Video Games Review: Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 (PS4, 2016) provides little evolution on the original

It was only around 18 months ago that Bandai Namco decided to run an experiment with their well-worn Dragon Ball video game license. Marrying the 3D fighter mechanics of their long-running Budokai and Tenkaichi series to an RPG-style progession system and character creation module, the result was interesting, if a little clunky and certainly put a new spin on the same battles we’ve been replaying for decades now. Xenoverse was a victim of its own ambition though, filled with dull quests, some questionable camera mechanics and bizarre spikes in the difficulty. Regardless, Bandai Namco clearly felt it was a concept worth returning to and are back with Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2. Troublingly, after a few hours of play I found myself almost unable to tell the difference between Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 and its predecessor.

This is not to suggest that Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 doesn’t do certain things differently to the original. The game kicks off in a new hub world called Canton City, a slab of land that’s nicely varied and filled with places and sights that longtime Dragon Ball Z fans will be familiar with. It’s here that you’ll create your new hero. For those hoping their avatar from the original would be back, they are, they’re just off doing something else right now. They’ll pop up here and there throughout the story mode as you duck about through the various in-canon timelines.

Character creation can once again be pulled from five races — Majin, Saiyan, Earthling, Namekian and Freiza Race (a name that still makes me laugh for its stubborn refusal to deal with a hole in the lore — creator Akira Toriyama never mentioned what alien arch-villain Freiza’s race was called so “Freiza Race” it is). While the roster of races may seem restrictive, they really are the only significant races in the Dragon Ball canon so it’s hard to fault developer Dimps for not going crazy with new races of their own invention. Part of me does wonder if expanding the character creation toolset to allow for blended races would have been a move in the right direction. I’m ready to create the nightmare Majin/Namekian hybrid I can see in my mind, Dimps. Let me live.

Nothing has changed for each of the five races on offer beyond a few minor tweaks — Saiyans can now hit Super Saiyan 3 with enough Ki, Freizas can now turn Gold for a buff and Majins can now turn into Kid Buu. No Saiyan God or Blue-level versions just yet, but I suppose that gives Dimps somewhere to go with the inevitable third installment.

Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 follows a story almost identical to that of the first game. Towa and Mira have returned and are wreaking havoc on the timeline again.  Your new recruit is roped into the same merry band of time travellers tasked with keeping the Dragon Ball Z timeline in order from the first game and you are whipped straight back to the same fight with Raditz that kicked off both the anime and the previous game. It feels like you could do a lot more with a story about demons running amok through history than simply rehashing a story you already did not even two years ago with minimal variation. Maybe that’s just me. Credit where it’s due though, at least the game goes out of its way to jump in at different points throughout each storyline than it did in the previous title. Where the story mode was, at least conceptually, an interesting take on aging material in the original, here it’s a bit of a slog, especially during those moments where the hated random difficulty spikes rear their ugly heads again.

If you’ve ever played one of Dimps’ Dragon Ball brawlers before then you know more or less what to expect from the combat. You are given a 3D space to battle in, often large and nicely decorated to evoke the classic DBZ art style. From there, you have two main attack buttons that will be really all you’ll need for the vast majority of the game. There’s a grab button which is aggravatingly slow to execute and a lock-on system that helps me locate my foe in the din of powers and speed but beyond that proved rather disorienting. Also, when using my ki attacks it felt like they barely did anything so I quickly forgot about them.

Once you get your head around the game’s various combos then things begin to flow a great deal more smoothly and soon you’ll be throwing together fight sequences that look like they could have come right out of the show.

Your specials and ultimates are another area where the game will let you customise your voiceless hero, hotswapping moves for ones that will be a better fit for your playstyle. This is nice because it means you can get into a particular groove and elevate it rather than being stuck with a move list that isn’t particularly interesting to you.

Aside from the fight mechanics, the game’s more robust element is its RPG loop. Every fight earns experience which can be used to level up your fighter and build them in a way that will allow you to fine-tune your playstyle.  Stack points into whatever category will help you do that best. Different clothing sets will also grant bonuses and buffs to certain skills (but generally leave your hero looking like a fashion disaster). As RPG systems go, it’s far from complex and actually recalls the days of Super Nintendo RPG’s where item upgrades were the key to squeezing every last ounce of power from your characters. The downside to this is that, when you run up against one of the many  random difficulty spikes, it does mean you’ll need to grind for levels and gear to proceed.

The missions remain the real problem for Dimps and are no more inspired than they were last time around. This is to say that they are not inspired. At all. While the roster of characters at your disposal is huge, there’s bugger all to do with them. All too often I’d jump into the next mission only to find it was the same “Take down x number of enemies before the boss turns up” structure yet again. You gotta give me more than that, otherwise it makes the game feel like an endless grind. The Parallel Quests provide a set of objectives that need to met during each mission, which changes things up a little, but it doesn’t really get you anything beyond a slightly more interesting way to grind for gear or xp.

It’s possible to rope your friends in, however. Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2‘s online mode allows for two-player co-operative missions in addition to simply being able to battle against each other. The only other new mode in this edition is the Expert Mission mode which throws a unique boss battle at you each time you jump in. It’s a great mode, I really enjoyed it! Figuring out how to counter the boss’s abilities and get in there to deal huge damage was super fun. I wish there was more modes of this creative calibre on offer because the game sorely needs them.

At the risk of sounding incredibly mean, which is not my intention, Dragon Ball Xenoverse 2 is the kind of sequel that barely justifies its own existence. Instead of striving to do more or curtail the issues of its predecessor, it is content to rehash a  lot of what came before, even going so far as to pinch animations from the last game and reuse them. The differences between the original game and this sequel are so minimal that it’s hard to recommend. For fans, I doubt this will matter much. The game is filled to bursting with beloved characters and the visuals are, admittedly, so gorgeous that we’re now closer it looking like an interactive cartoon than ever before. With an approach that aimed to evolve the game in a meaningful way, rather than relying on what came before — regardless of whether it worked or not — this could be a series that really stands the test of time. There’s fertile ground here, I want Dimps to mine it.

If you didn’t play the original game, then this is absolutely worth a look. If you did, you may find yourself wondering, as I did, if you’re playing the right game.

Score: 6.0 out  of 10
Highlights: Gorgeous visuals and art design; Knows how to push the nostalgia button
Lowlights: Almost indistinguishable from the first game
Developer: Dimps
Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment
Release Date: Out now
Platforms: PS4, Xbox One and Windows PC

Reviewed on PlayStation 4 Pro with review code supplied by Bandai Namco.