I was already a Dragon Ball fan by the time I first saw a video game based on the anime and manga series. I was on the bus home from school, and another kid had a picture from a game out in Japan, Dragon Ball GT: Final Bout. There was Goku, but not how I knew him, all eye shadow and oddly 1980s perm, draped in red fur. Nevertheless, it was exciting to see him, and other favorite characters, in a video game. I wanted to play it so badly.
And yet, in all the years that have passed, Dragon Ball and gaming haven't quite hit it off. The series was a whimsical action comedy, supposed to be funny beside its moments of martial arts bad-assery. Fighting games represented a natural genre for the series, but there have been so many, and they all rather button-mash themselves into a blur. 2015's Xenoverse and its late-2016 sequel have their fans—but while the familiar faces are all there, and the games look great, they're just a bit done-before, with repetitive combat and audience sights singularly aimed at those already firmly committed to everything Dragon Ball.
Dragon Ball Fusions is different—and, for me, it's both the best game available to Dragon Ball fans right now, and a brilliant hopping-on point for anyone yet to truly engage with the franchise in a gaming capacity. Available now in Japan and the US, and released in Europe on February 17 th, it's a turn-based role-play-cum-strategy game for the 3DS that features just about every Dragon Ball character you can think of, who can team up with your own player-created character. More importantly, it respects the series' lighter-hearted roots, with a fun story that never takes itself too seriously, and that moves at a pace you dictate.
That story posits that your character and their rival, a Saiyan named Pinich, are bored with constantly sparring with each other. So, one day, you gather up your Dragon Balls and make a wish: that all of the strongest fighters from across multiple worlds and timelines be brought together into one tournament. And, sure enough, you get everyone, from a young Goku to Jaco the Galactic Patrolman. And the interactions between these characters are frequently hilarious.
Instead of leaning on tired plotlines from the show, Fusions creates all-new experiences that never could have happened if it wasn't for the protagonist's incredible wish. We see young Trunks meeting his older sister from Dragon Ball GT, and being totally confused as she begins to boss him around. Young Goku runs into Bardock, the father he never got to meet, and has his strength tested—as a result, Bardock agrees to join your team. All of these encounters bring excitement to a series that has often lost itself down narrative dead ends.
It feels like something out of the Pokémon or Fire Emblem series, but with all of these amazing Dragon Ball characters cast in place of pocket monsters and princes.
All of the story beats are brilliant from a fan perspective—but what really sets this game apart from Dragon Ball titles before it, and represents why it's a great experience for people who've never followed the adventures of these wild-haired heroes before, is its bold dedication to doing something different, genre wise. Dragon Ball, until now, has predominantly been a fighter. There have been role-playing elements, as seen in Xenoverse, but Fusions takes that side further and pairs it with turn-based combat that's both traditional and, as its title implies, not.
Each character attacks in sequence. So far, so RPG. All of the characters have somewhat genre-standard roles assigned to them, some unexpectedly, others obviously. They deal out stat buffs, essential healing, or cast a variety of impediments on the enemy—you know how this sort of thing goes. But then comes the fusions. Goku and Vegeta can become Vegeto, naturally—but using the "EX Fusion" command creates completely new results from the same ingredients. Mix and match in just the right way and you, too, can have yourself a Super Saiyan 4 Goku, just like the one I first saw on that school bus.
Post-fusion, each character has three moves at any given time—new ones must replace existing. As such, you can never enter the battlefield fully loaded, but after carefully selecting the right balance of offensive and defensive abilities, across your team. And there's the strategy side of proceedings, as attacks vary in strength and range, and move-sets can prove utterly unwieldy when facing certain foes.
The more I play Fusions, the more I'm enamored with the amount of thought that's needed before each significant encounter. It feels like something out of the Pokémon or Fire Emblem series, but with all of these amazing Dragon Ball characters cast in place of pocket monsters and princes.
This isn't a game where you're effectively slamming action figures into one another, with child-sized hands. Fusions is a clever RPG that actively changes the direction of a franchise that had been exhausting itself in a single genre. You'll still fight Frieza, Cell, and all of those evildoers that fans have come to like so much; but this time the encounters are framed by a story quite unlike anything else in Dragon Ball history. A story that gets the funny side of this franchise, and wraps that around gameplay that genuinely feels refreshing after Xenoverse and its more pugilistic predecessors.
If you, too, are burned out on the Dragon Ball games of old, this is the solution. It's got me excited again about this long-running saga, split as it's become across all manner of dimensions. Here, those fold in and coalesce, creating a terrific coherency that should appeal to beginners. And even if you ultimately don't click with the game's RPG design, after a few sessions, you're sure to have a laugh or two getting that far.