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Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot review - a celebration of the anime dragged down by subpar side content

While its fighting is fun, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot doesn't do enough to carry the subpar side content.
Playing Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is a battle. It's a fistfight between the part of me who loves Dragon Ball and the part of me with a more critical eye. Every time I think one side will come out on top, the other screams for 30 seconds, their hair starts glowing, and the tides quickly turn. During my time with Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot, I've often found myself torn between these two perspectives, either grinning during high-intensity moments or sighing due to the dull repetition that plagues large portions of this otherwise enjoyable title.
In essence, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is an okay role-playing game with a fantastically fun combat system attached. It's in the battles that it shines brightest, with projectiles flying all over the place and fighters yelling while they charge up for their next special move. At first it seems quite simplistic, with dedicated melee and ranged buttons begging to be mashed vigorously. When combined with a selection of super moves specific to each character and defensive options like a burst that repels enemies, the encounters never become too stale or repetitive.
It only gets better as you progress. New unlockable attacks can be swapped in and out at your pleasure, a partner system lets you call in assistance, and a transformation mechanic allows you to further boost your power - all of this built on a foundation of responsive movement options. Not once was I frustrated when attempting to close the distance or dodge a ranged attack.
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Sadly, I can't say the same for the open world. Scattered around the numerous areas you can explore are activities you can participate in - such as fishing spots, animals to hunt, dinosaurs to slay and upgrade orbs to collect. While the inclusion of so much side content sounds great on paper, it's all far too shallow. With hunting you assume you'd need to lurk at a distance, only to approach when your target's back is turned, but that's rarely the case. Playing one of the godlike characters that Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot provides, you can just run down any animal you see and smack it with ease.
Dinosaurs would appear to provide some extra challenge, but taking one down is as simple as lobbing a dozen ki blasts in its direction. So many of the periphery activities available quickly become repetitive and simplistic, and it soon becomes a grind. Thankfully, it's largely a grind you can avoid. While fishing and hunting allow you to create meals that boost your stats, I never felt as though I was forced to grind out these boosts to progress through the story. The same goes for upgrade orbs, which are so saturated throughout the zones you explore I found I had more than enough simply by picking them up as I completed quests.
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While the boosts from food can prove quite useful if you're stuck on a fight, for the most part it's not something you need to worry about.
That being said, there are some brilliant aspects of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot tucked away within the game's otherwise dull RPG sections, the foremost being the community board system. It works like this: you have seven boards that represent communities Dragon Ball Z characters are part of. They're represented with a web of connections, where you can attach different characters together to gain in-game bonuses. It's one element of Kakarot's RPG side that invites experimentation and satisfying micromanagement.
I was also a big fan of how you acquire and improve characters in these community boards. You obtain emblems that represent characters through story and side quests. No grinding, no fuss. If you do happen to miss a side quest that would provide one such emblem, you can use a time machine later in the game to head back to previous parts of the story and grab anything you miss, albeit at a cost. The act of upgrading, like acquiring emblems is just as easy. Throughout your time playing you are given items that boost certain stats on your emblems. So, let's say I have an item that boosts the stat used in the cooking community, giving that to Chi Chi will boost her cooking stat and thus improve that board while she's in it. It's a neat addition to the community boards that allows you to either pamper your favourite characters with gifts and treats, or spend hours determining the most efficient way to boost stats with strategic item use.
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Figuring out how to best position your emblems to gain the best bonuses is a strangely enjoyable experience.
Regardless of whether you're fighting or flying around, a clear love of the series and attention to detail can be found in every corner of Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot. The opening cinematic is unapologetic in its reverence for Dragon Ball, zooming through memorable moments from the series with the classic theme tune "Cha La Head Cha La" booming out. Once you boot the game up and explore, you discover an all-you-can-eat buffet of sights and sounds from the series. It's a cool feeling to run into familiar faces or come across the setting for a future battle. If nothing else, fans will often find themselves stumbling across something they recognise with a shiny new look, a result of what surely must have been a massive effort from the team responsible.
This intense adoration for the subject matter reaches its pinnacle during big fights at the end of each story arc, where the game goes from looking pretty good to downright dazzling. Every "iconic" scene you could think of, from Yamcha lying dead in a crater to Buu killing everyone on earth, is recreated brilliantly.
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When even Yamcha (albeit in his most popular and meme'd moment) gets the big money cinematic makeover, you know the folk at Bandai Namco are seriously invested in the series.
But for all that, the biggest issue I have with Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is I'm unsure of who it's for. It's clearly intended for an audience familiar with the series, people who are massive fans of the show and who need no explanation regarding who the main characters are and their stories prior to Dragon Ball Z. Being a game for fans isn't a bad thing, right? Not at all! There's absolutely nothing wrong with making games targeted towards your core audience. However, if this is a game aimed at diehard Dragon Ball fans, why is it covering story arcs that are 20-30 years old? Yes, it's cool to see the Vegeta, Frieza, Cell and Buu arcs polished up with love and care in 2020 - but it's something fans of the series have seen a million times. There are no twists, no surprises, and any brand-new story info peppered throughout the game doesn't distract from the fact that we've been here before.
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Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot is a fine game, with its best moments being wonderful renditions of beloved scenes from one of the most popular anime of all time. It oozes with passion for the source material, but I could only recommend it to someone who can match that fondness. If you've only a passing interest in Dragon Ball Z, or worse yet no interest at all, I just don't think there's enough here for you.

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