The Dragon Ball franchise celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier in 2016, marking three decades of Super Saiyans, wish-granting dragons and power levels which have gone way beyond a paltry 9,000.
In addition to the original manga, an insanely popular anime adaptation and enough memorabilia to rival George Lucas’s Star Wars empire, Akira Toriyama’s zeitgeist-busting phenomenon has spawned a fair few video games. Like, a lot.
The present count sits at over 50, although around half of those never made it out of the series’ native region of Japan. The ones that did? Well, lets be polite and say that the quality has wavered over the years. Remember Dragon Ball Z: For Kinect? No? Count yourself lucky.
Dragon Ball Xenoverse was the last console outing for the Z Fighters and the universe’s motley band of self-aggrandising villains, releasing to moderate critical acclaim and an overall positive reception from ardent fans.
Its sequel, Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2, has cut ties with the last generation of consoles, optimising its semi-open-world gameplay for current platforms and allowing long-term series developer, Dimps, to craft what is apparently the largest Dragon Ball world ever created.
Having played a few hours of Xenoverse 2 I can certainly vouch for its brand authenticity: It is pure, unadulterated fan service.
From the inclusion of Japanese audio alongside a dub-track, the introduction of characters from Dragon Ball Super (which has not yet been officially released outside of Japan), or the simple fact that the game’s narrative literally transports you to, and tasks you with taking part in iconic events from Dragon Ball’s past, Xenoverse 2 is clearly written and crafted by fans, for fans.
In the main story, players navigate (usually by bolting around in the air) the fairly sizeable hub world of Conton City, which is littered with Capsule Corp references, classic characters such as Vegeta and Piccolo who are ready to put you through your paces as trainers and other characters populating the same online lobby.
Xenoverse 2 also improves on the avatar customisation from its predecessor, and while Bandai Namco is keeping the full extent of the game’s digital cosplay under wraps, there are multiple races and a seemingly endless amount of outfits to choose from in the final product. The RPG-lite elements also make a comeback, as you tool out your chosen hero with bizarrely named abilities like “QQ Bangs”.
As for the story itself, you play as a Time Patroller – an era-hopping enforcer-like role tasked with correcting anomalies along the Dragon Ball timeline. The ‘what ifs’ appear to be fertile ground for toying with established canon – Raditz dodging ‘that’ Special Beam Cannon and Frieza getting a little too close to victory on Namek, for example – but while there is a through-line story involving a mysterious threat to the Dragon Ball-verse it will be interesting to see whether the concept has any further hidden depth beyond ‘hey, remember when this happened?’
Away from the main quest lie several other modes, and it is here that Xenoverse 2 resembles something akin to the Budokai titles – the pinnacle of Dragon Ball games so far. Versus mode – both against friends in local play or in online ranked matches – goes full Kaio-Ken, jettisoning the trifling reasons behind lobbing a neatly-timed Kamehameha into an opposition’s face, instead presenting a frenetic power-up fest akin to a regular fighting game.
The combat, both here and in all other modes, feels like typical Dragon Ball video game fare, but honed enough to actually re-create the bombastic madness of its source. Stamina and energy meter add a modicum of strategy to the aerial fisticuffs, but expect to see the usual knock-backs, awkward blocking mechanics, flurries of punches and increasingly luminous spikey hair that defines Dragon Ball gaming.
Alongside the returning co-op Parallel Quests is a new mode called Expert Missions which pits six players against a single, gigantic boss in a raid-like encounter. Great Apes with whopping health bars make quite the visual spectacle and reviving your teammates here seems to be as crucial to victory as thrashing enormous simian arse.
With four major story chunks in the work as DLC chapters and vague promises of 60 frames-per-second gameplay in the game’s final state, Xenoverse 2 is well on the way to refining its predecessors’ lovingly rendered take on the exploits of Goku and co.
Whether the combat’s seemingly immediate descent into button-mashing will inspire a wider audience to power-up their consoles is quite another matter, but for those that are well on their way to Super Saiyan Godhood, Xenoverse 2 is shaping up to be a sturdy altar for Dragon Ball worshippers.