There's something unsettling about seeing actor Justin Chatwin as Dragon Ball's Son Goku--complete with gravity-defying hairdo aided by the local salon's finest product--grace a PSP screen. Yet that's exactly what Dragon Ball: Evolution does in Namco Bandai's new fighting game based on the live-action film. The result is a dull, muddled mess, and Dragon Ball: Evolution doesn't even do enough well to warrant more than a cursory glance from Dragon Ball-starved fighting game fans.
The good news is that developer Dimps Corporation's fast, accessible combat engine resurfaces here. Thus, you're gifted with a varied repertoire of offensive and defensive techniques. If you're a veteran of previous Dragon Ball fighting games, such as the PSP's own Dragon Ball Z: Shin Budokai, you won't need much training to get acclimated to the gameplay. Using a mixture of light, heavy, and special attacks, you can perform simple multihit combos and throw out screen-filling ki beams with which you can easily decimate your foes.
The bad news--and this is merely the tip of Goku's hairdo--is that you probably won't end up using many of these techniques against the brain-dead AI. It's possible to defeat opponents in both Arcade and Story modes simply by using a square, square, triangle combo with some blocking and special attacks thrown in just to keep things from getting close at the highest difficulty setting. Though fluidly transitioning from a series of punches straight into a Kamehameha energy attack is satisfying when you pull it off the first time, when you realize that your opponents will fall for this pattern nearly every time, the satisfaction quickly turns to boredom.
Of course, playing against computer-controlled opponents exclusively isn't much fun in fighting games. Dragon Ball Evolution offers ad hoc wireless play so you can go head-to-head with a friend, but because this is a movie-licensed game you don't get to play as any characters outside of those who appear on the silver screen. Franchise staples such as Gohan (Goku's son, not "grandpa"), Trunks, and Vegeta are nowhere to be found. Instead, you'll be graced with the presence of Mai, created specifically for the film to be Piccolo's right hand, and Fu Lum, a generic Regenerator henchman who becomes self-aware.
None of the featured fighters look great either, though at least they have quick, brutal animations. The presentation issues mostly stem from the content's restriction to the film. The characters lack the "pop" of those in previous Dragon Ball games simply because they're forced into a somewhat realistic visual style, as opposed to the colorful, bright cel-shading that most fans are used to. The character design doesn't help matters; Lord Piccolo looks like he came straight out of Jim Carrey's The Mask, and Muten Roshi's bright-red Hawaiian shirt is probably the most whimsical thing you'll see in the entire game. But during the talking-head cutscenes in Story mode, even that shirt looks like a mess of colors bleeding into each other, because some kind of filter has been used to stylize and smooth out each character's photographic stills. The result is a cast of plastic-looking cardboard cutouts. The silver lining is that at least you can skip through the endless streams of cutscene dialogue without any negative consequences.
Some rudimentary effort has been made to keep you interested in playing, with unlockable studio stills, storyboards, and design sketches, along with a survival mode and a single secret character. You can also partake in scores of small challenges--such as "perform two charge attacks" or "do 1,000 points of damage in a single combo"--that test your familiarity with the various techniques in the game. Unlockables and challenges aren't enough to mask the simpleton AI, limited roster, and dull presentation, but they're better than nothing.
Dragon Ball: Evolution is a cheap cash-in attempt that does a disservice to Dragon Ball fans everywhere. It is a step backward from the PSP's superior Dragon Ball Z: Shin Budokai games, which are more than two years old. Dragon Ball: Evolution is unlikely to hold the interest of even the most diehard Dragon Ball fans.