Ultimate Tenkaichi is easily the best looking Dragon Ball Z game I've ever seen. The characters look just like the popular anime series, complete with intense action and all of the characters you've come to know and love. On the surface it looks like it has everything going for it. There's just one problem -- Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi is one of the worst fighting games to come out in the last ten years.
While I wouldn't call myself a super fan of the series, I have found a lot of enjoyment in a number of the past Dragon Ball Z games. They might not be the deepest fighting games, but they generally have enough characters and charm to make them worth taking a look at. I expected Ultimate Tenkaichi to be more of the same. Boy was I wrong. Bandai's newest fighting game is so shallow that it makes last year's Tenkaichi Tag Team
look like Virtua Fighter 5. The game is so shamelessly simple that I started to wonder if I was missing something. Sadly I wasn't.
Even hardcore fans of the series will agree that Dragon Ball Z has never been known for its complex fighting mechanics. The fun of the game is flying around huge environments and wielding almost superhuman special moves. You didn't have to worry about learning character specific moves or any of the nonsense found in other fighting games, because in this series everybody controlled exactly the same. The developers would make up for this shortcoming by giving people exciting stages and tons of characters to choose from. Unfortunately, Ultimate Tenkaichi throws all of this out the window.
Despite its beautifully rendered polygonal graphics, this newest Dragon Ball Z game is basically a 2D fighter. Oh sure, the camera likes to swoop all around these two combatants, but that's just for show. When it comes down to it you have very little control over where you go and what you do in a fight. You no longer have to worry about flying around the level, hiding behind the environments and all of the things you've come to expect from a Dragon Ball Z. In this game the two fighters are never more than a few inches from each other.
What makes this even more frustrating is the simplified gameplay. Even though the training mode talks about a smash attack (the "Y" button), you really only need to worry about the rush attack (the "X" button). Just as long as you keep mashing the "X" button you will keep getting hits. I never once had to worry about any of the other buttons; I just kept hammering that one button until my opponent had enough.
It's common to rack up a 30 - 40 hit combo by only a few button presses, none of which require special timing or button combinations. From time to time you'll punch your opponent across the screen, but that's okay because the game automatically shoots you to his location to keep the combo alive. Even the combo breaker is extremely simple, making each player choose between two types of attacks. If you guess the same move as the attacker you'll break his combo and have a chance to start your own assault. Like everything else in this game, the combo breaker is more about luck than actual skill.
Having spent much of my life learning to count animations, perform incredibly complicated combos and memorize special moves, I was horrified by how simple the combat in Ultimate Tenkaichi is. It's not a stretch to say that there were battles where all I did was hit the "X" button. I ended up having more fun seeing what I could do at the same time as playing this Dragon Ball Z game. Even when I was in the kitchen, checking email and generally keeping my eyes off the TV, I still had no problem beating the endless parade of familiar faces. For as exciting as the action looks on screen, it requires almost no input from the player.
Speaking of the excitement on screen, I found myself growing bored with the same special moves, same levels and same action. Even when I was fighting new characters, all of the action ended up playing out the same. There are some explosive events that happen in the middle of the rounds (including massive fireballs that blow the world wide open), but all that got boring after seeing it several times in a row. There's simply no variety here. The fireballs all look the same and the hand-to-hand combat is unsatisfying. For as exciting as it looks, this is often a very boring experience.
I also started to get annoyed by how tightly scripted each fight was. So much of your time is spent listening to two annoying characters yell at each other. This may be true to the cartoon, but it completely breaks the pacing of the battle. Even more frustrating is when each chat break is an excuse to refill your opponent's life meter. Too often the game artificially lengthens the fight by refilling both characters health, forcing you to do everything you did (mostly hit the "X" button) over again. There are a couple matches where this happens four or five times, rendering everything that happened earlier in the contest unnecessary. I might not mind these life refills if the actual combat was more interesting.
And just when you think things can't get any worse -- the bosses show up. In true Dragon Ball Z fashion, the bosses are big and menacing. They are also cheap and force you to learn a bunch of new moves. These boss fights tend to devolve into several minutes of painfully inaccurate quick time events. Screw up and it's back to the beginning of the fight to do it all over again. What makes this fate even more frustrating is that each time you'll have to endure unskippable cinemas. Several botched attempts will make you question why you're even bothering to play this woefully inadequate fighting game.
Sadly that's not the only horrible game type found in Ultimate Tenkaichi. From time to time you'll need to chase enemies down in what looks like a stripped down After Burner clone. The idea here is to stun the enemy in front of you long enough to get behind him and draft. Do this enough and you'll catch up and be treated to more inaccurate quick time events. There are also moments where you are the one being chased, which is even less fun. The best thing I can same about these segments is that they are mercifully short.
Beyond the general story mode, there's also a hero mode that lets you create your own Dragon Ball Z character and take him out on his own quest. While this sounds promising, this proves to be just as terrible as the rest of the game. Players hoping for a robust character creator will have to lower their expectations. At best you get to change color schemes and wardrobe. You can't even create a female Dragon Ball Z character. Once you've managed to select your character you'll have to put up with all of the bad fighting mechanics found in the main storyline.
Ultimate Tenkaichi also features the usual assortment of fighting game modes. As always you can play against friends or go online to challenge the world. These matches are marginally more fun, if only because the action isn't split up by conversations. However, the lack of depth rears its ugly head once again. It only takes a couple fights to get your fill of this Dragon Ball Z offering, which is a real shame considering how good earlier efforts have been.
As an interactive movie, Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi almost works. The gameplay is so muted that it often feels like you're just pushing a button to advance the narrative. Fans will be happy to see some of the most famous battles recreated on the Xbox 360, complete with story elements. The cinemas are also spectacular, featuring remastered clips from the anime. While the high definition animated clips are nice, not enough of the game is employs this technique. When you aren't watching videos, you're dealing with a wall of text filling in the rest of the story. The end result feels lazy, much like the rest of the game.
One could argue that this game skews young and isn't meant for me. That's probably true, especially since I'm not much of a Dragon Ball Z fan. However, even a kids' game should be deeper than Ultimate Tenkaichi. Kids these days can do more than mash the "X" button. Yet this game seems to be talking down to its audience. It has dumbed the fighting game experience to the point where it's hard to even call it a game anymore. This is the fighting game for people who actively hate fighting and games.
Dragon Ball Z: Ultimate Tenkaichi is everything wrong with licensed games rolled up into one overpriced Xbox 360 disc. It's a huge step back in the series and left me scratching my head. Not even the stellar presentation is enough to make me recommend this disappointing fighting game. It's time for somebody else to take a stab at making a Dragon Ball Z game; fans of the series deserve better.