So, full disclosure, I am/was an avid DBZ fan. I’ve seen all the episodes, more than once. As I kid I would run around the house Kamehameha’ing at invisible enemies, dreaming that one day I could experience having powers like Goku. So needless to say, I was pretty excited when I first heard about a Dragon Ball Z VR experience on the oculus subreddit. There had been a previous demo that had brought DBZ into VR, but that was ultimately very disappointing. The posting touted it as an exciting “experience,” so my expectations were slightly tempered, knowing I probably couldn’t blast enemies with my own Kamehameha, but I was pumped to try it out. Warning this review contains spoilers.
When you first load up the experience, you see a welcome screen that introduces the game and offers the link to the webpage. The title page is careful to state that this is a “project-stage alpha,” which translates to: “this is going to be rough around the edges.” There are explosions happening around the titles, but nothing that suggests what you are supposed to do from here. Turning around completely, I see off in the distance a text box, and seeing no other option, begin the journey over to it. I say journey because for some reason this was placed about a 20 second walk away from the initial titles.
After reading over the controls, I was a little confused by the instruction to destroy the box tower, as I had yet to see a box tower appear, but turning around revealed a tall tower of DK2 boxes with some strange looking fire/energy at the top. Pressing “1” brings up a lance/pole that you use to push the boxes over and knock down the tower. I thought that this was a bit of a missed opportunity here, as the DK2 boxes and pole looked out of place in a DBZ experience. Perhaps if the developers changed the lance to Goku’s power pole it would make more sense, but it seemed somewhat out of place to me.
I believe the purpose of the tower is to show that the game uses some mechanics similar to Sightline, where rotational head movement and “gaze” control the behavior of the game. So I get it for the purposes of the demo, but it does make for a slightly confusing UI in the beginning. If it were to be more DBZ themed, for example taking down Kami’s Lookout, and adding the aforementioned power pole, it would be better but that’s just an aesthetic critique.
After knocking down the tower (make sure to get at an angle where you can watch it fall down on you) you are taken to one loading screen, with some music, then another with Frieza doing some tai chi.
After a little bit the Frieza scene jumps to a menu (finally!) where I am offered a variety of choices, which you are able to select by looking at them and clicking.
I was offered my choice between a “free run mode,” which allowed me to explore the Namek environment; a “destruction mode,” which put me in an environment that allowed me to blow up pieces of the landscape with Ki blasts. This was a fun distraction for a bit, but I was anxious to dive into the meat of the demo, the story mode.
Going back to the menu (by pressing left-CTRL), there are a few different choices for story mode. One which plays the scenes in order start to finish, and another couple that allow you to choose between different scenes, Goku’s Kamehameha vs. Freiza and his Spirit Bomb. Played together the scenes lasted I believe about 45 minutes, but I was wasn’t timing them.
When you load up the full story mode, you see a bridge in front of you, and within the first couple seconds an explosion behind you. In the distance you can faintly make out Frieza and Goku battling it out in the air. Walking along the bridge and following the action (being careful not to fall in the water because currently there is no way to get out and you have to reset scene) you begin to realize that the fighting is helping guide you through the scene. It is an interesting storytelling mechanic and really helped me feel like I was a participant observer in the scene.
Continuing along the pathways ahead of me, I slowly (the walk/run speed, even with shift pressed is a bit annoyingly slow) make my way through the hills and islands of Namek. As I enter a clearing the scene starts again, with Goku and Frieza back at it. As they fight I hear the dialogue from the show playing along with the motions. Even having seen this scene countless times before, it was a refreshing new perspective being immersed in it and being able to control my movements. As the fight careened out of view, my gaze was tracked to some familiar characters who had appeared observing the fight.
There was some more dialogue and Frieza could be seen in the water, apparently powering up. Moving away from the models of Piccolo, Gohan, and Krillin to try and get a better view of the action, the scene begins again, with Goku and Frieza zipping around the screen exchanging melee blows. Ending with Goku powering up and doing his Kaio-Ken Kamehameha, which looked really impressive in VR.
From here, the action starts off again, in the second scene. The fight between Goku and Frieza resumes again, and blows a hole through previously intraversable terrain. As you begin to walk through the newly created path, more dialogue begins to play and as you enter the next area you see that a scene from the show itself is projected on the sky. This was a really cool way to integrate the anime itself with the VR experience and is something I hope is adopted in future anime experiences in VR.
The story continues with Goku preparing his spirit bomb, as it did in the show, this particular scene lingered a little long but when the action finally got going it was fun to watch. One highlight was when Piccolo steps in to stop Frieza from attacking Goku while forming the spirit bomb, the ensuing fight flings the action all around the user, culminating in our first (and only) real up close look at the story animation.
The finale of the scene has Goku’s massive spirit bomb come smashing down on Frieza from above, as he desperately tries to destroy it with his death bomb. The scale of this scene in VR was both impressive and system melting, as my 980 couldn’t event quite handle it as it slowed down a bit during the resulting explosion. That said, it was still fun to watch.
While playing through the experience I found myself longing for a way to more easily and quickly traverse through the scene, a flying mechanism would be awesome, or something that allows me to teleport through camera angles. Either way, while I enjoyed the experience I found myself far too often watching from Krillin’s view on the sideline, which didn’t translate well, but is probably fixable. Oftentimes the nosebleeds view made the scenes feel like they dragged a bit more than they should have because there was not a lot of observable action. But all this criticism is to be taken with a grain of salt, because the project is still at such an early stage.
Overall, the Dragon Ball Namek Experience is a fun experiment in VR cinema, which appears to be a great fit for cell-shaded animation, and anime. The ability to be in the scene as it happened added a lot of value to the story, and made you feel like you were there with the characters.The way that the movements of the fight helped to lead your gaze was great, and I can’t wait to see this once (if) they implement the new 3D audio from Visisonics, which will be included in the next SDK. Especially for the dialogue, this would be really key. I think that once this experience is finalized (and optimized for more systems) it could be one of the premier examples of the animated VR cinematic genre. Unfortunately, due to licensing issues, we may never get to experience this vision fully realized. But hey, heres to hoping Funimation catches wind of this and helps turn it into a full blown experience.
To download and try the experience for yourself, be sure to check out the developer’s page (just be warned, you need a really good rig to play through the whole thing):