This week on "Extended Play," we look at "Dragon Ball Z: Budokai." It's only the third "Dragon Ball" game to make it to North American shores. It is also the best of the three. Unfortunately for "Budokai," that is anything but high praise.
The story and characters
"Dragon Ball Z: Budokai" features 23 characters in all. Most of these are unlocked via Story Mode, which compresses large chunks of the "Dragon Ball Z" story line into a series of short cutscenes and fight sequences. Everything from the Saiyan Saga up to and including the Perfect Cell Saga is covered. Obvious effort was put into making "Budokai" complement the animated series. In addition to recreating the opening credits of the US "Dragon Ball Z" show in full 3D, all the English voice actors from the show reprise their roles in the game.
In addition to the standard plot line, bonus chapters can be unlocked that feature alternate versions of the story. In one bonus section, you'll play as Frieza and get to win against Goku and his friends.
Simple visuals and show sounds
"Dragon Ball Z: Budokai" uses a simple and clean visual style strongly reminiscent of the original television animation. While this was obviously a deliberate choice, the game looks a bit bland as a result. The animation is smooth and everything runs at a good framerate, but nothing really stands out as very impressive. Visually, "Budokai" is on the low end of the PlayStation 2 library's spectrum.
In addition to the aforementioned US voice actors, "Dragon Ball Z: Budokai" features the music used in the English version of the series. Sound effects are limited to hits, thumps, grunts, and the occasional power-blast effect. Once again, effort was put into making the game connect with the TV show, but not much care seems to have been taken as far as creating a believable game environment.
The fight mechanics
The game uses one punch and one kick button, as well as one for blocking and one for Ki-based attacks. Characters' Ki levels are built up by successful attacks or by charging up. The latter method is faster, but leaves the charging character wide open to an attack at any time. Higher Ki levels will allow characters to use more powerful attack moves or to transform into stronger forms.
Story Mode can offer a somewhat distorted view of the game's fighting system, as battles in the story are often fought under varying conditions and strength levels. The flaws inherent in the gameplay become glaringly evident in the World Tournament and Duel modes. Control is clunky and unresponsive, with a frustratingly long delay between pressing buttons and seeing results occur onscreen. Move priority can also be a bit of a conundrum. It's shockingly easy for a character in the middle of a combo or powerful attack to be knocked flat by a tiny punch from an enemy that seems as though they'd be well out of range.
"Budokai" does not use special moves in the manner of games like "Street Fighter" or "Mortal Kombat." Instead, special attacks are performed as part of a preset combo. Landing the final hit of the combo sets off an attack sequence cutscene featuring dramatic angles of the proceedings. While good eye candy, the fourth or fifth time you execute Piccolo's Special Beam Cannon, you'll likely find yourself wishing the game would just get on with it.
Compounding the problems with this gameplay element is that the combos can be interrupted with a block. Even after landing the first several hits of a combo, the final hit that kick starts the special move cutscene will often be blocked, wasting Ki energy needed to even attempt the attack. Considering how heavily "Budokai" relies on canned combos, this seemingly random "escape hatch" leads to far too much wasted effort and discourages the use of big combo attacks.
Upgrading... sort of
Finishing in second or first place in the World Tournament will earn you cash that can be used in Mr. Popo's capsule shop. Capsules contain skills and items that are utilized to customize each fighter to your liking. Altering skillsets can ostensibly make a character more of a powerhouse or tilt their style more toward the hit-and-run method. However, since all 23 characters in the game have essentially the same moves, you're mostly just moving the same pieces around constantly and pretending they make any real difference as far as customization goes. Of course, this homogenous tendency does ensure that the characters are all fairly well balanced against one another, but it doesn't make for particularly compelling gameplay in a fighter.
"Dragon Ball Z: Budokai" is yet another fans-only "Dragon Ball" game. Fans will enjoy the 3D representations of their favorite characters, but the game lacks any real depth as a fighter. There is real potential for an excellent fighter based on the "Dragon Ball" characters, but "Budokai" is not that game. While it does have generally high production values, nobody would give this title a second glance if it didn't have the "Dragon Ball Z" license attached to it.