Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot begins right where the anime does: introducing us to Goku and his son Gohan just before the Saiyans are set to invade earth, revealing Goku's true Saiyan heritage and setting off a chain of events that threatens the entire universe. It's a story we've seen played out in many Dragon Ball Z games over the years, but unlike recent examples, Kakarot tells its tale by way of a narrative-driven RPG rather than a strictly combat-focused game. It gives life to the world and story of DBZ in a refreshing way, offering us a glimpse into what life is like for Goku and his many companions outside of battles to decide the fate of the universe.
All of Dragon Ball Z's major story arcs are contained here: the Saiyan invasion, the showdown with Frieza on planet Namek, the Androids, the fight against Cell, and Majin Buu's story. But among all of these massive, earth-shattering sagas and intense fights are numerous smaller stories and character interactions that many games have simply glossed over.
The game's structure is split into parts: free-roaming/exploration sequences with a semi-open world, battle scenes against foes big and small, and cutscenes where you watch some of the most dramatic story moments of DBZ play out in gorgeous in-engine renditions. There's a good balance between all of these; it rarely feels like you're spending too long watching a cutscene or that you're thrust into constant battle without being able to take a moment to catch your breath. Sometimes the exploration sequences can seem overlong, but a lot of that depends on how much time you want to spend doing side quests and hunting collectibles like power-up orbs, food supplies, and materials for side pursuits like cooking and crafting. It's not essential to spend a lot of time on side pursuits, but it does provide benefits--and while you're flying around the big, vibrant environments, it's easy to be swept up in exploring the DBZ world itself, which is filled with giant fish, rampaging dinosaurs, and futuristic cities.
One striking thing about DBZ: Kakarot is how it showcases the large cast of the anime. You begin the game as Goku, but as the story progresses, you assume control over several other characters, like Gohan, Piccolo, Vegeta, and Trunks, to name a few. Familiar faces like Krillin, Tien Shinhan, Yamcha, and Android 18 also appear to aid you in combat as assistants. Many of the other supporting DBZ cast members make cameos in side quests and story scenes as well. Building friendships with characters through questing and giving gifts rewards you with a character emblem, and by placing it on a “community board” that represents a group of Goku's companions, you can earn assorted boosts to combat, item-gathering, cooking, and other adventurous pursuits.
But these rewards are only part of what makes DBZ: Kakarot's adventuring feel satisfying. Dragon Ball Z is a series where character relationships and interactions are important, and that really comes through in the non-combat story bits. You see Piccolo warm up to young Gohan, Chi Chi's tough mother role, the fighters bonding outside of battle, teenage Gohan doing his goofy Great Saiyaman shtick, and much more. Even relatively minor characters like Yajirobe, Launch, and Puar have side quests that showcase funny interactions, silly scenarios, and genuinely sad and touching moments. Seeing so many DBZ characters given their moment to shine is great, and it helps you forget that a lot of the side quests are fairly typical RPG kill-these-enemies or collect-this-item affairs. As someone who thinks some of the “filler” and comedy episodes of DBZ are among the series' best, I really appreciated an increased focus on these stories in DBZ: Kakarot.
Of course, it wouldn't be Dragon Ball Z without combat. While the 3D, action-driven combat takes some getting used to at first, once you've got a decent handle on the controls, you'll be flying around, shooting off ki blasts and Kamehamehas like a pro. You control a single character who has two basic attacks--up-close melee strikes and ranged ki blasts. If you have companions in the fight, the CPU will control them, and you can command them to make use of special attacks. Besides your basic strikes, you have several powerful special skills, a boost to get up close to the opponent, several defensive techniques to guard, dodge, and catch an attacking opponent off-guard, and even (eventually) the ability to transform into stronger forms. Many of these abilities cost ki, which can be charged mid-battle but leaves you vulnerable when doing so, making ki management very important. A tension gauge fills over time, and when it's full, you can send your warrior into a superpowered state where you can chain special attacks into each other, causing some serious devastation.
It's an intriguing combat system, and the 3D aerial movement element is unique, but there's a lack of depth--most normal enemies and even a few bosses can be patterned to make fighting them much easier. On top of that, enemy variety outside of main story battles tends to be lacking, particularly the annoying cannon-fodder foes that will interrupt you during times when you just want to explore. But fighting still has some standout moments during big boss fights when enemies whip out massive, incredibly damaging energy attacks that force a rapid change in strategy. Overcoming some of the nastiest things Dragon Ball Z's iconic villains toss at you with skillful dodging and well-timed attacks is immensely satisfying, and it somewhat makes up for all of the combat time wasted punching the same robots over and over again.
Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot's modern, semi-open approach to telling the saga of DBZ--despite some minor issues--is a good one. Zooming around the environments and seeing the world up close is a blast, and it's great being able to interact with so many fun DBZ characters and see stories that usually get passed over for game adaptations. And even though combat can be a bit lacking, when the big battles happen, they feel suitably epic and engaging. If you're looking for an enjoyable way to see the life and times of adult Goku through a new perspective, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot will grant your wish.