If you’re a Dragon Ball Z fan, you know the drill by now: powerful fighter appears, Earth’s “most powerful” fighters wait for Goku to show up, Goku either obliterates the enemy and/or is badly wounded and his son or a substitute fighter must save the day. The universe is safe, until another terrifying enemy makes their way to the now-defenseless planet. Training ensues and the cycle begins anew. Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi is as familiar with this as the most passionate DBZ fan (yours truly included) and has sought to bring fans the most faithful experience to the series as humanly possible, with an admirably true-to-the-narrative story mode and plenty of fan service to satiate those hungry for more of their favorite Saiyans, Namekians, and humans. However, in its attempts to create one of the most comprehensive Dragon Ball Z experiences, it loses most of what made its predecessors great.
Let’s talk about how fantastic this game looks. Developer Spike knows what fans want, and it shows here. This isn’t their first rodeo, and they absolutely nail the aesthetics of Akira Toriyama’s infamous universe in every possible way. Across Story, Hero, Training, and several other modes of play, colors pop and your favorite heroes and villains come to life in ways you never thought possible. Gorgeously detailed cel-shading and three-dimensional modeling evoke feelings of actually watching the series rather than playing it, and this becomes especially evident when you step back and take in the fact that these characters change expressions, suffer damage to their person, and move the exact same way you would expect them to if you were still watching the show back in its Toonami heyday.
In addition, you’re treated to luscious re-drawn scenes ripped straight from the anime — think Dragon Ball Kai with slightly altered dialogue and additional banter between your favorite characters. Rather than pre-rendered cut scenes, at some points you simply sit back and take in some gorgeous animation. In these moments Ultimate Tenkaichi truly shines. If you were to sell this release on attention to detail and nostalgia value alone, it’d rise in the ranks at an astronomical rank. Unfortunately, when you get past the glossy exterior and to actually playing through what seem like beautifully epic battles, you see the game for what it actually is: an exercise in mediocrity.
Ultimate Tenkaichi likes to trick you into thinking you’re playing a game with a lot more substance than you actually are. Let’s take Story Mode, for example. While you’re treated to extensive scenes and the aforementioned anime cinematics as you progress, the beginning of each “saga” comes with a wall of text and hasty screen-grabs that practically beg you to skip them. These text transitions actually run down an excess amount of time between one event to the next, so while it seems as though you’re actually experiencing a good part of the DBZ narrative, you’re actually missing quite a bit. Not just that, but you’re often tasked with recreating a futile fight — Yamcha and Tien versus Saibamen — you probably know how well that works out. It seems like a waste of time to be forced into situations such as those where you have no choice but to fall in battle so the story can advance, even though you’re doing just swimmingly when it comes to the actual fight.
And it can always seem like you’re doing far more than you actually are when brawling. In actuality, you’re best served wailing on the analog sticks and X or Y buttons. The hyper-cinematic battle system allows you to perform each character’s signature attacks, whether physical or energy-based, and no matter what you choose to pull ot of your arsenal, both your opponent and the beautifully detailed environments will feel it. And in all actuality, there really isn’t a lot of work required on your part to advance through the ranks. “Knock-Back Chains” and “Chain Attacks” fill the majority of time spent actually inputting commands with scenes featuring either your character or your enemy being sent into the air, knocked into the ground, or into the huge crater formed by your special attack.
All of these moves depend on a few simple button presses and “guessing” your opponent’s moves that equate to having good luck more often than not. Counters, dodges, and defensive moves require a good amount of button mashing and quicktime events that usually end up in more damage being knocked off your usually astronomically high score than necessary. In a nutshell, rather than the intense battles you may have enjoyed of Raging Blast or the Budokai games, you’re gambling on a roll of the dice and spamming the same buttons over and over. In a word, it’s boring. And when you have an entire story mode to complete while repeating the same combo strings (well beyond a mere couple of hours), you tend to want to quit and play something else.
When the main draw of the game fails miserably like that, the rest of the robust feature set suffers as well. Who cares if you can create your own Saiyan to play through your own alternate universe story, gain XP, and earn new moves if the battle process is so mind-numbingly boring you can’t even stomach Story mode? You can play online and via tournament modes as well as return to watch previous cinematics and edit characters, so there’s an abundance of content should you choose to take advantage of it, as well as a cornucopia of familiar characters. There is not, however, any real drive or immediacy to the gameplay that you’ll actually want to take Ultimate Tenkaichi up on its generous offer of playtime.
It’s a shame, because every other aspect of the game is actually spot-on. Even if you’re not a fan of the dub, the voice actors give great performances. The original Japanese soundtrack is retained in lieu of the dub’s abhorrent tracks, and everything works together in a brilliant symphony to bring you the best Dragon Ball Z game ever…but then fails miserably when it comes to being entertaining. It seems the Dragon Ball franchise continues its string of extreme highs and lows. This super-fan hopes for a sequel in the future that really knocks it out of the park, but it seems like Shenron may not be able to grant that wish.