Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot feels just like playing the anime — only without all those pointless filler episodes. and the game's producer, Ryosuke Hara of developer CyberConnect 2, tells Inverse that was very much the point.
Akira Toriyama's saga of Super Saiyans and aliens beating the stuffing out of one another has spawned more than 500 weekly manga installments, half-a-dozen anime series, and 20 feature films. Since its 1984 debut in Weekly Shonen Jump, it's become one of the most lucrative media franchises of all time, generating an estimated revenue of more than $24 billion, more than James Bond or Star Trek. Even if you've never seen an episode, Dragon Ball's visual style is instantly recognizable and inescapable, whether it's through countless internet memes or seeing a massive Goku balloon bobbing down Sixth Avenue on Thanksgiving. It's a global phenomenon that shows no signs of slowing, particularly since Dragon Ball Super brought loads of newcomers to the fandom during its 2015-2018 run.
Of the dozens of Dragon Ball games released on various consoles over the years, most have been straight-up brawlers. On the spectrum of action-packed video game genres, fighting and role-playing couldn't be much further apart. RPGs tend to take dozens of hours to complete, while a bout in a fighting game can be over in mere seconds. With Kakarot, the developers wanted the narrative to shine just as much as the combat.
“Dragon Ball Z isn't just about fighting.”
"We wanted to deliver an experience as true to the original works as possible. This goal couldn’t have been accomplished if we focused solely on the fights," Hara says. "Dragon Ball Z isn’t just about fighting. It’s about going on an adventure, looking for Dragon Balls, training, spending time with your friends, and much, much more. We believe that the Action RPG genre would be the best way to recreate everything we mentioned above."
Dragon Ball Z is still the best-known stretch of the series, an intricately-plotted, action-driven story rooted in Chinese folklore and Hong Kong action movies. It's got an enormous ensemble cast that that sprawls across multiple planets and universes. Think Game of Thrones killing off Ned Stark was a bold move? Dragon Ball Z did it first, killing off Goku after basically the first battle. (He comes back shortly after, though. Death is a part of life in anime.)
Kakarot hews closer to the original manga than the anime adaptation, which weighs in at a hefty 291 episodes spanning nine seasons. Either way, it's a lot of ground to cover. Hara says cutting down all that material to make it accessible for newbies was a monumental task.
"This may seem obvious, but the amount of volume we had to cover was huge, so this was quite a challenge," he says. "But we felt that it was necessary to cover the story in one complete package to truly deliver the appeal of the Dragon Ball Z story, especially for players who know little about the anime."
For those who grew up loving Dragon Ball Z, consider Kakarot the "all killer, no filler" interactive edition. Want to hurl Vegeta through a mountain? Now you can, as many times as you want. What's more, revisiting every villain from Raditz through Kid Buu in another medium allows for some all-new wrinkles to the much-loved story. Dragon Ball Z is already bursting with massive twists and memorable oddballs, and Kakarot introduces an entirely new character created by Toriyama himself.
“Even the most hardcore Dragon Ball fans will have something new to discover.”
"Not only do we focus on detailed moments from the original story, but we also show scenes and settings that will be told for the very first time. Some settings were even shared with us from the author, Akira Toriyama," Hara says. "So, I’m sure that even the most hardcore Dragon Ball fans will have something new to discover in this game."
Hara says the team was careful to avoid making any changes that the manga legend might not like. While some DBZ storylines get short shrift in Kakarot, Easer eggs and references to those minor plots are scattered throughout the nooks and crannies of the world.
"We had the chance to send a batch of questions to Toriyama-sensei," the producer says of the team's dialogue with the Dragon Ball creator. "Based on the answers we received, we implemented them into the game as sub-quests and conversations between characters."
But even with all this emphasis on storytelling, Kakarot isn't exactly Dragon Ball: Reading Adventures. Combat is still very much a focus of the gameplay, a thumb-cramping adrenaline rush that takes some pacing and stylistic cues from the last major title inspired by the franchise, 2017's stellar Dragon Ball FighterZ. If you want to, you can take a bit more time to weigh your next move, but it's hard not to get caught up in the momentum.
Kakarot's calmer moments are captivating, too. You can zip from beneath the surface of a lake and crack through the clouds in the blink of an eye. But don't let all those opportunities to explore fool you: Kakarot isn't an open-world game. This was a deliberate choice the team made in order to remain as faithful as possible to the source material.
"Our goal was to be true to the original story," Hara says. "And being able to go anywhere at any time would not be faithful to the show. So, it was quite intentional that we didn’t make the game into an open-world game."
Kakarot may be the first Dragon Ball role-playing game we've seen in a while, but judging from the warm reception the game's already found among players, we'd be surprised if it was the last.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is available now on PS4, Xbox and PC.