Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’ve never played any other Dragon Ball Z games, and I’ve never really watched the show. Others have already written off this game because it includes so few updates from the first two Budokai Tenkaichi games, which in turn borrowed a lot from the original Budokai series. I have no idea how this game compares to its forebears, so I’ll judge it on its standalone quality.
Dragon Ball Z: Budokai Tenkaichi 3 confounds at every turn. It is frustrating and unforgiving in a way that makes the player unsure if he sucks because he’s inexperienced or if the game is inherently flawed. Exemplifying every single ridiculous anime cliché in the book, Budokai Tenkaichi 3 laughs in the face of the serious reviewer, saying “Go ahead, take me seriously.”
Budokai Tenkaichi, which roughly translates to “Strongest Under the Heavens Martial Arts Tournament” captures the feel of the cartoon exactly, with seizure-inducing speed, cornball dialogue, and outrageously grandiose battle scenes. The swooping camera, responsive remote gestures and intricate animations make for an intensely cinematic experience. This is the closest that gamers have come to being inside a cartoon, so far, anyway.
The Budokai series is unlike any fighter you’ve ever played. The game’s sense of space is the most dramatic innovation to the fighting genre since Super Smash Bros. introduced 4-player matches. You’re not limited to a 2D plane, and let’s be honest, even 3D fighters like Tekken and Soul Caliber essentially take place on a 2D plane. You and your antagonist arc corkscrew and plummet across vast landscapes in what plays like a ballet of combat. It is the Yngwie Malmsteen of fighters. Its excess knows no limits. From the moment you load the game, it hits you full bore, and pummels your senses until you just want to take a nap or whip your controller across the room — whichever comes first.
By the same token, Budokai Tenkaichi 3‘s tragic flaw is its sheer “bigness”. Never before has there been better argument for brevity in game design. The 161 playable characters are a nice treat for obsessive fans, but wouldn’t it have been better to feature a fraction of that amount, giving each character more personality and a unique fighting style? At what point do the designers begin recycling the same character with a fresh coat of paint? The same goes for game modes, unlockables, and even title screens (well over a dozen, no joke). One has to keep track of five different status bars, a staggeringly complex combo system, and cutscene prompts. The “more is more” philosophy is applied throughout, which makes sense when you consider that the game is based on an anime consisting of people flying around and grunting at each other…for hours.
The basic combat elements are a mixed bag. Taking a cue from Super Smash Bros., it’s a simplistic, largely two-button affair. However, button-mashing will get you nowhere. It takes a long time to get the hang of it, but the aforementioned dance of offense, defence, and transportation is a surprisingly complex skill. Once mastered, new levels of gameplay are unearthed and the game becomes infinitely less frustrating. Breaking up this frenetic action is Ki-charging. Ki is energy that you can either shoot at your adversary in fiery orbs or charge up for earth-shaking attacks. While these attacks are fun to watch at first, pausing the action to charge up not only leaves you open to attacks, but totally kills your buzz.
The 9th Rule of Fight Club: No crying!
The “Dragon History” mode allows players to relive famous battles from the cartoons. The fights are peppered with player-initiated cutscenes that pad out the story. Infuriatingly, you’ll fight with everything you’ve got, initiate the cut-scene, and then find out that you were never intended to really win in the first place. Unless you already know the plot from the anime, you never know if you’re wasting your time fighting. Your enemy may call in a fresh replacement, change forms (with a new health bar), or run away. It’s impossible to strategize because your enemy’s health bar is no indication of how much more damage he can take. Why even include it?
The game’s online element, probably its main selling point over previous iterations, is universally disappointing. The problem is, the gameplay is unforgivably laggy. Budokai Tenkaichi 3‘s fun is defined by speed, so anything but a smooth connection renders the game nearly unplayable. Secondly, when the game stutters, it throws off your combos, leaving you flailing around with your Wii Remote, trying to get the sensor bar to register your embarrassing gesticulations.
An awesome game is buried in this miasma of loose ends and superfluous content. If the developers had parsed the game down by a few dozen modes, levels, and characters, refining their craft rather than cramming it full of fluff, this would be a landmark title. Sanding down the game’s rough edges should have taken place across the first two titles in the franchise; the lack of such refinement is, at this point, inexcusable.