Dead or Alive 5 ditches bright colors and personality for respectability, and loses some of the fun
Dead or Alive 5
Dead or Alive 5 is the first of the franchise to be released without director Tomonobu Itagaki, and Team Ninja has used the creative freedom to bring some much-needed life to a series that had become more of a jiggle simulator than a serious fighting genre competitor. The changes will be welcome to those who are just getting into the series, but long-standing fans may feel like DOA 5 is a step backward.
The Dead or Alive games have always been impressive from a visual standpoint, but they’ve also always suffered from – or benefited from, depending on who you talk to – a very anime-style aesthetic. Characters had unblemished skin and big, vibrant eyes, with perfectly-parted hair.
Dead or Alive 5 has remodeled the cast and, while they’re still nowhere near realistic, it’s nice to see little details like pores, flushed cheeks, and hair that’s broken up with transparent layers and uneven edges. Team Ninja put extra work into the characters but the environments, which have always been bright and vivid, became a bit too dark and gritty. Instead of the Shinto shrine, red carpet theater, or island of dinosaurs from previous games, Dead or Alive 5 places fights in such locales as the top of an oil rig, in an alleyway, and a boxing ring. There’s still the absurd arena or two, but it feels like there’s a schism between characters and their location, and arenas get recycled far too often in the Story mode.
The changes from previous installments to Dead or Alive 4 are significant: counters no longer did as much damage, falls couldn’t kill you, and the button-masher-friendly controls were refined to focus on smaller input time windows. Dead or Alive 5 doesn’t change as much as DOA 4 did, making it feel like refinement of 4’s mechanics rather than a full sequel.
You’ll still have a button for punches, a button for kicks, a button for throws, and a button for counterattacks, which the game calls holds. It’s a rock-paper-scissors triangle of what dominates what, where punches and kicks beat throws, throws beat holds, and holds beat punches and kicks. There are tweaks to combat, such as a decrease in damage from holds and slightly slower animations and, though I preferred the lightning fast bouts of DOA 4 , it’s not like the game is plodding along. The troubles come when the game tries to add something new, as the additions feel gimmicky.
The biggest and most noticeable addition is the Power Blow, a sort of equalizer for those on the losing side of a match. When your fighter reaches less than 50% health, you can trigger a Power Blow, which is a charged up attack that, if it connects, automatically lands several hits and then sends your opponent flying. There’s a moment as your character finishes the combo where you can aim the final blow, and some stages have certain items in the environment that can only be triggered or hit by a Power Blow.
It sounds good in theory, especially since it affords players an opportunity to make a comeback and thus keep the battle tense, but the move tends to reward bad play instead of good. Power Blows are not as cool or useful as a Hyper Combo from games like Street Fighter, and they don’t balance well against a skilled opponent. Since they take so long to charge up, it’s easy for a skilled player to take advantage of the opening. It’s also very easy for your opponent to learn where the strike will land and how far it can reach so they can avoid or counter it. In all the online matches I played leading up to the review, not a single person used a Power Blow. We’ll have to wait and see how popular the move becomes once the game is released to a wider audience and things become more competitive.
The game does a poor job of even telling you what a Power Blow is. If you want to jump into online fights or matches against your buddy on the couch, you won’t know. You have to either play through Story or enter Arcade mode to see a list of how to perform them, and only Story mode describes what it does. The Story mode is treated like a tutorial that drags on forever, and although it introduces challenges with every fight that are designed to make you a better player, there’s a frustrating lack of clarity in what you must do to win.
For example, when the Story mode has you play as Ryu Hayabusa, it attempts to teach you his special throw. The instructions list how to do it, but you won’t know if you’re actually pulling it off or what it’s supposed to look like unless you go into training to view a demonstration. Likewise, when the game teaches you how to do an advanced hold, it lists the button inputs, but you really want to head into training to get a feel for when in a character’s animation you need to press them. It’s annoying that the game can’t give a visual representation of these challenges before telling you to perform them, and if you want to make sure you’re doing it right, you need to back out and go through several menus to practice.
Thankfully, training mode is well fleshed out. There are many options for CPU behavior, including the ability to record a move or combo if you’re trying to learn how to counter a certain blow. A HUD can be toggled to show exactly how much damage you’re doing and how many frames it takes to perform a move, so the hardcore crowd should be pleased. If you’re trying to figure out a character’s moves, there’s a guided tutorial that challenges you to complete the character’s move list, complete with demonstrations if you need them.
A soap opera starring ninjas shouldn’t be this boring
In his review of Resident Evil 5, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw lamented that sequels of that franchise tended to bring “arbitrary game play additions that improved bugger-all and more unresolved plot threads to staple onto an arching storyline that increasingly resembled a colony of octopi going through the woodchipper.” I tried to think of a more accurate, succinct way of describing how I felt about Dead or Alive 5, but I really couldn’t. The addition of a Story mode in no way improves the series, and in many ways hinders it.
If you haven’t been following the series over the past decade and a half, here’s a quick run-down: “Dead or Alive” is both the name of the franchise and a worldwide fighting tournament sponsored by mega-corporation DOATEC. A ninja named Kasumi enters the tournament to get revenge on the champion, a ninja named Raidou, for crippling her brother, Hayate, and putting him into a coma. Raidou is the father of Kasumi’s half-sister, Ayane, who must now hunt down and kill Kasumi for leaving the village. In the second Dead or Alive, a clone of Kasumi appears, Hayate has lost his memory, and for some reason a troll is now the final fight of the tournament. The third tournament reveals that Ayane’s foster father was the one who allowed the troll into the world, and his hunger for power has allowed DOATEC to twist him into the ultimate warrior. The fourth tournament revealed that no, actually it was the clone of Kasumi was the ultimate warrior all along, and DOATEC has been compromised from within by a man named Donovan, who was the bad guy mastermind orchestrating everything from day one.
That’s just the main plot, to say nothing of the ancillary characters like the Russian assassin Bayman, the British assassin Christie, the eccentric Zack, or father-daughter wrestling combo of Bass and Tina. And how could we forget those beautiful memories on the beach with some “xtreme” volleyball? With the new looks and “I’m a fighter” ad campaign, Team Ninja had a chance to start from scratch, or to at least streamline the insanity that is the Dead or Alive plot.
Instead, the story suffers from obvious shoehorning of characters who have no impact or relevance to what’s going on, and when twists present themselves, they just come across as confusing. There’s a difference between a character having ambiguous motives and having confusing motives, but Dead or Alive 5 doesn’t recognize it.
I don’t subscribe to the “it’s a fighting game, the story isn’t important” philosophy. The Mortal Kombat reboot brought new game play, refined visuals, and a cohesive story with decent writing and voice acting. There’s no reason DOA couldn’t do the same. Add in the feeling that the story exists as a tutorial and you wind up with a tedious, boring exercise that doesn’t engage or hold attention as it should. The story gets in the way of enjoying Dead or Alive 5 when it should be helping spur enthusiasm.
It’s telling that even with the new additions to the roster who are fun to play, redesigned characters that look far better than they ever have, and a tweaked combat system, in the end, the latest entry to the franchise just inspires me to revisit its previous installments.