Since the first Dead or Alive game, the series’s fairly deep and intuitive throw/strike/hold system has often been overshadowed by ridiculous jiggling-breast animations (see also spin-off series Dead or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball), categorically asinine story modes, and button-mash fighting. It’s been seven years since the previous Dead or Alive console game, and the series is struggling to change. Veteran fighters such as Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter, and Marvel vs. Capcom went to great lengths to bring new players into the fold with retooled story modes, engaging secondary features, or returning to the series’s gameplay roots. Developer Team Ninja tries to do the same, but a semi-serious veneer for Dead or Alive 5 can’t hide the silliness bubbling just below the surface. Downplaying the corporeal natures of female fighters a touch, or importing new characters from the Virtua Fighter series, won’t distract players.
One of the game’s primary half measures is a first-player narrative that wants you take it seriously based on its presentation, but only resorts to juvenile and almost cartoony clichés. The 71-chapter story mode is awful and only serves as a rudimentary series of training exercises. In that respect, the bonus mission for each level sharpens some of your combat skills as you unlock more combatants. The female characters still wear ridiculous outfits. Series mascot Kasumi, while in Antarctica, only dons a skimpy side-tie dress with short puffy sleeves, and the fact that she possesses teleportation abilities is beside the point. The series’s revolting affinity to infantilize its female characters remains intact, and there’s only so much of this male gaze one can take; the costumes (advance sweat and dirt modeling or not) are only slightly toned down from previous entries in the series. The addition of creepy camera/spectator modes and the ability to zoom in and around a beaten female combatant is stomach-churning to anyone with modern sensibilities.
Outside of Dead or Alive 5’s questionable gender issues and idiotic through line about bio-weapon development, the fighting system has slightly evolved. The triangle system, with its tactical (and straightforward) deployment of blocks, counters, and throws, is largely unchanged. The addition of fully destructible stages and “cliffhanger” attacks add some panache to combat scenarios that can quickly devolve into button-mashing fests. A circus stage features ferocious lions and a South American jungle houses an anaconda in one of its trees. Also, new characters like the taekwondo brute Rig or the mixed martial artist Mila reinforce Team Ninja’s attempt at a certain amount of realism. The additions of Virtua Fighter’s Akira and Sarah Bryant are jarring but welcomed, as their fighting styles fit the milieu.
There’s no disputing that Dead or Alive 5’s stages have advanced and mesh well with its “colorful” cast of characters. Taking your skirmishes online is a different matter though. A day-one downloadable patch helped stabilize the online arena from bugs and dropped frame rates, but annoying lag issues remain. This series always required perfectly timed button presses to pull off throws, strikes, and holds, so it’s frustrating to be hindered by a screen that stutters in the middle of a move. Options for online fights are rudimentary and don’t offer much to demarcate this series from the plethora of fighting titles released over the past two years.
Arcade, Survival, Time Attack, and Versus modes are slightly better offline with friends on your couch. There’s certainly a challenge in all four modes, but nothing that strikes out in a different path from other fighting games during the current renaissance. Practice mode offers some excitement if you want to test your mettle before getting slaughtered online. The game also introduces two helpful training tools: Command Training guides you through a chosen character’s move set one move at a time, while the Move List contrivance displays a short list of commands in the bottom corner of the screen that dynamically updates as you unleash combos. The computer shows you the possible moves to follow up a high punch or a low kick, etc. Across all modes, Team Ninja’s throw/strike/hold system is a fun minigame that harkens back to the schoolyard game Ro Sham Bo!: strike beats throw, throw beats hold, and hold beats strike. Despite the game’s inherent accessibility, there aren’t enough distinguishing traits that will draw fighting fans away from contemporary titles that offer more distinguishing features.
Team Ninja has done little to revamp their longstanding series since 2005’s Dead or Alive 4. Such a barebones mentality doesn’t suit the series well. The changes to the series’s mechanics, stages, storyline, and characters are either cosmetic or barely recognizable. It’s disappointing that the fifth entry in a series has little to offer above the four previous entries.