Fighting games are a bit of a strange contradiction, because they really seem like they should be the most accessible genre. After all, just jumping into a single fight is the epitome of the casual gaming experience. Of course, since most fighting games have incredibly steep learning curves, this doesn't work quite the way it should. Personally, I've always enjoyed fighting games, but don't really have the time to spend learning the intricacies of every character. And then along came Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 2. A fighting game designed with two markets specifically in mind—obsessive fans of Dragon Ball Z, and people for whom learning combos poses a daunting task.
Of course, this is nothing especially new, as the gameplay is basically the same as it was in the first Budokai. What is new, though, and makes this game especially noteworthy among the crowd of fighting games on the market right now, is the series' continuing dedication to innovation in game structure. While other genres change and shift, fighting games remain set in stone. The player chooses a character, then fights a series of (on average eight) characters followed by an unbelievably difficult boss until a perfunctory ending is acquired. I have just described 95 percent of all fighting games. Budokai 2's greatest virtue is that it tries to do something entirely different in a genre where being allowed to choose the order in which enemies are fought is considered to be an innovation.
While the game contains all the standard modes, such as Versus, Survival and Tournament, the real star of the show is the Dragon World mode, which replaces the standard Story mode found in most other games. The game takes place over a series of board game style levels, each themed after a story arc in the cartoon and comic book's run. The player moves their various characters around the map, looking for Dragonballs and running towards or away from the bad guys. The new system is awkward at times, but actually succeeds in simulating large-scale multi-fighter battles through some very simple tricks. For example, "rounds" have been done away with, and enemy characters often start with between three and five health bars as compared to the player's two. The enemy's health never regenerates, which means that if one of the player's characters is defeated, another can jump in and continue to battle the weakened opponent.
The game's other high point is the character graphics, which have switched from the odd and somewhat off-putting 3D renderings of the first game to bright cell-shaded models that fully capture the look and feel of the original characters. All of the energy effects are perfectly done as well, from the Kamehameha to the much-beloved Special Beam Cannon. The backgrounds are mostly bland, but all feature the trademarked Budokai exploding terrain-style interactivity, and despite the fact that the animation for it never changes, it's always refreshing to punch someone so hard that they fly through a mountain or cause an avalanche.
There are a few bad points as well, but since they're all the natural extension of the game's virtues, I have a hard time calling them flaws. A good example of this is the game's relatively limited move set for each of its 34 characters, with only three variables to make up special move combos (punch, kick, and either forward or backwards), and a maximum of five button presses required for even the most complex combinations, it's only natural that all the characters' moves overlap quite a bit. Variety only really enters in when it comes to how the moves look when performed—the upside of this limitation being that once you can play as one character, you can play as all of them.
The other problem is with just how much the game is directed at the hardcore Dragon Ball Z audience. The only way to unlock characters in the game is by defeating certain villains while playing a specific character that has a "special connection" to them from the series. This means that if you're not an extremely big fan of the cartoon or comic, some of the things required to unlock characters and features can seem very counterintuitive. For example, in order to unlock Goku's Super Saiyan power, you would have to select Krillin as your fighting partner for the Namek level, but then allow Frieza to kill him. Not exactly the kind of thing simple experimentation or dumb luck would uncover, is it?
Even with these problems taken into account, Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 2 is an amazingly accessible and fun experience in a genre overfull with games that pride themselves on their depth and complexity. Even with the first game's robust collection system intact, it's not the kind of game that will consume one's focus for weeks on end. All it asks from a player is a few minutes to learn the ropes and a willingness to enjoy themselves. At a time when games proudly announce just how many long hours they will take before being vanquished, it's actually something of a breath of fresh air.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the Playstation 2 version of the game.