It can be fascinating to drop into a franchise years into a deep, devoted fandom and view it without the knowledge or context of the past. Fans of Japanese games often have no other choice, as newer entries are localized and released in the West without its predecessors in tow. Super Dragon Ball Heroes: World Mission is definitely one of these, and its combination of cumulative elements and beginnings in a culture for which we have no equivalent makes it quite the peculiar case.
It’s best to start with some explanations, then: Dragon Ball Heroes is an arcade card game series built around Dragon Ball‘s head-to-head fighting. This is an adaptation of the Super revamp, and Super has been around long enough to have over a dozen card sets, but it’s important to know that it’s a game with a much longer history (almost a decade) and previous attempts at home installments in various forms. It explains a feature set and card pool that is, frankly, ludicrously large: World Mission has tons of modes and a steep learning curve, because it’s incorporating as much of the arcade experience as possible and assuming a player base that’s known how its strategies work for quite a while.
The decline of the American arcade and the sheer size and logistical issues of making and using printed cards have held the idea back from making it to the West, but in Japan, this is a smash hit game in a crowded genre.
It’s also important to understand that it isn’t the first or only game of its kind: Japanese arcade games that use physical cards and interfaces to read them have been going for decades. The decline of the American arcade and the sheer size and logistical issues of making and using printed cards have held the idea back from making it to the West, but in Japan, this is a smash hit game in a crowded genre. So, even though it’s not something you’d know from just playing, it explains the arcade-style menus and inexplicable, emulated “slide this card around to do special effects” controls: it was built for a context in which this was an immersive element and not simply a waste of time. It also explains why it doesn’t come close to feeling like a traditional “digital card game,” as there’s no shuffling and only seven cards per player. It also explains the mostly-random quick-time events among its legitimate battle tactics.
So let’s talk about how the game’s played! Each round, you move your team of seven heroes around the play area to create a certain formation. There’s a standby area at the bottom, used to let your characters rest and regain stamina. Above that, there are three separate tiers of active play, and the further up you place a card, the more stamina it uses and the more damage it deals. There are some minor effects with aligning cards, but generally speaking, you can move anything anywhere and it’s just these tiers that decide what happens. The team with the higher total power attacks first, and then the other team responds. It continues like this until, most of the time, one side knocks the other out.
World Mission tries to pack a lot of decisions into its seven-card teams. Cards can have abilities that only work when at full stamina or when attacking with a canon team. Cards can have super-attacks that require wildly different power levels, with lower ones easier to do and higher ones much more devastating if you can pull them off. Different categories of cards have different charge rates and abilities to guard enemy attacks, and some even transform under certain circumstances. So forming a lineup is a lot more than just saying “I want to use Vegeta.”
But say you do want to use Vegeta? There are a whole host of variations that specialize in different things. Want one that relies on attacking with a specific team from your favorite arc of the show? Want one that starts off as powerful as possible? Want one that works with your carefully-considered strategy that requires he be at full strength in round 4? With the incredibly deep card pool available in the game, you’re bound to find one that’s ideal for you. As long as the card-unlocking gacha machine is cooperative!
Forming a lineup is a lot more than just saying “I want to use Vegeta.”
Somehow, with all the cards, this was not enough cards for the game, so there’s a robust card creator that uses a point system to let players buy stats and skills within a budget. Through this system, you can see the sorts of balancing considerations the development team has for official cards, though Magic: the Gathering this isn’t; you can make some fairly broken stuff, and real sets are full of power variation. Perhaps more importantly, what if you wanted your Piccolo card to have a dozen of the same Goku picture on it? Go for it! In an all-digital experience like this one, legibility and clarity are not concerns of this creator, so it lets you do all sorts of nonsense.
The “story” of the game, such as it is, is set in a world obsessed with the card game, and the lines start to blur between the digital and real worlds. We won’t spoil anything about this stuff, except to say that it’s built to offer tons of challenges and facilitate what-if scenarios, and you won’t run out of battles quickly. Even if you get tired of this, there’s the arcade mode, which has team battles more closely following the events of Dragon Ball itself. As you’d expect with an active property, there’s a lot of the game that focuses on the recent shows and films, but fans of the older stuff will find elements to like as well. There’s even online play, though you’ll probably need to coordinate matches with friends as the community is a bit sparse.
A lot of your enjoyment of Super Dragon Ball Heroes: World Mission is going to be about engaging with the core systems and reveling in Dragon Ball fandom. If it’s a thing you enjoy doing, there are nigh-endless systems available to keep the experience engaging for you. If you’re frustrated by battles decided by reflex or enemy setups with truly cheap gimmicks, or if your eyes glaze over when you see too many Saiyans at once, it’s a bit tough to get through the in-your-face arcade presentation and to the strategy. Still, it’s a fascinating peek into a scene without a Western presence, and for its intended audience, it’s remarkably well-tuned.