Reviewed: December 26, 2007
Released: November 13, 2007
Atari's latest and biggest licensed DBZ fighting game, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3, features more characters, moves and letters in its heinously long name than any Budokai game to date. The game box boasts over 150 playable characters (the total is, in fact, 163), a mind-boggling number for any video game regardless of genre. And by now, the basic game formula is well known to fans of the series: pick your fighter and have at it in various different modes, or play through rough approximations of the Dragon Ball Z storyline with pre-determined characters.
If you're in a hurry to find out how Tenkaichi 3 stacks up to its predecessors, here's the gist of the whole review in a nutshell: the game is a few small notches up the ladder from the others in the series. Its look and feel are just a bit more polished than Tenkaichi 2's; there are a few more characters (relatively speaking); there are a few tweaks and refinements to basically the same underlying game engine; the "map" mode has been switched for a better "sim" mode. That's it; not an amazing leap forward, but a solid game nonetheless.
For those of you who are newcomers to the series, there's certainly never been a better time to get on board. At its core, Tenkaichi 3 is a good solid fighting game, with a vast array of characters to choose from. Through an extensive training mode, players can learn just about everything there is to learn about moves, counter-moves, and tactics in general.
Although the advanced training gets a bit technical considering the simple layout of the controls, the techniques will eventually come naturally for players who manage to finish the entire, extensive Dragon History mode, which very roughly approximates the entire span of DBZ's story. It gets progressively more difficult as various villains are put in their place by Goku and company. The World Tournament mode remains by far the most difficult option, offering experienced players a chance to earn vast amounts of game currency and unlockables for use elsewhere.
The wonky board game-ish map mode of the last Tenkaichi game has been replaced with a new version, Sim Dragon, that kind of feels like a cross between the DBZ TV show and a Japanese-style sim game, with a set of options that each advance a unit of time. Each character gets a series of seven battles to fight through, at least vaguely based on fights from the original show. Before each fight, they can spend ten turns working to improve their offensive or defensive power for the next fight, resting to regain health lost while training, or exploring the world, which generates a random event each time the command is used.
There's also a Senzu Bean "panic button" option that completely restores the character to health, although it can only be used occasionally. All of these options are shown via a small rectangular screen with still images displayed on it--odd, but unobtrusive. The focus is kept on the fighting, and the extra stuff is kept to a minimum, while still allowing players a chance at finding extra stuff outside of just battling for it.
Casual gamers will be relieved to know that there is no need to master every little trick to have fun in Tenkaichi's versus mode. Whether dueling against a friend or the computer's AI (which ranges from formidable to incredibly stupid depending on the setting), it's perfect for half an hour's diversion between work and school, or school and bed. It's even possible to pit two computer opponents against each other and watch them duke it out. This feature is ostensibly used to study fighting styles of the various characters, but most people will find it more of a curiosity than anything else, a sort of "virtual combat aquarium" to stare at for a few minutes.
Speaking of fighting styles, they are an important part of the character customization segment of Tenkaichi. Ever since the first DBZ: Budokai, the series has allowed players to purchase static and dynamic abilities, and equip them to a "blank slate" version of any playable character in order to build a warrior to suit their own playing style (or, as in my case, the most overpowered World Tournament fighter possible).
Strategy Type items can be purchased at the Z Item shop for customization, and dictate the types of moves "preferred" by, and the offensive/defensive focus of, a custom character. Goku Type, for instance, balances offense and defense, and emphasizes close combat as opposed to ranged. Additionally, players can purchase or unlock all sorts of basic and special combat moves, character buffs like Ki (special ability) gauge enhancements, and more. It's a bit complex at first, but before long even a complete greenhorn will be mixing and matching like an old pro.
The ability to unlock a few extra goodies by loading save data from a previous Tenkaichi game is nice enough for long-time players. Truth be told, the handful of extra characters are not particularly exciting (especially before a lot of customization options have been earned), since the basic move sets of almost every fighter in the game are totally homogenized; that is, learning the special move combinations on one character will allow players to pull off special moves on any character. This serves to further balance the game, which indeed is the most evenly distributed game in the series, in terms of character power; it is a far cry from the first few games, in which a handful of characters were clearly head and shoulders above the rest no matter what.
This would not have been a problem if the developers had simply mixed up the button combinations for special moves. I know I am not alone in taking pleasure from "mastering" a character in a fighting game; in the case of Tenkaichi 3, mastering one character more or less means mastering them all. No amount of meta-strategy and fine-tuned overall gameplay can mask the blandness of this part of the game.
Visually, DBZ: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 doesn't make any radical departures from its predecessor. This is hardly a bad thing, however: I fail to see how these games could be much truer in style to the beloved anime series they are based on. Aerial and ground combos allow players to pull off moves that look as though they were ripped right out of the Dragon Ball Z TV program, flashy camera angles and all.
Various combos and special moves replicate all the great action fans know and love, from the instantly-I'm-behind-you-and-hitting-you-in-the-head aerial combos to the epic energy attack clashes in which each fighter tries to tap extra power reserves and overwhelm the other. In fact, the overall effect of playing the game is that of watching a long, relatively dialog-free episode of the show--a definite treat for the DBZ faithful, and an added bonus for those who play for the experience of playing a good solid fighting game.
The main problem with Tenkaichi 3 in the graphics department is the game's seeming inability to display more than two characters on-screen at the same time in story modes. This can get annoying really fast when there are four or five characters talking, but only a couple on-screen. Considering the top-notch visual quality of the rest of the game, it is also a confusing lapse. Outside the story modes, however, this limitation is unobtrusive.
As with everything DBZ-related released within the last several years, vocal grandmaster Chris Sabat voices a round baker's dozen of Tenkaichi 3's main characters, including Vegeta and Piccolo. The rest of the usual suspects are along for the ride as well, making for an authentic and well-localized voice package. The voices of perpetual braggart Hercule, icky sorcerer Babidi and the menacing Androids 17 and 18 are particularly memorable.
The music remains a standard mix of synth and choppy guitar riffs; it suits the style of the game well, but it's nothing next to the likes of Soul Calibur 3's soundtrack, or Guilty Gear XX's. If tracks have been added or significantly changed, it's hard to tell. This is all in keeping with the presentation of the TV show, of course, and it adds to the authenticity of the game in its own way.
For many people, the idea of 163 playable characters will be enough to sell them on the value of DBZ: Budokai Tenkaichi 3. That certainly is a lot, and (lack of varied play styles aside) it is fun and challenging to try and unlock all of them. More important to the longevity of the game is the robust fighter customization interface, which will keep even the most dedicated gamers working for weeks to fill in every possible option.
On top of all that, the challenge of winning at the highest levels of the World Tournament is intense, and the story mode is a treat for die-hard fans of the show, although it skips over too many details to be very coherent to anyone who doesn't have the progression of events already memorized.
With a list price of $39.99, this game is a very good value. My only real caveat to readers is to be aware that it is considerably less of a value for those who have several other games in the series, since it doesn't really bring anything new to the table.
Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 marks not the third, but the sixth console release in what is rapidly becoming a long series of games. The latest member of the family is a bit bigger, a bit more balanced, and a bit more fun to play than its immediate predecessor, but the differences are incremental at most. The question that is going to have to be asked sooner or later is: how much more is there left to milk from the Dragon Ball license? It's not that this game is bad--in fact, it is very good. It's simply that as time goes by, it will become increasingly difficult to convince gamers to shell out another wad of cash for the latest game in a series that has already told all of its stories.
The ride has been fun, and many great battles have been fought in living rooms and rec halls across the nation. If Tenkaichi 3 turns out to be the swan song, the capstone to the house that Atari and DBZ built, it will be a noble end. Let's hope they don't let the series go the way of Dynasty Warriors; it would be a shame to see yet another solid franchise fade into nothingness, feebly clinging to its past.