That's odd. Younger Dragon Ball Z fans may not think that it's possible to associate card-fighters to the perennially existing series. After all, card fighting is for series like Yu-gi-oh! and Duel Masters (is there anyone out there that actually understands that series?). Right? Well, Dragon Ball Z has been card fighting for much longer than either of those series has existed. After a fifteen year hiatus, the latest DBZ game for the Nintendo DS, Dragon Ball Z: Harukanaru Densetsu, takes the series somewhere it hasn't been for a while. Interestingly, it's another venture from Namco-Bandai, rather than the direct overseas license holder, Atari.
Rather than retelling the DBZ canon, let's have a quick look at the gaming history of DBZ. Between 1990 and 1992, Bandai (as they were known then) released three games on the NES: Dragon Ball Z: Kyoushuu! Saiyajin, Dragon Ball Z II: Gekigami Furīza and Dragon Ball Z III: Ressen Jinzōningen as Japan only releases. For their time, they were very solid card fighters and each spanned one arc, from the Saiyan to the Namek/Freiza to the Android/Cell arcs. Also in 1992, Dragon Ball Z: Chō Saiya Densetsu - or Dragon Ball Z: Legend of the Super Saiyan, was released on the SNES in 1992. The SNES game is arguably one of the most comprehensive representations of the series, even though it only covered up till the end of the Freiza battle, though it had a nice twist at the end.
Dragon Ball Z: Harukanaru Densetsu does have a few similiarities to its predecessor, but for the most part, is quite the new game. The old SNES game, was a free-roaming turn-based RPG that managed to get a lot of things right, such as the balance between power levels. While relatively simple for an RPG, it managed to retain some depth and authenticity in relation to the actual series. Harukanaru Densetsu is a very simple RPG as well, but this time instead of having a party you'll play as one of four characters, through four separate story-lines, these characters being Goku, Gohan, Piccolo and Vegeta (who needs to be unlocked). Each story ends at the end of the Cell arc. To play through with everyone could take in excess of fifteen hours.
Instead of being allowed to fly around an open world, players are consigned to a field that resembles a board game. Each 'board' is themed and built to look like the area that it's set in. Players will be confined to pathways that are split by a number of nodes, and will only be able to move between nodes. Along the way, you'll be forced into random battles and you'll also be able to find numerous items as well. This arrangement is not dissimilar to Dragon Ball Z: Budokai 2 but instead of traditional fighter, all the fighting in this game is done with a deck of cards.
While you can use the stylus to control the game, you have the options of using the face buttons as well, though one schemed isn't necessarily better than the other. Rather than resorting to a customisable deck and a complex set of rules, Harukanaru Densetsu instead opts for a simpler approach. You have the one set deck and it cycles as you use it, while you have a hand of five cards at your disposal. There are eight different kinds of cards: Attack, Energy Up, Defense Up, Reverse, Use Item, Friends, Hide and Wild cards. There are two states in the game, Map and Battle, and each of different card types will have a different effect in each state. While this may seem a little intimidating at first, it actually works quite well and is reasonably easy to learn.
Each of the cards in the game will have a number in the top left (attack) and the bottom right (defend). On the map, the attack number determines the amount of spaces that the player can move, while if the defend number is lower than the attack number of the random opponent's attack, you be forced into a battle. In battle, both players will choose a card and the card with the highest attack will "win" that round. The winner will then perform the action designated on their card. In the event of a tie, number of the tie will accumulate and be added to the next round that sees a winner. In the (most common) event of an attack, the defense points can help minimise the damage. Effectively, the card game is similar to an old game named War. When you win a battle by depleting the enemies energy bar, you'll get some experience points.
While the card game is simple to learn, it's quite a reasonable diversion from your recent DBZ games. In a way it's a good thing, as it avoids the usual pitfalls of card-battler complexity and adds some variety. However, there can be some interesting scenarios, such as the 'reverse' card can switch attack ratings both for and against your favour. There's a fair degree of luck involved, but at the same time, you have to try to make the best of the situation. Each map or scenario has a limited number of turns and can take up to 30-40 minutes to complete. While the game may not be as "grand" or exaggerated as previous DBZ titles, it's a system that manages to work. The game has a multiplayer more where up to four players can play in a network but fortunately, two players can play on one cart as well.
Unfortunately, the game hasn't completely avoided the pitfalls of card-battlers, and the flaws jointly conspire to bring down the experience. The game doesn't make it particularly clear that you can save on the go. It would have been nice if it were made more clear cut, as if you didn't realise that it existed, you may have just wasted the last twenty minutes. It's a bit of a minus in terms of what you'd expect in a portable game. The pacing of the game is too slow and there are a few too many unnecessary actions that are taken, all just to move from one place to another. There are also random battles after every turn which is not only irritating as it causes the pace to slow down, but they're often very easy and can get really annoying, especially after fifteen on the trot.
Despite the fact that the game is rather easy, if you lose once (most likely to the end of level boss) or fail to complete objectives in the turn limit, it's game over. And after that, you'll have to repeat that scenario all over again. There just went 30 minutes down the loo, as neither your level-ups nor found items are saved. You have to start right from the beginning of the round. Also, the game needs some of its rules sorted out, as we were caught with our pants down, more than once. For example, we were told that we had to survive fifteen turns, then that we had another ten to complete the scenario. Only once we did the fifteen, for some reason, we were robbed of five turns and ended up with a game over screen and 30 less minutes to live our lives.
Graphically, the game contains an impressive array of detailed sprites and representations of DBZ characters, though it's a shame that the the good ones are limited to so few animations. The DS has proven capable of handling more. At least the cards scans are quite well detailed. Despite the fact that the maps and character avatars are little low on detail, the game does capture the look of the series well. In terms of sound, we were pleasantly surprised with the music. It captures the feeling from the original Japanese show and the track fits the game extremely well, as opposed to the usual hard rock tracks. While there are a few voice samples, you're mainly left with text. Again, we were impressed by some surprisingly endearing dialogue that added some edge to the otherwise kid-friendly dialogue that has been forced on us for a while now. There are some voice samples but they feel forced and don't sound that good.
As far as departures go, Dragon Ball Z: Harukanaru Densetsu is one that almost pays off. While the card game is somewhat easy, this in turn makes it accessible and it's actually built quite well. It makes use of the license in a credible way and can be enjoyable, despite the reliance on luck. Unfortunately, those pesky card game issues get in the way of what is otherwise a solid game. Hardcore fans will likely appreciate the variety that this game will provide but there probably isn't enough to legitimately entice too many others to buy the game. At least the easiness will allow you to convince someone to have a game with you over game share.