Dead or Alive 5 Review

After the departure of the somewhat notorious Tomonobu Itagaki, Team Ninja looked, rather understandably, towards taking the company in a relatively new direction……the  result; Ninja Gaiden 3. Ouch! Yeah, that didn’t work out too well. Rather than playing to the series’ strengths while adding a few unique touches and updates (a new camera would have been nice!), Team Ninja went for something of an overhaul, one that, for all intents and purposes, failed miserably. Well, the good news is that, while Ninja Gaiden 3 proved something of a flawed experiment, some kind of lesson was clearly learnt from the experience; where Ninja Gaiden 3 failed, Dead or Alive 5 suceeds. It’s far from an overhaul, but it nonetheless represents a much needed top to bottom thematic success for Team Ninja.

Rather than an ill-advised overhaul, Team Ninja have taken to polishing a product that, despite its unfair positioning amidst the pantheon of fighters, has always been built upon extremely strong foundations. Beyond the now infamous boob physics (which have been pleasingly toned down for Dead or Alive 5….well, a bit anyway), the slick, incomparably fluid, almost hypnotic counter system that the franchise is now famous for returns in full. Some may peg this as a lack of innovation on the part of Team Ninja, but as Ninja Gaiden 3 proved; fixing what ain’t broken can have decidedly disastrous results.

No, Dead or Alive 5 doesn’t represent a lack of innovation, or a lack of progression for that matter – Dead or Alive 5 instead takes an already great franchise and improves upon it in just about every way possible without damaging that core experience that has always made it what it is. Simply put, Dead or Alive 5 is still very much a Dead or Alive experience, it just happens to be that experience at its very best.

So, to the boobs then; you simply can’t review, or discuss a Dead or Alive game and not mention the scantily clad ladies and those gravity defying physics that the series is famous for. Well, fear not, they’re still here (because, you know, gamers demanded big boobs…..it had nothing to do with the adorable collection of conservative developers over at Team Ninja), but in fairness, the bounce isn’t quite as distracting as it has been in the past and the outfits aren’t so universally perverse as we have come to expect. We’re still talking about very young looking ladies endowed to almost comedic proportions, but hey, this is a Dead or Alive game after all – if you want a more conventional looking fighter, go play Virtua Fighter instead……wait a tick.

In one of the potentially stranger cross-overs, Dead or Alive 5 sees, not one, not two, but three Virtua Fighter favourites joining the cast. While far from a perfect aesthetic match for the series, Akira, Pai and Sarah all slip into the faster, less refined world of Dead or Alive with surprising ease. With Sarah’s long, aggressive attacks and Akira and Pai’s more guarded approaches, Virtua Fighter fans will be happy to hear that the majority of their move-sets have made the transition in check. Not only do their inclusions add a nice bit of variety to the already impressive roster (one that also includes two completely new fighters in the form of MMA-centric Mila and the decidedly brutish Rig), but it also highlights the very real possibility of a potential Virtua Fighter vs. Dead or Alive in the not too distant future…..why not, everyone else is doing it.

As always, though, as great as some of the characters are, and honestly, they have never looked better than they do in Dead or Alive 5, it is once again the stages themselves that steal the show. While perhaps lacking the sheer lunacy of some of DOA 4’s finer efforts, those on display here are consistently imaginative, visually mesmerising and, as always, packed to the rafters with environmental hazards. From cannons and cars to lions (yes, lions) and low flying apache helicopters, there are plenty of ways to get yourself killed (or at least KO’d) in the unforgiving world of DOA 5.

Maybe that’s why everyone looks so damn sweaty. As fights go on, the combatants will start to show signs of wear and tear, with even a few items of clothing getting lost along the way (sorry little Jimmy, the bras are all glued on pretty tight). It’s a nice visual flourish amidst a raft of minor enhancements that bring this gorgeous fighter up to date without sacrificing its core art design or aesthetic. The new optional ‘action’ camera might not be to everyone’s tastes, but I for one loved the sneaky zooms and changes in camera angle for critical hits and grab attacks. These dynamic camera shots look great and really show off the improved character models and extremely fluid animations. Again, it won’t be for everyone (I’m sure the hardcore will dismiss it out of hand), but hey, like I said, it’s an optional extra, so everyone is a winner, right.

Beyond the improved visuals and subtle aesthetic tweaks, the biggest change to the core Dead or Alive gameplay comes in the form of the all new ‘Power Blow’ that activates when you drop below 50% health. This allows you to launch your opponents across the screen (and hopefully into some kind of environmental hazard), thus giving you a second crack of the whip if you’ve spent the first half of the round getting your ass kicked. With its substantial clout and accompanying visual flourish, this could have easily proved a jarring addition, but given the explosive nature of the gameplay, it actually works rather well and adds an additional layer of dynamism to the moment to moment combat. For higher level players, there is also the ‘Critical Burst’ system that allows you to build up a stun attack that will leave your opponent momentarily open to attack. Although a subtle addition in the hands of newcomers or low-mid-teir players, amongst the elite, this could prove a hugely destructive skill.

After years of basic Arcade, Time Attack and Survival modes, Dead or Alive 5 finally mixes things up by including a fully fledge Story Mode. While utter mince in terms of both delivery and storytelling, the nonsense delivered across its 70+ missions is strangely enjoyable in a WTF kind of way. More importantly however, it serves to teach newcomers and fans alike the more intricate skills available to Dead or Alive 5 players and the best way to utilize them…..which of course brings me to the inevitable meat of the package; the online modes. Like any fighter worth its salt, Dead or Alive 5 is at its best when experienced with other human beings. The AI is fine, but as always, it can’t compete with the unpredictability of human responses. With little lag and a solid array of options, including 16 player lobbies, needless to say, Dead or Alive 5’s online offering doesn’t disappoint and shows a huge leap up from the relatively disappointing online options of DOA 4.

It may not be as tactically nuanced as Virtua Fighter or have the pedigree of Street Fighter, but Dead or Alive has always been a unique, enjoyable and nuanced fighter that delivers a unique brand of battle thanks to its fluid counter system and, ahem, distinctive aesthetic. It’s the best in the series by some way and represents the first major step forward for the franchise since Dead or Alive 2. It isn’t going to turn the genre on its head in the same way Street Fighter IV did, and could arguably be lost amidst the raft of triple A beat-em-ups currently jostling for shelf space, but for anyone who might consider themselves a beat-em-up fan, Dead or Alive 5 is more than worthy of your time and money.

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox 360 code was provided to Brash Games for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@brashgames.co.uk.

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