The Sequel to Rock-Paper-Scissors
Here is a review that was originally posted at Gaijin Densetsu. Over at Gaijin Densetsu, we focus on Japanese developed games, news and culture. If you enjoyed this review, please visit our website!
I used to play a lot of fighting games. When I was in college, Capcom vs SNK 2 and Guilty Gear XX were my bread and butter. I played the hell out of them. I didn't take school very seriously, so I had a lot more time to game than I do now. Were I to go through my transcripts I wouldn't need any explanation as to why I failed an elective PE class I was taking back then. I failed Aikido because I was too busy playing Cacpom vs SNK against my friend, Steve, who happened to be in the same class, and also failed. Those were the halcyon days of local multiplayer for me. I've since moved away from potential local oppenents, and have tried playing a few other fighting games on PSN or XBL, but competing against total strangers online has never really satisfied the same way that playing against a good friend on the couch did. I kind of quit the genre for a while, but after hearing some positive buzz about Team Ninja's Dead or Alive 5, I decided to dip my toes back in the pool. I went in expecting a decent fighter in which I would find some ironic enjoyment, but instead had a genuinely good time with it.
A lot of people, myself included, have some preconceived notions about Team Ninja and by extension the DoA franchise that they've developed. They've never been shy about using the female members of the DoA roster as a vehicle for anime-style cheesecake fan-service. While it isn't as blatant here as it was in their ill-conceived beach volleyball series, DoA5 still makes me feel like kind of a creep when I'm playing it. The male gaze in the story mode's cut scenes is gratuitous and unnecessary. The poses that some of the characters have after they've lost a match, and are laying on the floor panting, are absurd. The series's trademark boob-physics are no less ridiculous now than they have been in previous installments. This is further compounded by some of the skimpiest costumes the genre has to offer. I don't want to dwell on these things, though, because they're common knowledge. When you go out and buy a DoA game, you know what you're buying, so it seems hypocritical to deride the game for these things after the fact. What I want to do is let you know that the way to approach DoA5 is just to look past all that and focus on the core of the experience. If you do, you might discover a tightly designed fighting game that's as rewarding for genre fans as it is fun for new players.
At its core, Dead or Alive 5 is like the most furious game of rock-paper-scissors you've ever played. Punches and kicks beat throws, throws beat holds, and holds beat punches and kicks. Reading your opponent, learning from how they play, and predicting what they're going to do is the key to success in DoA5. Holds have been refined from previous installments, and now that you have to input a different commands to counter mid-punches and mid-kicks, the game does not degenerate into a hold-spamming mess. Instead, holds exist more to punish players for relying to heavily on the same moves. If you recover from a knock-down with a low sweep every time, be prepared for your opponent to figure it out and start holding low-kicks. The same goes for relying too heavily on basic button-mashy combos that most characters share like punch-punch-kick. Because of this, you'll want to at least learn a few quick pokes and mix-up combos for each character, which is pretty easy thanks to the mostly intuitive commands and a decent training mode.
There are a lot of characters to chose from in DoA5, and for the most part they have a pleasant kind of optimistic charm that's rarely seen in modern games. Where other games are too self-serious or deliberately outlandish, DoA5 is filled with father-daughter pro-wrestlering teams, mercenaries, luchadora scientists, fighting tournament promoters, and naive ninja girls. It's a strange brew that winds up seeming only accidentally outlandish. Fans of Virtua Fighter will be happy to see some visiting characters: Sarah, Pai, and Akira, though they turn out to be rather bland compared to series regulars like Hayabusa, Bass, and La Mariposa.
The character models themselves are extremely well modeled and animated, and the stages look wonderful in addition to having some neat interactive elements. Most of the time the fighting looks great, but it looks especially great when you knock your opponent off of a construction site and they tumble multiple stories down to the street where the fight continues. The visuals only suffer during the occasional weird clipping that occurs during a throw or hold. Other than that, DoA5 is a striking game that's uniformly pleasing to the eye. Unfortunately, the music is a low point, phoning it in at its best, and hokey at its worst. The background music for the circus stage is especially grating, and even though I've heard it dozens of times I still can't believe it made it into such an otherwise polished game.
In terms of content, the only real satisfaction I got from this game is going to be from playing against human opponents. Outside of playing the story mode to see the so-bad-they're-good cutscenes, and the training mode to learn moves, I just didn't find much to do in the single player modes. The arcade and survival modes are as bare-bones as they can be, and even playing the harder difficulties means you'll just need to exploit the poor AI even more. Actually, you'll have no choice because the AI is straight-up reading your inputs on those difficulties so in order to succeed you'll have to just spam moves they're not good at blocking over and over again to win. It's just not fun. Thankfully, recent patches have made it possible to unlock bonus costumes by playing ranked matches online. This is great beacause they were previously only available after grinding through some of the games single player modes on the hardest difficulties.
Strong single player components are often a missed opportunity in fighting games, so I can't really knock DoA5 for not mixing it up too much. It would have been nice to see something akin to the challenge tower in Mortal Kombat or the excellent adventure modes in Soul Calibur II, III, and IV. This is a pipe dream, but how cool would a weird psuedo-rpg like Tobal No. 1 have been? That could have been awesome. Instead, depending on your appetite for ridiculousness, you'll get only ironic satisfaction from DoA5's story mode and a growing feeling of shame the longer you spend in spectator mode. I'm only half joking about the spectator mode, since it's a nice inclusion, but it would have been better if there were a way to export your photos directly to your console's hard drive.
That said, I spent most of my time in the game's multiplayer. If you have a steady supply of local opponents, congratulations are in order, because you have the best possible circumstance in which to play a lot of exciting DoA5 matches. The rest of us will have to do with playing over XBL or PSN. My experience on PSN has been mixed so far. Some nights I get matchmade quickly into lag-free bouts, and other nights I have to hear the DoA themed rap that plays in the ranked lobby twice over before I get into a fight. It doesn't help that the default ranked matchmaking settings select the narrowest range of opponents possible based on location, connection speed,and rank. One has to wonder how many people are just hitting the button to go without even looking at those settings. Still, frequent patches have improved the matchmaking since launch and most of the time I have been able to find plenty of reasonably lag-free matches. In addition, the online situation should only improve after the release of DoA5 Plus for the Vita, which will will feature online cross-play with the PS3 version.
If you can forgive the flawed single player modes, creepy male gaze, and sometimes unstable online play, you'll find that DoA5 manages to succeed by being fun to play. I lost hours without realizing it, just playing rank matched after ranked match. Holds make the rock-paper-scissors sub-game that exists in most fighting games seem more front and center in DoA5. I fought a lot of the same characters online, but the flow of the matches seemed much more dependent on my distant opponents than which characters they were playing. Each fight was kind of like its own little puzzle to solve, and I enjoyed most of them. I lost a lot, but sometimes I was the guy who noticed that my opponent always recovered from knockdowns with a low sweep. When I held the low sweep over and over again, punishing them for their predictability, it was awesome.