Gorgeous, buxom women dripping with sex appeal are probably the first thing most people think of when trying to explain the Dead or Alive series to the uninitiated. After popularizing the phrase ‘breast physics’ and being ogled by throngs of sex-starved teenagers it was almost too easy to forget there was an actual game underneath all those silly costumes and bouncy cleavage, and a pretty engaging one at that. With the recent fighting game revival still ongoing the time was ripe to revisit this strange series, and Tecmo and Team Ninja knew it too. After forays to sunny volleyball island resorts, a handheld spin-off, a seven-year break, and the loss of creator Tomonobu Itagaki, it’s clear that Dead or Alive 5 is a proper reevaluation of not just the series but of how its perceived.
Casual players seeking cheap thrills will find DOA5 an exhilarating button-masher with plenty of shelf life, certainly more than most of the recent gimmicky fighters (I’m looking at you, Soulcalibur). The tweaks in the aging combat system may be subtle, but the core has been nipped and tucked in all the right places, resulting in an experience that is, coupled with a healthy dose of the outrageous elements the series is (in)famous for, fundamentally better, yet still comfortably familiar.
While any person of skill (or lack thereof) can easily jump into the action, DOA5 was and will always be a technical arcade fighting game at heart, and its multiple-point offensive and defense system continues to be rewarding and fairly advanced if you’re willing endure the steep learning curve that goes along with it. Properly timed counter attack and reversals are still the backbone of this game but new mechanics such as Power Blows (super moves) and Critical Stuns are certainly game-changers in capable hands, if you want to win keeping your opponents guessing and reading their movements is downright essential here. A word of warning, however, for those who can keep their adversaries at bay and avoid reversals with stun attacks the cycle can be easily abused, and its easy to envision some player throwing controllers – or expensive arcade fight sticks – in absolute frustration.
But it’s not all about gameplay tweaks, as there are still plenty of new “assets” to gawk over and it appears the series has finally grown up – a bit. Characters look less like an otaku’s wet dream and effects such as sweat and roughed-up clothing practically beg you to finally take DOA seriously. But purists shouldn’t worry – the game still treats certain parts of the female anatomy like Jell-0, and the allure of transparent clothing should keep fans of customization plenty busy into the wee hours of the night. The stage-specific Danger Zones also return and are more explosive than ever as these over-the-top mainstays are filled with more cinematically absurd flair than previous installments. I honestly can’t recall another fighting game that prides itself more on having such realistic graphics and random in-battle sequences of exploding buildings and the occasional airborne car more than DOA. In that respect this is one fantastic, utterly ridiculous game.
DOA5 may be an audio/visual showcase but its overall presentation probably won’t be winning any awards for innovation. The choice of game modes are simple enough with a convoluted Story Mode that borders on the melodramatic and loosely teaches you how to play the game, with additional modes like Arcade, Versus, and Survival modes rounding out the garden variety options.
As with most competitive fighters online matchmaking will definitely occupy most your time, provided you can get past the somewhat archaic implementation. Considering the series’ history with innovation with online matchmaking its a bit deflating, as the feature set is unusually sparse and void of the sort of creativity you’d expect from such an otherwise feature-rich fighter, which makes searching for appropriate skill-level opponents a bit lackluster. It’s not a great UI by any means, but its hard to complain unless your network connection is below average, and matches were generally lag-free and fluid enough to make most losses the fault of the player and not poor network coding, which is more than I can say for other big-budget brawlers (Street Fighter x. Tekken if you’re wondering). One mode that I did find interesting, oddly enough, is the Training Mode, which by current standards is fairly advanced and includes aides such as dummy recording and replicated network delay – all of which are well thought out additions.
Compare and contrast Dead or Alive 5 against other recent 3D fighters and you’d probably be surprised that Team Ninja did as good a job giving it some mainstream appeal similar to a mass-market brawler like Tekken while retaining the depth of mechanics normally reserved for Virtua Fighter (whose Akira, Sarah Bryant, and Pai Chan are unlockable guest combatants here). Ultimately, this also puts DOA in a awkward position, as longtime fans may be disappointed that the game’s biggest innovations lay not with improved breast manipulation and sexual innuendo but actual gameplay mechanics, while potential new fans may be unwilling to look past its busty bombastic cover. Which is a shame since there is a formidable game here to learn, master, and enjoy, one that’s intimately more deserving of a fair shot.