The Dead or Alive fighting tournament is back, and a few things have changed. The man in black, Tomonobu Itagaki, having left Team Ninja and Tecmo a few years back, is no longer in charge of the series. For the first time in over a decade, Dead or Alive isn’t the launch-window showcase for a system’s visual horsepower. The characters even look a little more human. So is it still a bombastic, tightly-balanced fighting game?

Teaching Through Story

Normally, with any fighting game, the story should be—must be—discounted. Fighting game stories, Dead or Alive included, aren’t that different from the stereotypical porn story; simple exposition to establish a reason for the action that’s about to happen (that was a tough sentence to write without it just bleeding innuendo). Dead or Alive 5, though, makes its story something of a required course before players dive into the heart of the game.

Instead of using the story as just as a cheap excuse for action (which it totally still is), Dead or Alive wraps an extensive tutorial sequence up in the story. Flashy cutscenes are interwoven with fights with nearly every battle bookended by something, no matter how minor. We’re introduced to each of the main Dead or Alive characters, putting them not only at the other end of the player’s fists, but also under the player’s control. Instead of fighting each of the characters, you’ll fight as each of the characters, giving a taste of each character’s speed, movement and style. Each match has a side-mission, like “Land a high punch!” or “Perform a critical stun!” with a short explanation of what exactly they want you to do.

It’s easy to make fun of the plot with its conspiracies and inconsistently named secret organizations, just like it’s easy to make fun of your friend that wears a feather boa everywhere, but it’s just too obvious. The worst problem, though, is that the long and frequent cutscenes break up the tutorial aspect of the mode a little too much and the matches are too short to really apply the techniques before being railroaded to the next one.

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Dead or Alive 5, though, makes its story something of a required course before players dive into the heart of the game.

I See a Lot of New Faces

Something the story does get right is the introduction of the characters Mila and Rig, the MMA and Taekwondo fighters, respectively. New characters like this sometimes get the short shrift as fans go right to their usual characters and newcomers head for the characters on the front of the box.

The characters borrowed from the Virtua Fighter games aren’t so fortunate, though. While they work fine in the ring, they don’t really take part in the story in any meaningful way and as such aren’t featured as playable characters during that tutorial.

Mila and Rig, though, seem to be indicative of the slightly different direction the series is taking this time around. Instead of some of the flashier stuff they could’ve tried out like Wing Chun or other Chinese styles, the new characters practice significantly more accessible arts. Taekwondo and MMA classes can be found in just about any metropolitan area and, of course, both have competitive leagues.

Like the more down-to-earth new challengers, the other characters feel a bit closer to reality this time around. Character models—faces especially—look much more human and less like anime. Even the costumes aren’t quite so over the top. While Tina and Lisa still have pretty silly outfits, many of the other costumes are toned down significantly, unless you’re really willing to make it through legendary difficulty for the swimsuits. Mila could easily be patterned off of MMA fighter Gina Carano and the outfits she wears make sense. Dead or Alive’s legendary breast physics even seem to have been toned down and the thinly-veiled bounciness setting is nowhere to be found. This alone is a huge change for the series.

Of course, costumes, story modes and whatever else are worthless without an actual game under it all, and the core of Dead or Alive 5 is as pure as ever. The fighting system in DOA5 feels a bit more like an iteration than sequel, but a few additions make the fight feel fresh. The Critical Stun and Critical Burst moves can stop an opponent cold in their tracks, giving you time to start a combo, one of Bayman’s crushing grapples, or the new Power Blow. The Power Blow calls to mind the Focus Attack in Street Fighter IV, and can be used to stun an opponent or, if your fighter is down by half, even the odds with an impressively damaging attack. The time required to pull it off requires enough skill and planning, though, that it doesn’t seem easy to overuse.

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Focus on Flow

The so-called Triangle System, a rock-paper-scissors of strikes, throws and holds, is still as fast and fresh as ever. The best part of watching Dead or Alive characters in motion is the organic nature of the matches this allows. There’s a lot of room for improvisation and even losing a match can be fun to watch sometimes.

This flow is what makes Dead or Alive, the reason it holds up so well against other fighters. I’ll confess I’m not nearly good enough at other fighters to comment in-depth about the nuanced differences, but Dead or Alive hits a sweet spot of approachability and depth that makes it work for pickup games and competitive play equally well.

Back as well are the impressive multi-area stages. Another hallmark of the series, the stages range from circuses to jungles to fighting rings and each stage has a variety of interactive elements. The walls, like in a boxing match, close in quickly once the fight starts. Barriers that seemed far away moments ago are suddenly at your back. Worse yet, some of these walls are gas tanks or electrified fences, making for a great show and a frightening moment for a cornered fighter.

As polished as the fighters and stages are, some aspects of the game feel rushed. The menus are especially bad. A too-short instruction manual is made worse by a variety of unexplained options. If you want to set an online title to show off your accomplishments, good luck figuring it out; most players seem to just have blank spots there. If you’re in training mode, it’ll tell you that a move requires having your back to a foe but not tell you how to turn your back to the foe. Button indicators in training mode are figured out mostly by experience and trial, but are still confusing at times.

Despite all this, there’s still a great game underneath. The silly story can be ignored, and the lackluster menus are excusable, because at the center Dead or Alive is true to itself: it’s a quick, fun, polished fighter with crazy characters and awesome fighting arenas. Fans already know to pick it up and anyone who hasn’t tried it can jump in with Dead or Alive 5 without worrying about those that preceded it.

Rating

7.5

We purchased a retail copy of Dead or Alive 5 for the PlayStation 3 with company funds. We played the game’s full story mode as well as arcade, survival, timed and online modes with most of the characters at most of the available difficulty levels.

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