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February 8, 2018

RE: Dragon Ball FighterZ

You know that dream where you’re suddenly thrown into a classroom and forced to take a test you didn’t study for?  Or that other dream where you’re late for school/work and you have to hurry to make it there on time?  Or that other (other) dream where you drastically underestimate the length of your commute and fritter away time with naps, snacks, and video games, only to get lost both along the way and at your destination because you didn’t think to write down any navigational details?

Okay, that last one might be specific to me.  But the point is that right now, that’s what Dragon Ball FighterZ feels like to me right now.  It’s kicking my ass…and that’s (mostly) okay.  So now I’ll have to explain why.

Before that, though?  A moment of silence for Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite.  Granted it’s not dead yet, but…well…this is a deathblow dealt to a game that’s suffered plenty already.

If you’re reading this post -- for whatever reason -- I’m going to go ahead and assume you decided whether you were in or out well before the game’s release. Do you like DBZ?  Do you like fighting games?  If you answered “yes” to both, you’re in.  If you answered “yes” to one, you’re probably in.  Otherwise?  I’m guessing that DBFZ has either piqued your interest because of the noise surrounding it, or the sheer novelty of it all.  A licensed anime fighter that’s trying to establish itself (and has established itself) as EVO ready?  Most unorthodox!

Cards on the table: you don’t need me to tell you that DBFZ is good.  It is.  In terms of presentation, it has to be the best-looking DBZ game to date.  I’d bet -- at the risk of pissing off a bunch of Xenoverse fans -- that it’s the best-playing DBZ game to date.  Knowing what the franchise has offered before on that front, it seems pretty certain.  I’ve played and owned a handful of the games; all but one got traded in.  That seems like a statement in itself.  Credit where credit’s due, though: they had their moments along the way.

Where does that leave FighterZ though?  Like I said, it’s probably the best-playing DBZ game to date.  Superficially, it shares DNA with the Guilty Gear and BlazBlue games -- as you’d expect, since this is an ArcSys production (with Bandai Namco as the assist).  It uses the former game’s aesthetic to not only provide top-notch visuals, but reskin the combat into a package that’s sure to make Akira Toriyama proud.  You have light and medium attacks to string together, but also a heavy button that’s dedicated to sending foes flying, and a button commonly used for ki attacks.  

But because this is a DBZ game, you’ve got all of the mechanics from the source material at your fingertips (though you’ll need to spend meter to do some actions).  Hit two buttons, and you’ll vanish and reappear behind a foe for a sneak attack.  Hit the other two buttons, and you’ll go for a Dragon Rush to batter foes and send them flying -- a mechanic that replaces throws in the traditional attacks > throws > blocks > attacks triangle.  Want to close in on a foe?  Fly right at them with a Homing Dash.  Need to turn the tables in a pinch?  Use your trump card, the Sparking Mode, to power up and fight back.  And of course, on top of all that, you’re engaging in three-on-three battles with a team of your choice.  So you’ve got assists to mix up, extend combos, and more.

I know I asked for a moment of silence for Marvel Infinite, but DBFZ does its damnedest to strip the king of its throne.  The action here is so fast and frenzied that you’d think Capcom spliced its genes in there instead.  Assists are going, air dashes are going, beam attacks are going, vanishes are going, everything is going, going, gone.  It’s insane.  Aggression is a key part of any fighter, and those that prefer going ham with their offense are likely sitting pretty with ArcSys’ latest.  

But what about the newbies?  What about the guys who aren’t spending hours and hours at a time in the combo lab, learning the intricacies of every system and attack property?  That’s the real issue here.  Granted, I’d imagine that the fighting game community’s pre-release excitement has led to a pretty high adoption rate; I don’t think this game is going by the wayside anytime soon. (Unlike other games we shall alternate between mourning and laughing at.)  But if the FGC and the genre are going to survive, there needs to be new blood injected.  Is the Dragonball brand strong enough to do that?  Probably.  Is DBFZ enough to keep the non-experts and non-pros coming back for more?  We’ll see.

With that said, I’ve never had a greater understanding of -- and sympathy for -- people who say fighting games are too hard.  

So here’s the thing you might have picked up from my description earlier.  If you’re on a PS4 controller (like I am), you have your light and medium attacks on Square and Triangle.  Heavy attacks are on Circle; ki attacks on X.  Dragon Rush is on R1, while Homing Dash is on R2; Assist 1 is L1, Assist 2 is L2.  You won’t need to press those buttons constantly, but ostensibly, that still makes DBFZ an eight-button fighter.  What button should you press in any given situation?  When should you press it?  Well, you’ll have to learn that through trial and error.

And really, “learning” is the name of the game, especially at this early juncture.  You have to learn what the buttons do, along with the situational awareness to press them at the right moment.  On top of that, you have to learn how (outside of universal inputs) each character responds when you press a button -- power, speed, range, effect, frame data, the works, which is on top of the special move properties.  And because this is a 3v3 fighter, you have to triple the work to do.  And woe to anyone who discovers that their dream team doesn’t have the synergy needed to work together, or you have a lame duck you have to build a team around.  I don’t know if that’s an issue here in DBFZ, but let’s hope we don’t have another MvC3 situation on our hands.

But the real player killer, I bet, is composure (or the lack thereof).  Again -- and much like the Marvel games -- DBFZ is hyper-aggressive.  Chances are high that if you’re not pressing the attack to assault or open up a foe, you’re playing the game wrong…probably because you’re getting comboed into oblivion instead.  Fair enough.  So, two questions: how are you supposed to go on the offensive?  What do you do to start up and maintain pressure?  I can tell you right now that if you do a Homing Dash from full-screen, you’re just going to get smacked by a down Heavy and hit with a combo; I’ve both dished out and been fed that combo platter.

The crucial element here -- even more than Mahvel, if you can believe that -- is that defensive options are even more downplayed than ever before.  In Infinite and its predecessors, you at least had Advancing Guard to repel attacking foes and create some breathing room/an opportunity to fight back.  Here?  You have a deflect move with back and Ki, but doing so on a whim can MASSIVELY backfire on you.  You can also spend meter to tag in and try to interrupt a foe, but one of your biggest resources is your team mates; screw up your switch, and you’re guaranteed to lose the material advantage.

And what else have you got besides that?  Maybe -- and I stress maybe -- a couple of special moves, even though the game seems DP-averse.  Maybe a random Super here and there.  And that’s it.  Besides praying.

It is INCREDIBLY easy to get flustered mid-battle, especially when you haven’t put in the time that your opponents might have.  When do you get your turn?  Hell if I know.  Sometimes it seems like you just flat-out don’t get a turn; either you’re stuck blocking everything that comes your way, or you get hit by the inevitable mix up that forces you to play my favorite meta-game, Which Way Do I Block?  

So because this is part Guilty Gear, you have to worry about instant air dashes that lead to split-second cross-ups; because this is part Mahvel, you have to worry about assists that lead to attacks seemingly from two sides at once.  High and low, forward and back; if you don’t sniff out the attack in the -2 seconds before it hits, say goodbye to a character.  It’s nerve-racking to have an opponent breathing down your neck at all times just ‘cause, especially if you’re too inexperienced to know how to put their shenanigans on blast.  And it’s frustrating to have an opponent take away one of your beloved characters because they managed to convert into a full combo off of a stray hit.

Now, granted, other people probably aren’t going to have to deal with superhuman warriors on a regular basis -- at least not until they gain experience and work their way up in the online space, growing stronger and more confident along the way.  But I’m not other people.  My circumstances are…less than ideal.

My brother has been grinding the absolute hell out of this game.  He’s been like that since the beta, where he casually mentioned that he put eight hours into it in a single day.  That’s more time than I’ve put into the full game entirely, even if you take into account our multi-hour sparring sessions.  He’s played more, and practiced more, and watched more, and read more (assuming he reads, but I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt).  So the end result is that right now, he’s basically unlocked Ultra Instinct, and I’m sitting here trapped by Emperor Pilaf.

I haven’t had the time to sit down and play/train in DBFZ -- even more than usual, because he’s found multiple ways and days to eat into my practice time.  The end result is that playing against him has made me uniquely miserable.  I don’t know how to start up and maintain an offense.  I don’t know how to repel him with my defense.  It seems like I can’t make an approach without him psychically preempting me and starting a days-long combo of his own; if I do land a hit, I either struggle to connect with the bare basics, or hesitate midway because I don’t know what I’m doing and let him fall out.

You know what’s really disheartening?  I fought against him almost exclusively with Piccolo, my favorite DBZ character, and only managed to scrape up a handful of wins.  I didn’t (and still don’t) know what a good Piccolo combo looks like.  Then he picked Piccolo -- a character I figured he hadn’t even touched -- and immediately did things I didn’t even know were possible.

I’m surprised I didn’t melt into a puddle of shame and dribble out of the room.

Let me be perfectly clear, though: everything I’ve said vis a vis my experiences isn’t an indictment of the game.  DBFZ is not a bad game because I lost a lot.  (Or, alternatively, because you lose a lot.)  It’s a good game that just requires a distinct, decisive time investment.  If you’re not going to put in the work to learn how to play, then…yeah, I wouldn’t fault anyone who decided to stay away.  Even I was ready to throw up my hands and say “You win by default, forever” after multiple ass-blastings by a massive array of characters who he had already learned extensive, frame-perfect combos with (it’s barely been two weeks since the official release, and he’s already found ways to make Krillin, Nappa, Yamcha, Trunks, Hit, Goku Black, and good ol’ Goku seem like Vergil).

But I guess that’s the kind of fighter I am.  I enjoy winning as much as anyone else out there, but I mostly dabble in the genre to get a feel for the characters -- my characters.  It always wounds me when I lose a valued member of my team, not so much because it means I’m one step closer to a loss, but because it means a part of me has been ripped away.  I hate that feeling almost as much as I hate not knowing what to do with my characters -- and trust me, I loathe the mere concept.

So yes, the obvious solution is obvious.  I need to sit down with the game for hours, on my own, so I can get some damn practice in.  It’s not that hard.  I can do this.

The odds are against me for sure.  That’s true of anyone who’s picking up the game and isn’t some fighting savant.  Sure, the resources are out there, but they’re so numerous, overwhelming, and lead to an endless wormhole of other tutorials that it’s hard to keep your body from spaghettification.  And as always, the game itself only goes so far to teach you how to play, not just “how to play”.  Someday, fighting games will consistently offer tutorials and training sessions and demonstrations that actually help players (especially when you’re technically rocking an eight-button fighter).  Until then?  As always, the best instructor may be the beatings you take along the way.

But it’s fine.  Because as always, DBFZ is another game you can throw on the “worth it” pile.  It’s worth it to experience a level of speed and intensity not many others have dared to offer.  It’s worth it to bear witness to the technical mastery put into every polygon onscreen.  It’s worth it to take part in a game that celebrates decades of DB history, so that you can feel the love and warmth radiating from each captured screenshot.  It’s worth it to hear those sick-ass character themes, because oh my God Android 18’s is so great I want to drop everything just to learn how to play her.

DBFZ is going to kick your ass, just like it did mine.  But that’s okay.  We all just have to get back up and give it another shot.  And another, and another, and another.

Also, I should probably learn Vegeta.  Seems like he can solve a lot of problems.

Yup.  Problems in that general direction (and thousands of miles beyond) solved.

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