Dragon Ball Z: Shin Budokai 2 PSP Review

When I’m not industriously pouring my life into the bottomless well of video gaming I work at my local pub. It’s a pretty high-class pub, the sort of pub you wouldn’t venture into without a pair of pedigree Labradors and a golfing habit. There’s a rotating connoisseur ale selection and all kinds of poncy Belgian beers, served in glasses which get you drunk just by looking at them. The clientele are middle-aged, spoilt and narrow-minded, the kind of people who go on a cruise every summer and spit blood at the sight of a Guardian in the newspaper rack. Video game virgins to a man.

There’s also a tasting notes board pinned up on one wall for the ‘guest’ beers, covered with words like ‘hoppy’, ‘dark chocolate’ and so on. As I stared at it absently during a lull one evening, struggling to think of something interesting to say about the competent but fundamentally uninteresting game which is Dragon Ball Z: Shin Budokai 2, I had a revelation.

Fighting games, when you get right down to it, are like booze.

Oh go with it, for pity’s sake. I spend thirty brain-deadening hours a week leaning on that bar- at least let me do something useful with what little knowledge I’ve picked up in the process, yes? If it makes you happy let’s pretend this is some cunning attempt to suck up to all those scary non-gamers we keep hearing about from Nintendo. Modern electronics consumers don’t want to read a review which rambles on about resolutions, control schemes and polygon counts, the hardcore vocabulary of yore. They want to hear things put in the language of the commonplace, the routine, and what more commonplace and routine than alcohol? Hmmm. Don’t tell my GP I said that.

So. Tekken Dark Resurrection is your vintage Chardonnay, instantly gratifying yet packed with an assortment of fruity flavours which repay extended appreciation. Street Fighter on the other hand is some sort of easy-going Chilean Merlot, a little too smooth (or flat, as in like, ‘two-dimensional’- I know, I’m hilarious) and possibly overripe, but enjoyable nonetheless. Def Jam: The Takeover is a straight-up, down-and-dirty slug of kitchen vodka. And Dragon Ball Z: Shin Budokai 2 (hereafter Shin Budokai 2) is that girly mixer you had at that club the other week, just before the Madonna remix came on and you made a tit of yourself on the dance floor. It tastes pretty much like it did when Dragon Ball first landed on PSP back in 2006- flashy but a bit superficial- and it sure as hell isn’t getting better with age.

OK, so there’s nothing dramatically wrong with this fast, fun little 3D fighter, especially if you dig the Dragon Ball universe. Each character has a basic array of combos composed of light (‘rush’) and heavy (‘smash’) attacks, interspersed with projectiles, counters, cancellable moves, ‘Aura Blast’ guard breaks, chargeable strikes and throws. Underpinning all this is a solid foundation of checks and balances. Special moves, projectiles and counters draw power from the Ki gauge, which is refilled by holding the left trigger or, alternatively, smacking your opponent upside the head. Max out the meter to unleash the stock Dragon Ball epilepsy-inducing Super Saiyan transformations and thermonuclear fireballs. Empty the metre and your character will flop around helplessly like that drunk I had to hoof out the back (alright, ask politely to leave) last Tuesday night. Bet he was on the Def Jam.

Ultimately however the full-bodied core combat can’t disguise the bland roster (each character handles more or less identically) and watered-down mode selection. In addition to Arcade, Practice and ad hoc Versus modes, there’s a Z Trial mode in which players must fulfil certain conditions to win (fighting without guarding, for instance) but Shin Budokai 2’s chief concession to originality is the revamped story mode, which now features a branching mission structure, a simplistic overworld with destructible/defendable settlements, and an RPG-lite character development system. The latter is arguably the most successful new element, requiring the player to place cards on a 9X9 grid in order to buff up moves or adjacent cards- a more cerebral exercise which complements the punching and kicking much as a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon complements a slab of Roquefort. Stop looking at me like that. Flying around the overworld on the other hand is a pointless, uninspiring experience marred by bolt-on graphics, all the more annoying in that it results in additional loading pauses (each lasting around 10-15 seconds at worst).

Besides the additional modes the only real distinction between Shin Budokai 2 and its predecessor is the new story arc, which occurs through unimaginative talking-head cutscenes and is generally incomprehensible without a BA in deranged anime plotting. Apparently Goku has died of a heart condition, Trunks is doing a bit of time-travelling and Babidi and Dabura are out to leech everybody’s energy again. I lost track after the first couple of text bubbles and chances are so will you- unless you’re a dedicated DBZ enthusiast, in which case you will probably now be thinking “Zoinks! Babadi and Dabura up to their old tricks. Looking to revive Majin Buu, I shouldn’t warrant, but will they be able to manipulate such a fickle and powerful entity? And what of Goku’s fusion technique?” You have my fear and admiration, whoever you are.

At least this mixer looks classy enough, with squiffy cell-shaded character models, a respectable frame rate and appropriately explosive effects. On the flipside the arenas are a bit monotonous and the overworld, as previously noted, looks pants. The game scores points in the auditory department with some extensive albeit cheesy voice-acting, and the Tokyo rock soundtrack is tolerable enough.

Shin Budokai’s real problem is one of context. The PSP is a rather select establishment for a recycled, run-of-the-mill fighter these days, and there’s simply little reason to settle for rum and coke when champagne is available for a fraction of the price. If you obsess over fighting games or regularly yell ‘Kamehameha’ in your sleep then by all means pick it up. Everybody else should just rent it out, or go buy Tekken instead.

The bar beckons. Maybe I should flip this metaphor on its head, try to sell the liquor by inviting comparison with video games? “The Chenin Blanc, sir? A feisty little number, which strikes the palette much like an Italian plumber stomping on an enraged tortoise. Would sir care to try the demo?”