The outside world may see the Dragon Ball Z series as an explosive, ridiculous anime all about punches, energy balls, screaming, and power levels over 9,000. Fans certainly recognize that a good, over-the-top battle is key to the series, but we also know that Dragon Ball Z is more than bad guys angrily punching each other. It’s about hours and hours of filler content — time spent watching characters charge up for a few episodes instead of actually fighting, or Piccolo and Goku learning to drive a car. The majority of the time is spent on the things that happen between the fights, and those moments were almost always glossed over in the games.
Embracing that filler mostly works in Kakarot’s favor, but may actually make it harder to sell the game to anyone who isn’t already a fan of the show.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot feels like playing through the series, not just the highlights
From the very start, Kakarot tells you what it’s all about. After a brief training battle and some story cutscenes, Kakarot drops me into the shoes of Goku to go forth and finish my quest. But instead of heading directly into another battle against a new foe, I’m standing on a trail, watching Goku’s young son, Gohan, toddle into the sunset looking for apples. I follow behind him, collecting apples as father and son.
We fish together, make a hot meal on the fire, fly around the world collecting resources on our Flying Nimbus cloud, and head back home to meet with Chi-Chi, Goku’s wife. This isn’t the exact rhythm of the anime’s opening episode, but it’s pretty close. I’m not having fun yet, but the perfect re-creation of the world has me hooked.
As always in Dragon Ball Z, some form of danger eventually rises and must be dealt with, but not before Master Roshi sends me on a side quest to find his dirty picture book, stolen by the talking sea turtle named Turtle (who Goku accidentally and exclusively calls Tortoise). I run around the small island, talk to Turtle, and click on a glowing patch of sand to reclaim the book for Master Roshi. When the action starts back up, I group up with Piccolo to hunt down Raditz — Goku’s surprise space brother, who’s kidnapped Gohan and wants to destroy the Earth.
Fans are likely nodding their heads along with this description, and they may or may not realize how ridiculous this all sounds to someone who hasn’t watched the show for years. But that’s kind of the point: The games used to be in a rush to get to the “good stuff,” but Kakarot is comfortable mirroring the flow and pace of the show itself. Fans may get more of what they love about the source material, and newcomers are going to get a lot more of the weird stuff, for better or worse.
For example, I stop off to do a few favors for old Dragon Ball characters — like Eighter, the peace loving android that looks like Frankenstein’s monster, despite Gohan being in mortal danger. Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is more interested in the series’ world and characters than it is the mortal peril of its heroes, which both lowers the stakes while heightening the fan service. It’s a strange mixture, for sure, but I don’t hate it.
After Raditz and Goku both die — and Raditz reveals the upcoming threat of two Saiyans more powerful than he is, Nappa and Vegeta — Piccolo takes Gohan to train, and the real filler begins. Get ready to hunt, cook, fish, train, and wait for the next big battle.
Why the filler works
At the end of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot’s opening Saiyan saga — which took me about six or seven hours to complete — I’m seven of 33 chapters through the game. In the intermission between the Saiyan and Frieza saga, I spend a lot of time hunting, looking for apples — evidently the only fruit on this version of Earth — and sparring with other Z fighters.
Previous Dragon Ball Z games spend very little time on this year-long training session. It takes hours to move between fighting Raditz and fighting the two other Saiyan warriors in Kakarot, and you’re busy with odd jobs that entire time. For comparison, Nappa is the second fight in the beloved Dragon Ball Z: Budokai fighting game, with Raditz as the first.
But the in-game year of training isn’t exciting to play, and most of the sections between the Raditz and Nappa fights are just boring. I run around the world of Dragon Ball Z completing side quests for some of Dragon Ball’s side characters. These aren’t the filler quests I originally expected, where you might see Yamcha playing baseball, like in the show. These are boring fetch quests, like hunting six gazelle, which involves sprinting up to them and pressing the Circle or B button.
The actual missions aren’t terribly fun either, also asking you to grab ingredients for food or hunt a dinosaur in a bizarre mini-game. Some missions let you spar with other warriors training for battle, but too much of the training period feels like nothing is happening. However the dialogue is often funny and charming in these missions, including one of the stupider side missions where Piccolo is convinced Yajirobe wants to fight him.
In the show, this section feels like everyone is wasting time, trying to get stronger while they wait for the Saiyans — and it feels the exact same way in Kakarot. That may sound like a deal-breaker, but as a longtime fan, there’s enough fan service and big fights to keep me going — always thinking about playing more.
Without the funny, quiet moments of the show, or the introspective explanation of training philosophies, Dragon Ball’s characters just seem like muscles with spiky hair. Just like the show, some of the non-essential filler can be boring, but it gives me a better connection to my heroes and their friends. As a fan, that feels worth my time, even if I’m not exactly having fun doing it.
But is it good?
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is an enjoyable Dragon Ball Z game, but that determination assumes you know and love Dragon Ball Z already.
Kakarot captures the show’s weird pace and energy perfectly — better than any Dragon Ball game before. The characters monologue at one another for a long time, and King Kai occasionally yells at me through the speaker on my PS4 controller. Normally, a fun Dragon Ball Z game sends me spiraling into wanting to re-watch the show for the dozenth time, absorbing all the details I missed during the game. But Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is all encompassing, and a 2020 watchthrough seems redundant after playing the game.
As a video game, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is competent. Flying around the world takes some getting used to. But with practice, you can soar just like Goku and friends in the anime, even if it’s just to see how the massive Dragon Ball Z world fits together and to collect upgrade orbs. The combat is also more complex than it originally seems. There’s only one button for punching, but the combination of dodges, punches, Ki blasts, and special moves manages to keep fights fresh and, occasionally, challenging. The real meat of the game is still the combat, and the combat is still competitive with some of the better brawlers out there.
The new RPG systems like the Community Board, where I earn the trust of Goku’s friends by taking on side missions, is exciting enough to make me feel like I’m growing my fighter during the game. Taking my character through battles and side missions also gives me XP, which levels up my stats. And collecting orbs around the open world — not dissimilar to the Crackdown series — gives me currency to upgrade my abilities on the skill tree. Fishing, hunting, and gathering ingredients feels like a chore, but the meals you make from those ingredients offer permanent stat rewards as well, so it’s always worth it.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot isn’t a disaster, but it also isn’t the first Dragon Ball Z game that I would recommend to friends uninterested in the anime. I thought this was my chance to get my wife into Dragon Ball Z, but the glacial pace of some of these chapters aren’t helping.
For Dragon Ball Z fans, it’s a delight to see this world come to life in a game, especially one that doesn’t just ferry you from fight to fight. Instead of punching your way through every problem, Kakarot offers a chance for me to spend real time in the first fantasy world I ever loved as a child. What might have been boring in any other setting I found calming due to its familiarity, and the relative novelty of seeing this aspect of such an overblown fantasy recreated so well in a game.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is mediocre as a game, but as a Dragon Ball experience, a sort of “show simulator,” it’s exactly what fans like myself have hoped for. I guess what I’m finding out is that a game based this closely on the show may not have ever been the best idea.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot launches Jan. 17 for PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed using a final “retail” download code provided by Bandai Namco. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.