For most gamers, the name Dead or Alive brings to mind two things, neither of which have anything to do with the act of fighting. Dead or Alive 5 doesn’t reinvent the tired and jiggly formula by which DoA has operated, but the now Itagaki-less Team Ninja has added enough gameplay tweaks and cheesy Japanese goodness to make it a compelling choice for fighting aficionados and casual mashers alike.
In a lot of ways, Dead or Alive 5 is a game with an identity crisis. Deep, fluid combat and features like the option to display detailed frame data typify Team Ninja’s ambitions of making a serious, tournament-worthy fighting game. Yet, nonsensical cutscenes fraught with gravity-defying breast physics and a lack of modes echo the series’ dubious history. However, it’s these same oddities that add to Dead or Alive 5‘s charm. Watching Kasumi stare wistfully into the horizon, breasts swinging every which way, while Helena delivers some meaningless bit of exposition, breasts also swinging every which way, is just as stupidly humorous as it is perverse.
Thankfully, those aforementioned oddities don’t detract from Dead or Alive 5’s excellent fighting system. The series’ trademark four-button, counter-based combat returns, and while the overall structure is largely the same, Dead or Alive 5 is a lot more fluid and responsive than previous titles. In addition, each character has a specific weight and feel. Lighter fighters like Kasumi are extremely mobile but deal small amounts of damage, while bruisers like Bass lumber across the arena like a Mack truck, and hit just as hard.
Multi-tiered levels and interactive environments have long been a staple of the Dead or Alive franchise, and in Dead or Alive 5, they play a much larger role in the outcome of a fight. These “danger zones” drastically change the landscape of the arena, often causing a shift to an entirely new location. In one stage, for example, you begin fighting on a raft lodged on a large tree trunk. Knocking your opponent into the trunk sends the raft speeding down a river toward a huge waterfall. The raft then gets stuck at the edge of the cliff, where you can then send your opponent flying off into the jungle below. As a result, each battle feels like an epic, Hollywood-inspired fight scene.
Each fighter also now has a “power blow,” similar to Street Fighter 4’s “supers,” which can be used once they drop below 50 percent health. Not only do power blows add the potential for huge comebacks, but they’re also the best way to trigger a stage’s danger zones, since you can aim where you want the blow to send your opponent.
In addition to series veterans like Kasumi and Ryu, Dead or Alive 5 features two newcomers: Rig, an amnesia-struck oil rig worker who utilizes kick-heavy Taekwondo in the same vein as Tekken’s Hwoarang, and Mila, a fledgling MMA star who combines quick punches and grapples. In addition, Virtua Fighter stalwarts Akira, Sarah, and Pai round out the cast for a total of 24 fighters.
The most obvious change to Dead or Alive 5 is in the game’s appearance. Previous entries in the series featured plastic-looking anime character models that resembled Real Dolls more than actual humans. This entry features a more realistic engine, with highly detailed characters and stages.
Team Ninja is obviously proud of their new artistic direction, because Dead or Alive 5 takes every opportunity to zoom in on its meticulously rendered character models during cutscenes and between fights. Characters also sweat and collect dirt and grime on their clothes as a fight progresses, adding to the more realistic direction. Stages also change throughout fights, with objects like walls, railings, and floors crumbling on impact, and danger zones doing major damage to your surroundings as well.
With such a rich combat system and well-produced visuals, it’s a shame that Dead or Alive 5’s major misstep is its lack of innovation. Where contemporaries like Tekken have incorporated RPG elements like character customization and individualized AI opponents, this game offers the bare minimum in terms of ways to play.
Story mode takes you through the latest confusing, and ultimately pointless, saga in the DoA-verse. Helena is hosting another Dead or Alive tournament as the new head of DOATEC, Hayate and his merry band of ninjas are still looking for Kasumi’s clone Alpha 152, and none of it makes a lick of sense. Poking fun at awkward “lost in translation” moments and bouncing breasts is amusing for a while, but you’ll likely wish DoA’s story was over well before the curtain actually closes. And while story mode does offer some introduction to the game’s combat systems and characters, deeper concepts like Power Blows and blocking versus countering are never explained, leaving players to learn through trial and error.
Versus, Arcade, Time Attack, Survival and Training round out Dead or Alive 5’s list of modes, and though each of them is great fun, there’s nothing here that we haven’t seen a million times before. You can unlock Call of Duty-style tags for your profile, but you see them so seldom, you’ll likely forget that they’re even there.
Online, Dead or Alive 5 has all the bases covered. Ranked and unranked matchmaking, lobbies, and even a training mode for aspiring pros do a decent job of keeping fighters hooked, provided you can deal with the inconsistent connection strength that currently plagues most bouts. Even with search filters turned off, getting into a match often takes far longer than it should. And once in, latency spikes are too common for a game so reliant on split-second timing, even with a day one patch.
It’s unfortunate that Dead or Alive’s reputation is so heavily based on its bouncy female fighters, because this entry serves up a deep, thoroughly enjoyable fighting experience that easily overcomes the franchise stigma. Gorgeous visuals, interesting environments and a goofy sense of humor give Dead or Alive 5 a sense of personality previous entries were sorely lacking. With a lack of innovative modes and inconsistent connections online, Team Ninja’s latest offering is not without its share of issues. But anyone even remotely interested in a solid, and more importantly, fun, fighting game shouldn’t hesitate to give Dead or Alive 5 a whirl.