usually means building ki high enough to activate the intercept defense. None of this makes the fighting any less tedious. Taken all together, the combat system is intense for the first ten matches or so before slowly degrading into a predictable slog.
Matches are only difficult when they're made to made to be difficult artificially. As mentioned before, Story Mode will sometimes give an enemy a Super Attack out of nowhere, even when the enemy has no spirit energy whatsoever. But nothing explains this issue better than the new Hero mode, which asks the player to create a Saiyan hero who must save a parallel Earth world by collecting the seven Dragon Balls. Unlike Story Mode, players can't choose a difficulty setting for Hero mode, which only exacerbates the problem. It's really a shame, because character customization is what fans have been clamoring for.
At first, Hero mode starts off easy, with battles against lowly Saiyamen and Cell Jr., but then halfway through, opponents jump ahead in strength and health to the point that they deal double the damage that the player. Or the player must face a handicapped tag team match of two, sometimes three, opponents. And that usually happens during “sparring” matches that are meant to be for training. Maybe all of this is meant to encourage players to grind, but going through thirty matches just to rank up one stat is like electing for
a test of fanboy pride torture.
From there, Ultimate Tenkaichi only evokes more questions: Why bother having a World Map when the only two options are to fight and to collect an item? What's the point of “sparring” matches in Hero mode when about 75 percent of them don't yield any rewards or stat increases? Why are Ape battles riddled with quick-time events and fought on a platform when Saiyans can... FLY?! Why do loading screens have a meaningless mini-game where capsules can be shot down to a cloudy backdrop? Why are the loading screens so long in the first place? Actually, why does this game feel like it was made for the PS2? Why does the soundtrack sound like it belongs in Sonic Adventure? (I need a Senzu Bean.)
My inner fanboy wants to dismiss all the complaints by shouting that Super Saiyan Level 4 Gogeta is indeed playable this time around, but the critic in me knows better. Though the character customization may be enough for fans to spend hours in Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi without complaint, the limited combat system doesn't encourage much thought. Preventing projectile spamming by employing quick-time events and coin flips merely replaces one problem with another. A cleaner, skillful, more polished fighting system would, ultimately, have been better.
Review is based on X360 version. Copy provided by publisher.