The following is part of Now Loading, a series that renders verdicts on whether or not your favorite video games deserve a place in the canon of works that have contributed to video-game storytelling in landmark ways. Read the series’ full mission statement here.
Attention, all proud thinkers! Have you ever considered joining Canon Patrol?
As a Canon Patroller, you’ll prevent undue changes from being made to the cultural history of video games as a medium. Our duty is to protect everyone’s understanding of what makes a game deserve to be remembered for all time, or to simply fall to the wayside of our collective memory.
But we need your help! The only requirements are:
- confidence in your critical thinking capabilities
- knowing how to parse your analytical thoughts and your nostalgic feelings
- and, of course, a strong desire to discuss and construct a lingua franca for the academic study of video games!
We’ve got plenty of former articles for honing your skills and a fully stocked game library. So, how ‘bout it? Why not use your passion for the storytelling of video games to help out a great cause? We’re always on the lookout for powerful thinkers!
What’s that, rhetorical reader? You’re in? Oh, wonderful! Let’s continue!
Okay, then! Listen carefully. To maintain integrity here in Canon City, home to the Canon Patrol, there are a few rules you must keep when analyzing a game’s story!
- Give everything a fair shake! Firing a kamehamehadhominem blast in Conton City limits is not only strictly prohibited, but also poor form when it comes to analysis. Don’t be like Dan in the Five Nights at Freddy’s article. Be smarter with your ire.
- Canon Patrollers wishing don their rose-tinted glasses while analyzing a game must obtain their BONUS LEVEL license. Please keep Canon City safe by obeying its nostalgia laws.
- When discussing a game that is, in some way, shape, or form, an adaptation of a long-running, beloved franchise, do your best to interpret what the main takeaway from the source material is, and then attempt to judge the adaptation based on that core concept. Failure to do this could result in grave mistreatment of not only the original story, but the adaptation as well!
Keeping those things in mind, please craft your articles safely. To better understand the interactive medium and its history, we look forward to welcoming each of you to the Canon Patrol!
All right, Dear Reader… So, as you may be able to tell not only from my lengthy absence from the website, but also from my lengthy preamble up top, I have been following the first rule of Canon Patrol down to the letter.
You see friends, I recently up and moved house from the cold shoulder of New England down to the balmy ankles of the Southland, and, in so doing, I have been caught up in a whirlwind of change, excitement, and even more change. Change, as the Buddha tells us, can sometimes be a huge bummer, and while I’m pretty stoked on my new digs and lifestyle, it helps to have at least one point of familiarity to which you can retreat in the wee hours of the night.
When I need some stability in my life, I tend to pick up a game that offers a lot of content that can be played almost mindlessly, yet is still engaging enough that boredom never enters into the equation. Role-playing games often work best, as there is enough of a feeling of progression and enough of an engaging story that it keeps your interest peaked without being too jarringly different. I’m talking about the type of game where you can lower the volume on the TV, raise the volume on that Netflix or YouTube video, and knock out an hour or two of grinding for that extra bit of experience or cash.
The real trick to finding the perfect grind game, as I am now tentatively calling them, is to find one that has an engaging story or world in between the grind-fests. And while there are innumerable games in my past that fit this bill (World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy VII, Nioh, and, of course, Crash Bandicoot 2: Cortex Strikes Back,) my most recent dip into the warm waters of Lake Grind Game is the subject of this article: Dragon Ball Xenoverse.
Those of you familiar with my previous work won’t be surprised to learn that I am a huge fan of all things Japanese popular culture, especially when it comes to anime and video games. When I tell people I majored in Japanese language, history, and religion, often the first question they ask after scoffing at me with that “what good will that do you” look is: “What got you interested in that stuff?”
I could give any number of reasons why Japanese culture and literature are endlessly intriguing to me, but the easy answer is that I watched Dragon Ball Z as a kid. Every day after school, I would grab a soda, plop down in front of the TV, switch over to Toonami, and consumer hours upon hours of Goku and Z Warriors fighting the likes of Frieza, Cell, and Majin Buu. Then, inevitably, I would run over to my friend’s house and re-enact said fights with all the play-acting fervor I could muster.
Ah, 2015 was a fine year.
If you don’t share in my childhood obsession (and, to be frank, current adulthood obsession) with Dragon Ball, I’ll do my best to explain what it is and what makes it so great as an ongoing story. And don’t worry: this won’t be like the gag in my Final Fantasy VII article where I break down the intense and ridiculous story beats to illustrate how weird this anime is, because it’s not all that complicated. Sure, there are tons of names, characters, techniques, planets, and all that fantasy gobblygook; at its core, though, Dragon Ball is a simple story made complex and interesting by its well-written, endearing characters.
Without further ado, I give you the essence of the Dragon Ball series in two sentences:
Dragon Ball – A delightful martial arts adventure in which naïve-but-lovable young Son Goku and his gang of foes-turned-friends travel the world on a journey to be stronger. Also, be careful what you wish for!
Dragon Ball Z – A delightful martial arts adventure in which naïve- but-lovable older Son Goku and his gang of foes-turned-friends travel the universe on a journey to be stronger. Also, perhaps our actions have consequences!
Dragon Ball Super – A delightful martial arts adventure in which naïve-but-lovable most-up-to-date Son Goku and his gang of foes-turned-friends travel the multiverse on a journey to be stronger. Also, deities are as worthless as they are aloof, and every bad thing can be traced back to their laziness, ineptitude, or malice.
And, also, Dragon Ball GT.
I know that this monstrous series can seem daunting to an outsider looking in, but rest assured the plot is as simple as the characters are memorable, complex, and interesting. It sucks you in and makes you want to be part of the Dragon World yourself.
Who hasn’t thought about the wishes they would make on the mythical, titular Dragon Balls? Who amongst us fans hasn’t put their hands together in that famous semi-circular shape and shouted “Kamehameha!” at the top our lungs while play-fighting? Who hasn’t wanted to jump into that famous fight against Frieza, or Cell, and lend a helping hand to Goku and his friends?
Well, ladies and gentlemen, it took developer Dimps and publisher Bandai Namco fifteen games, but they finally realized what makes a good video-game adaptation of Dragon Ball: inviting the player to experience the events of Dragon Ball Z, not as a pre-existing character from the show, but rather as a new customizable character that gets to interact with and grow alongside your favorite heroes. I cannot tell you the hours I poured into this game making my character stronger and stronger, playing every single mission, and collecting every godforsaken item I could simply because of how well this game’s premise works.
I cannot tell you the hours, but I know that if you added them up and thought of all the other games I could have been playing during that time, you’d be sad when you were done.
But enough jawing: let’s don our scouters, do lots of pushups, do lots of situps, drink plenty of juice, and delve into the magnificent world of Dragon Ball Xenoverse.
Story and Characters: Oh, Trunks, You Maniac
Dragon Ball Xenoverse is largely a time-travel story, and before you raise your nose at me and walk off, rest assured that an entire segment of the original story dealt with time travel, so it’s by no means an unmotivated narrative device like it can be in other games.
Our story takes place several decades after the events of the anime in a mythical place-out-of-time called “Toki Toki City.” Toki Toki is home to a group of future warriors named the Time Patrollers, who, as their name suggests, patrol the annals of time to ensure that history plays out as it should.
By setting the world of the Time Patrollers far ahead in the future, the game circumvents having to explain weird events happening parallel to the timeline of the show we players already know. Important events in the show’s history are represented by scrolls that act as portals to the past, which Time Patrollers can jump in and out of without affecting history. Basically, certain battles in the show are like snapshots in time, and if something is tampered with in that particular snapshot, fixing it by any means necessary will set history back on track.
It’s a bit confusing at first, but it’s a quick and easy way to set up that your actions as a player only affect certain moments in time, not entire sequences of events. Here’s a rare case of time travel actually making things simpler.
But, simple as the Kais make it with the scrolls, all is not always well in Toki Toki. Our story begins with Trunks, a time-traveler recruited to the Time Patrol as a sort of penance for bungling up the past, is making a wish on the Dragon Balls to bring him a strong, capable warrior who can act as his partner on patrols. This is where the player comes in.
In designing your warrior, you’re able to choose between several races from the show. These are the Saiyans, the Namekians, the Earthlings, the Majin, and the vaguely named “Frieza Clan,” which are just whatever Frieza is supposed to be. Once you’ve customized your character, you are zapped into Toki Toki City and are told by Trunks that he can’t wait to see what the warrior the Dragon brought him is capable of doing.
So, immediately, the player is told in no uncertain terms that a character from the Dragon Ball universe needs help, and that the Dragon (or mythical, all-knowing, wish-granting deity) has chosen you to help him. And, just as with any RPG, you are new to this world a bit weak at first, but, with perseverance and the knowledge that you were brought into the game’s world to do great things, you slowly become stronger until you are the most capable Time Patroller in all of Toki Toki City. The anime is all about being thrust into new and strange environments, and ultimately coming out the other side knowing more about the world and yourself; from the very beginning of the game, Dragon Ball Xenoverse is priming the player to have that exact same experience.
Once you get the basics of Time Patrolling down, you meet up with Trunks and the Kais to discuss why Trunks had the Dragon summon you to Toki Toki in the first place. Evidently, some evil force is manipulating time and changing history so that they can prey off the change in energy resulting from the changes in the timelines. Exactly how they’re siphoning energy from changing history is a bit vague, but the important thing to take away here is that the game’s villains, Towa and Mira, are dipping into those historical snapshots and changing the way certain battles happened. This, naturally, is having disastrous consequences for any number of different timelines, and may, in fact, destroy the entire universe as we know it.
From a meta-narrative perspective, two villains are changing the story of Dragon Ball such that it is unrecognizable to those who understand it and left even more nonsensical in the eyes of those who have no engagement with it. And it is up to you, a fan, to set things right and save the story.
Like I said, Towa and Mira aren’t necessarily strongly written villains in terms of the game’s story, but they do act as interesting foils to players who have a deep connection to the world of Dragon Ball. By going back in time and actively changing moments from the series that have been ingrained in many of our brains since childhood, these villains are less threatening to the characters from the show than they are to how we perceive something for which we have a deep affection.
Consider this: unlike every single villain from the Dragon Ball franchise, Towa and Mira are not out to kill Son Goku and his friends. Sure, through their meddling in the timeline that might happen, but it would be merely incidental to their plan. What they really want is to siphon energy from these memories and irrevocably change them such that the story devolves into utter nonsense. Furthermore, their meddling leads to the freeing of the final boss, a demon named Demigra, whose sole goal is to kill the Supreme Kai of Time. In other words, the villains meddling with the story unleashes another villain who wants to destroy the keeper of the story. “Time” and “history” in this game simply refer to the way we perceive the Dragon Ball story, and for a villain to kill the God of Time presents the ultimate threat to someone enamored with the story she protects.
Towa and Mira mess with time by putting characters in battles they shouldn’t be in, or setting into motion events that make a critical character appear at the wrong place or the wrong time. They also artificially empower villains like Frieza such that it completely throws the timing of events out of whack. So, the way to fix it in-game is to punch up the baddies and set things right. What this means for the player and fan of Dragon Ball, however, is that she can use her knowledge of the series to fix the changes the villains are making.
Trunks literally summons you into the world to be the best Time Patroller because you know exactly how things are meant to happen in the Dragon Ball universe. Because really, what better way is there to adapt this series into a game than to have a superfan be the only one able to save the world?
Gameplay, Music, and Visuals: Cha La, Head Cha Lasaaaaaaah Man, Good Job
As you may have surmised from my umpteen hours playing this game, the gameplay is as inviting as it is addicting. In my humble opinion, it was smart of Dimps to shy away from the Budokai method of strict fighting game when designing the world of Xenoverse. There is nothing wrong with a straight-up fighting game with Dragon Ball characters, as Dragon Ball Fighterz has so deftly showed us, but when it comes to adapting the story such that the player feels like her avatar is a snugly-fitting piece in the Dragon Ball jigsaw puzzle, leaning more heavily on role-playing elements was the right choice.
Each of the five races as which you can play has its own advantages and disadvantages. You can be the physically strong but energy-lacking Saiyan, the much more meditative and energy-strong Namekian, a balanced Earthling, a stamina-crazed Majin, or the speedy, strong “Frieza Clan.”
Each race has initial boosts and detriments when starting out, but depending on how you choose to level their stats as the game goes by, you really have the freedom to make any kind of character build you like. I, for example, am a huge Frieza fan, so I tried to make my first character as much like Frieza as possible. This included changing the face, voice, and color set, by the way, which only added to the illusion that I was actually entering this world. The beauty of this customizable character is that you have the freedom to design it any way you want, and the choices just keep expanding as you unlock new moves and techniques by training alongside Dragon Ball mainstay characters.
I cannot begin to tell you how much fun it is to land a few hits on someone and then yell “makkankosappo!” as Piccolo’s signature move blasts out of your fingers. What I’m saying is: it’s a fun game.
The combat takes some getting used to—but I would imagine that performing martial arts and flying at the same time really would take some getting used to, so I won’t complain too much. While this game is largely based on role-playing game tropes, it does borrow enough from previous Dimps titles that it feels like a free-world fighting game in which you can manage pretty much anything.
Each mission takes place on a different 3D plane modeled after a certain Dragon Ball locale. There can be anywhere from one to fifteen enemy fighters in one stage, and you have free rein to maneuver around the stage by running or flying in any direction you can imagine. This leads to a lot of different ways to play depending on the moveset you have assigned yourself. For example, you could be an up-close bruiser, blocking and punching in midair in time with your opponent’s attacks, or you could keep your distance and fire at your opponent with long-range special attacks.
It really depends on how you like to play: again, Dragon Ball Xenoverse gives you the freedom to choose and then makes whatever you’ve chosen fun. There is nothing more satisfying, especially as a fan of the series, to feel as if you are fighting in the same way that the characters would be fighting given their skills and abilities.
Dragon Ball is notorious in the anime world for having both a Japanese and American soundtrack, with the former being a lot more upbeat and carefree with jubilant orchestration, and the latter being more a product of being localized in the late 80’s/early 90’s when grungy metal and synth tracks were king. The soundtrack is eclectic, to say the least, and Xenoverse does an amazing job of blending those two styles together at different points in the narrative such that you really do feel like you’re going back in time.
On the one hand, the more conversational and playful moments sound much more like the original Japanese score; on the other hand, during intense battle sequences with the series’ villains, the music sways more towards the metal sounds of the American localization. Both are enjoyable to listen to, especially when you’re listening for hours on end, and the synthesis of the two styles feels like the series while being inherent to the game itself.
There’s not much to say about the visuals other than the game does a solid job of taking Akira Toriyama’s (creator of Dragon Ball) iconic 2D style and translating it into 3D well. There are naturally a few glitches here and there that make certain character models look a bit ridiculous, but on the whole, the game looks like if an anime were made into 3D.
What’s really interesting about the visual style is that there are so many little hints and nods to the series with every clothing set and accessory that you can collect. It’s a game that certainly knows its audience, and it isn’t afraid to shy away from some of the more obscure references that fans will undoubtedly enjoy. That’s what makes it feel like the Dragon World come to life.
Impact on Video Gaming and Culture: The Unending Sequel
There is no denying that even though Dragon Ball is huge in certain circles, it is by no means a worldwide phenomenon like Pokémon or Hiyao Miyazaki’s work. It is certainly an anime that people know by name and may likely recognize, but when it comes to having mainstream video-game audience appeal, the nature of Xenoverse makes it a bit inaccessible to someone just looking to pick a game off the rack. However, within its sphere of influence, Xenoverse has done nothing short of gangbusters since its initial release in early 2015.
While this game is a perfect adaptation of the series for fans who are looking to play a Dragon Ball game, that wasn’t necessarily enough to extend its shelf life. However, as luck and marketing would have it, Xenoverse was released around the time that the anime made a huge comeback with its official sequel series, Dragon Ball Super. Super had a slow start, but it quickly reinvigorated not only the franchise itself, but also people’s love for the franchise and their hunger for more Dragon Ball content.
With Super in the ether, the series was on people’s radars again, and so The Little Game That Could got a sequel, aptly named Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2, which was released in October of 2016, just as Super was going great guns. What this meant was that the game could not only include sequences from the old series (which essentially amounted to a slightly tweaked rehash of the scenarios in Xenoverse), but it could also have a much longer life than its predecessor: Dimps and Bandai could just keep pumping out DLC package after DLC package that added new stories and characters from Super for fans to sink their teeth into.
As I type this, they are on their seventh bit of DLC, all of which has enough content for another few hours of story, and there is still more to come before the game is done.
Xenoverse paved the way for games-based-on-anime to have supplemental releases as if they were new episodes of the show—or indeed, new chapters of the manga. New content could just keep coming out, expanding on what we had already enjoyed until an entirely new saga of the show had been created. That’s just one more way Dragon Ball Xenoverse gives new meaning to “adaptation” in video games.
BONUS LEVEL: Thank You, Time Patroller!
I will keep this section short, because my propensity for schmaltz is steadily growing by the day, and I know you fine people have lives to be getting on with. For those of you who have read my article on Ocarina of Time, you will know that I have a soft spot in my heart for simple moments of thanks in video games. Well, just as my heart melts when Zelda says, “Thank you, Link,” there is a moment in Xenoverse that makes the little fanboy lodged into my left ventricle giggle with joy.
At the end of the Frieza saga section of the game, your character is fighting alongside a recently-transformed Super Saiyan Goku to defeat an artificially powered up Frieza. Once you’ve worked together with Goku to take Frieza down a notch, time realigns and Frieza no longer has the immense, out-of-place power given to him by Towa and Mira to mess up the timeline.
We jump into a cutscene in which your character is no longer visible, and the camera is trained on Goku who is looking directly into it at you, the player. Before landing the final blow on Frieza, he says this to you:
“Okay. I really don’t know much about you, but you really helped me out. Let me be the one to finish this though!”
Your character comes back into frame, nods, and then returns to Toki Toki City. Goku turns back to Frieza, and, as he does, he says, “Thank you.”
What can you say, folks, when a character to whom you’ve looked up all your life thanks you for helping him out in what is by far the most intense and meaningful fight in the entire series? That’s some mighty powerful interactive storytelling.
VERDICT: You Am No Real Super Sand
I’m just going to cut right to the chase here, folks: Dragon Ball Xenoverse doesn’t make it into the canon.
I know, I know, I just spent about 4000 words talking about how excellent an adaptation it is and that it really bangs on all cylinders when it comes to making the player feel as if she were really part of a story with which she is intimately familiar—but that’s kind of the point. The game is beautifully constructed and expertly told from the standpoint of a long-term Dragon Ball fan, and while it offers an interesting commentary on what it means to have a meaningful story destroyed by people twisting up the telling of it, I can’t see it having a meaningful impact on people who didn’t grow up loving the anime.
Granted, you might make the argument that the only people who will play the game are true fans of the show, and that, in that regard, the message comes through loud and clear. I acknowledge the huge impact this game will have on superfans, but it doesn’t really offer a meaningful look at how games can affect storytelling in a broader sense—and that’s the kind of game that this series, Now Loading, is trying to find.
So yes, Dragon Ball Xenoverse is an amazing experience for diehard fans of the anime, but twisting a narrative that we’re all not one-hundred-percent familiar with is like coming up with a new narrative altogether. But hey, thanks for being a great grind game these past few months, Xenoverse. And thanks to you, Dear Reader, for indulging me in one of my more enjoyable gaming experiences.