To call the Dead or Alive series an innovation for fighting games would be an ironic statement, but not an altogether untrue one. The game introduced many refinements to the (at the time) uneven 3D fighting genre, such as fluid directional combos, the ability to counter attacks and throws, a blazing sense of speed, and numerous unlockable extras in the form of costumes, stages, and songs. Of course, DOA is also more infamously known for its inclusion of bouncing polygonal breasts. Yet as unrealistic as the gelatin-jiggling jugs looked, it was certainly enough to spark the imaginations (and hormones) of players around the world.
While the series never matured beyond the bouncy chests and skimpy outfits, the later sequels would continue to refine the surprisingly deep fighting system over the course of its sequels (but not counting the spin-offs, which removed fighting entirely for the sake of extra cheesecake and volleyball), making DOA a recognized fighting franchise even amongst gamers too embarrassed to play it in public. With the latest sequel, Dead or Alive 5, Tecmo Koei have pulled out all the stops to bringing their fanservice fighting franchise one more step into legitimacy, adding the most combat depth and refined visuals ever seen in the series yet, to the point that you could almost forget about the scantly-clad cleavage. Almost.
Now, the sequel has found its way onto Sony’s portable powerhouse, under the Vita-branded title Dead or Alive 5 +. While the added content for the Vita version does not quite measure up to the “+” added to the title, the good news is that the game’s transition into portable form has been handled far better than the choppy, poorly optimized Vita version of Ninja Gaiden 2. Where Tecmo failed with Ninja Gaiden, they succeeded with Dead or Alive, as the portable version retains the same fast-paced action and slick visuals as its console counterpart. The game’s framerate remains consistent even amongst the most chaotic moments, and the texture quality remains almost indistinguishable from the console versions, unless they were displayed side-by-side.
Most of the modes from the console version have made it over as well, including the typical Arcade, Story and Versus modes found in most fighting games. Arcade is self-explanatory, though it lacks a final boss as well as any character endings (the only reward is a new costume for the chosen character); the Story Mode features an overarching plot that follows the events of DOA 4, focusing on the perspectives of each character (separated by their own chapters) as well as a timeline that charts the order in which these events take place. While the prologue seems to imply that all the events form a cohesive whole, they are in fact nothing more than random scenes that are by and large pointless to the main narrative. Characters instantly warp from one continent to the next without any rhyme or reason, and the pretext for fighting against opponents is almost non-existent: more often than not one character will bump into another, barely say two words to each other, and immediately transition to a one-on-one fight.
But unlike Anime fans, no one pretends to play Dead or Alive for the plot. Those who have made an argument toward its legitimacy as a fighter, however, will no doubt enjoy the numerous additions and refinements made to the already-respectable system, as DOA 5 is by far the most feature-filled and complex in the entire series. On the surface, the combat system seems straightforward: you have a single punch and kick button, a block button that also functions as a counter, a throw button, and various combinations of the four.
But the first major concept to master is regarding the direction of attacks: learning when to block high or low is a common practice most gamers can grasp, be they fighting game rookies or long-running veterans. However, DOA 5 puts such a critical emphasis on predicting where an opponent will strike that even one missed counter could turn the tide of a match instantly. The counter button makes a return from previous games, which allows players to turn an enemy’s attack against them when timed properly. Don’t expect to perform this with a mere button press, however, as the crucial element is to know whether to counter high, low, or mid attacks. This process is only made twice as complicated considering that there are separate commands for countering punches and kicks, not to mention additional ways to counter hits and throws using your own fighter’s repertoire of moves, leading to dozens of possible ways to parry and pummel opponents.
Of course, you could just simply block or side-step attacks, right? In theory, yes, but there are countermeasures against those tactics as well, not to mention the more advanced techniques such as critical stuns, critical bursts, stagger escapes, bouncing combos (no, not that kind of bouncing), expert holds, and too many more mechanics to list in a single review, not to mention the character-specific moves and special attacks. Fortunately, DOA 5 + adds a robust list of tutorials that thoroughly covers each and every one of these mechanics. It may take a fortnight or two to sort through the list of how-to’s, but diligent gamers will have access to everything they need in order to learn the comprehensive list of mechanics.
Putting them into practice, however, is another story; as far as singleplayer content goes, the AI is among the most brutal ever experienced, even on the lowest difficulty settings. Not since the days of the original Mortal Kombat games have there been such frustrating opponents who can seemingly predict every move you’re about to make, and counter them thusly. It is generally recommended to stick to the easiest setting in Arcade mode and use real human players as a true identifier of your budding brawling skills. Thankfully, the Vita version allows for cross-play between Vita and PS3 owners as well as local ad-hoc, although it also lacks a few crucial features (such as lobbies) from its console counterpart. There is also an exclusive new feature called Touch Fight, which basically puts the action into first-person, requiring players to tap and swipe the touchpad in order to do damage against AI enemies. This curious inclusion is more of a novelty at best, and is perhaps one of several exploitive features to allow for further ogling of the curvaceous cast of characters (there are also male fighters as well, but other than Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu and Bruce Lee clone Jann Lee, how many of them are even known by name?). An even creepier moment of voyeurism occurs whenever you lose a battle: the game will zoom in on your playable character as they lay beaten and bruised on the ground, allowing you to move the camera around their fatigued frames for as long as you prefer. Tecmo may have made strides to make DOA’s image more presentable to the public, but they certainly haven’t forgotten about their dedicated fan-base of horny frat boys; even the “realistic” option for the bouncing breasts hardly improves upon the notion that all the women possess sentient jelly creatures stored into their chests.
Whether you are too impatient to learn all of the gameplay mechanics or too prudish to embrace the overflowing fanservice, Dead or Alive 5 + is a solid fighter that’s as competent as it is gorgeous. The transition from console to handheld is also handled smoothly, making this one of the best fighting games ever put on a portable platform.
Note: The Dead or Alive 5 Plus review was written based on the Vita version of the game provided.