When I first saw Dragon Ball Legends, the new mobile title due out this summer for iOS and Android, pop up during a Google Game Developers Conference talk on how to make money from apps (perhaps a worrying foreshadow), I thought it looked like it could be a decent, surprisingly slick fighting game based on the hugely popular anime. After all, it features real-time player versus player online fights, teams of three characters you can switch between at will, combos, special moves and over-the-top super attacks. Bandai Namco, the company behind it, even mentioned plans to host tournaments.
It turns out Dragon Ball Legends is not a fighting game at all, despite the fact it has some mechanics familiar to the genre. But that doesn't mean it won't be a fun, commute-friendly option for fans of the superb Dragon Ball FighterZ - and a decent stab at doing justice to the source material.
You tap the screen to perform attacks and you're able to move about the 3D environment by swiping the screen. The inputs are simple: swipe for movement, side flick for a quick dodge, vertical swipe for a dash/backstep, tap the screen for normal attacks, tap and hold for a ki charge and that's about it. Other moves require a single tap, too: tap a card to use it, tap to switch character, tap the player icon to use their ability and tap the Rising Rush icon to use the super.
The idea is Legends can be played comfortably with one finger, probably your thumb as you hold your phone in the palm of your hand, and in this it's a definite success. The game is responsive, with forgiving-enough input timings for casual execution. Playing the game well with one hand is certainly doable.
The control system suits the kind of game Dragon Ball Legends is, which is more of a strategic card battling video game than a fighting game. Cards are automatically drawn from a deck as you fight. There are five card types: melee, ranged, support, special and ultimate. Each has an energy cost, so you have to manage your ki gauge as you play (you can recharge your energy quickly by tapping and holding down). And each character has an element factor that feeds into a simple rock, paper scissors system. You want to use a character that has an element that buffs your character when fighting certain other elements (you see a little arrow up or down to signify whether you're benefiting or losing out). It's a simple system and it's hardly unique, but it's easy to understand and forces you to at least think a bit about your team composition when each player is picking the three characters they want to bring into battle.
As you fight you eventually unlock your Rising Rush ability, which is a dramatic attack that plays out via a fancy, suitably over-the-top Dragon Ball cutscene. Legends does an interesting thing with this: the game asks you to play a card to finish off the Rising Rush attack. All your other cards are then combined to deliver a final attack. But your opponent gets to pick a card, too. If your opponent picks the same card as you, the final attack is mitigated and their character survives with just one hit point. If not, they suffer the full damage of the Rising Rush, which can see all three characters getting stuck in.
And that's about all there is to the fighting in Dragon Ball Legends. It's accessible, easy to understand and forgiving in terms of execution - three characteristics that work well on mobile. The question is, how deep is the strategy? Over the course of my time with the game, I didn't get a sense that there's a huge amount of depth to the card battling system, so while there's a lot to like about Legends, I'm not sure of its enduring appeal.
What I am confident of is Dragon Ball Legends will provide one of the most impressive online PvP experiences yet seen in a mobile game. The online is powered by Google's fancy Cloud Platform and Google's own network, which means players should enjoy a stable connection even when playing against people halfway across the world.
And I was impressed by the visuals, which I reckon will go down well with Dragon Ball fans. Legends doesn't offer the graphical fidelity or pop of Dragon Ball FighterZ, but for a mobile game it looks great, and there's a vibrancy to the 3D characters that shines through on a smaller screen. Each character I've seen, from Goku to Vegeta, Piccolo to Frieza, looks great in motion, and are fully voiced during battles. Bandai Namco has done a good job of recreating the look and feel of the anime, and the production value is impressive throughout. It comes as no surprise to learn that Japanese studio the Dimps, which worked on the Xenoverse series of Dragon Ball games for Bandai Namco, did the heavy lifting on Legends.
This being a mobile game, it's worth mentioning Bandai Namco will make Dragon Ball Legends free to download with in-app purchases. The developers told me you'll be able to buy experience boosts but nothing you can deploy in a battle to give you an edge. It's all about speeding up progress, as it always seems to be on mobile. Bandai Namco also plans to release new characters - and the unique cards that come with them - after the game comes out to keep things fresh.
Overall, I was quite impressed by Dragon Ball Legends, which even comes with a story mode that stars a brand new, Akira Toriyama-created character. Legends feels like a significant effort from Bandai Namco for a mobile game. Indeed, it looks better than some of the Dragon Ball games the company has made for consoles, and has online PvP that looks like it'll work better than the online experience you get in Dragon Ball FighterZ. But Legends is, ultimately, a somewhat throwaway mobile game designed to be played while you're on a bus or a train. Adjust your expectations accordingly.