I have to disclaim: I love Dead or Alive. I’ve written about it before, but if there were ever a game that I consider myself competitively skilled at, it would be Dead or Alive. DoA to me has always been a perfect marriage of strategy, skill and speed. So I apologize in advance if I geek out a bit more than normal in this review.
I may have been looking through rose tinted glasses, but I always thought that there was something special about Team Ninja and Tecmo. To me, Team Ninja games highlighted tactical skill, speed and grace, living up to the developer’s moniker. But when development head Tomonobu Itagaki famously left in 2008, question marks began to swirl around Team Ninja projects. Looking at the Ninja Gaiden series is the best way to chronicle The studio’s history. The first Ninja Gaiden (reboot) was released as Tecmo’s exclusive relationship with Microsoft was peaking in 2004 to raving reviews. The following year, in addition to releasing Dead or Alive 4 as a Xbox 360 launch title, Itagaki and Team Ninja tightened up and released a director’s cut edition of the game in Ninja Gaiden Black, a game which plays well nearly a decade later. But just as Ninja Gaiden II launched in 2008, Itagaki and Tecmo had their painful divorce. Ninja Gaiden II was regarded as solid, but not to the same degree of excellence that its predecessor basked in. When Ninja Gaiden III finally released in 2012, the first core game without Itagaki at the helm, it was largely panned as a game that has lost its way.
Dead or Alive 5 is also the first game in the franchise without Itagaki. And while I adore this series, I definitely have my reservations.
When I first booted up Dead or Alive 5, I sat through the familiar Team Ninja boot screen with eager anticipation. I press start, deal with a couple of annoying notifications and ready myself to soak in the high production values that I have come to know from the series. But all I see is a basic menu screen with a two tone rotating level in the background. Gone are the lush landscapes and colorful backdrops that typically occupy a DoA game.
Okay, no big deal. Lets see how it plays. So I boot up the versus mode with my brother, to try to get about two dozen solid matches in. I select Hitomi, my favorite character, and launch into my go-to attack strings. All is right, the punches feel solid, the combinations are well timed and fluid, even the new dynamic camera angles are a nice touch to the presentation. The game employs the same tried and true triangle system (rock-paper-scissors) of strikes are stopped by counter holds, counter holds are beaten by grapples, and grapples are beaten by strikes. All in all, the combat has been tightened and improved from previous iterations, carrying over the four-point counter hold system from DoA4 and dramatically shortening the window in which counter holds are effective (which initially hampered my playstyle). New is the addition of power blows which work similar to the charge strikes many characters already employed. Power blows offer the opportunity to, when properly executed, aim an opponent into danger zones or even off of ledges. Also, a new variation of danger zones has been added in cliffhangers where if one player is knocked to the edge in certain stages, the player with the advantage can choose to add extra damage by either striking or throwing their hanging opponent down to the lower tier. The new cliffhangers brought me back to the thrill I had when I successfully executed an Izuna drop off of the endless cliff stage in DoA3.
But then something odd happened. I was the only one unlocking new titles in versus. My brother hadn’t unlocked a single title, despite trading blows with me at an equal rate. In fact, he hadn’t gotten a single achievement as the second player. A weird design choice, but when most games are designed with local multiplayer as an afterthought, it was not surprising.
The single player story takes a different narrative. Rather than the typical practice of playing each character’s individual story-mode, every character’s story intertwined into a larger timeline. It was a different approach and I praise Team Ninja for breaking out of the mold, but I can’t honestly say if it was successful or not. Fighting games have never been good at telling a story, especially since each game is based in a tournament, and any number of combatants have a story where they can potentially win. This however complicates the ‘official’ narrative as you never truly know what happens from game to game until the next title is released (Soul Calibur, I’m looking at you). DoA5’s attempt to make an official storyline is fun, challenging and worthwhile, but I can’t help but think tertiary characters sink further into supporting roles than before. We all knew that DoA was always about Kasumi, her multiple arcs throughout the story underscore this. It is, however, nice to see Bayman and Helena taking major supporting roles alongside the likes of Ayane and Hayate.
Tag Team Battle, Time Attack and Survival return as usual, offering their traditional challenges. Survival is still a blast, fighting a constant onslaught of opponents in an electrified stage, but gone are the quirky power-ups to boost health and scores. I can’t help but feel that the changes to survival mode represent the game as a whole. Straightforward and a bit no nonsense, leaving behind the slightly goofy ways of the series’ past.
Visually, DoA5 is still an excellent example of thoughtfully modeled characters and well designed levels. The aesthetic of character models has matured a bit, leaving behind the anime inspired looks from Itagaki’s era. It is a bit weird to take in at first, but it was something the series can benefit from in the long run. The best stages in the game are bright and flashy, have a ton of things going on in the background, but are not overly distracting. But the worst stages in the game are dull shades of brown and grey, with terrible background music. Whoever thought a circus stage with awful accordion music would be a good idea was clearly not on the same page as the rest of the world.
While the graphics have always garnered DoA a lot of interest, especially in the amount of performance Team Ninja has been able to squeeze out of launch from both the original Xbox and the Xbox 360, To me the best part of the game has always been the characters. I mentioned already that they have matured aesthetically, they are less like caricatures and their faces and features have narrowed somewhat, but they still retain that DoA charm. A lot of it comes from the voice acting, especially the Japanese voices (I can’t play most Japanese games in English anyway), but even in their animations their styles speak bounds for their persona. Kasumi is still reluctant after all these years on the run, Hitomi still has that young tomboyish flair, and even Bayman appears to have finally embraced that cool attitude of a hired assassin (it helps that he ditched the scuba suit). All the favorites are back, with the sad omission of Ein and Leon being left out.
New characters Rig and Mila are interesting, but ultimately feel a bit like throw in characters. Rig is important to the story and primarily utilizes flurries of quick kicks as his offense. He is not very powerful, but he is fun to watch at the least. Mila is inspired by MMA fighting and I kinda get the feeling that Team Ninja didn’t really know what MMA was, which is disappointing, especially considering the popularity of Pride FC in Japan. She has basic punches and grabs, but she is not quite the same level of grappler that Tina, Bass and Bayman are. She has MMA inspired ground-and-pound and a few chained grapples and counter holds, but they really missed an opportunity to embrace Brazilian Jiu Jitsu moves with Mila. As a bonus, DoA honors its inspiration of Virtua Fighter by including VF’s iconic combatants Akira Yui, Pai Chan and Sarah Bryant. Each character is given the DoA treatment, though they keep their VF voices in a nice touch. While it is fun to see Sarah fighting Tina (and slightly visually confusing), I have to say that the VF characters are hard to use because they control so differently from the DoA fighters.
In the end, I do still love DoA and I think that 5 is a step in a new direction for the series. The game plays well and truly wants to be taken seriously as a competitive fighter. Even the changes in the art style are indicative of a series that wants to grow up. But as much as Team Ninja packaged DoA5 as a mature fighting game, I am so happy they remain true to their fanbase in multiple costumes, extreme stages and Zack in a silver Teletubby suit.
8.5/10 Team Ninja has crafted a solid game that continues the excellent reputation of the franchise, but a bit of that Itagaki charm has been lost.