The Dead or Alive series has always had an enthusiastic appreciation for the fairer sex. Dead or Alive 5 is no exception. Katsumi, Hitomi, Tina, and the rest of this top-heavy cast have returned as full-figured as ever. But DOA5's exaggerated brand of beauty is only skin deep. It's the foundation of solid fighting mechanics that gives this game its true appeal.
Combat in Dead or Alive 5 is divided into strikes, holds, and throws. These attack types form an rock, paper, scissors relationship: strike beats throw, throw beats hold, and hold beats strike. Strike has a good chance at beating hold as well, since the defending player must execute the correct hold with perfect timing. Strikes also have the greatest potential for damage because you can combo them together--while the majority of holds and throws end with a hard knockdown. This damage potential is further enhanced by one of DOA5's two new techniques, the critical burst.
Critical bursts are a new tool designed to extend combos and guarantee damage. Visually, they are almost indistinguishable from normal strikes, but successfully landing one puts opponents into a helpless state. From here, attacking players can finish out their combo unhindered by the possibility of a hold. The second new technique is the power blow. You can perform this highly cinematic attack only once per round, and only when you are below half health. Landing the power blow triggers a brief combo, and then the recipient is slammed into the environment, which deals substantial damage.
Moment-to-moment fighting in Dead or Alive 5 carries with it a satisfying feeling of weight and brutality. While difficult to perform consistently, holds grant quick-witted defenders an active way to influence the fight. However, being on offense has a definite advantage. The addition of critical bursts gives skilled fighters a means to maximize damage, making matches more lethal than ever before. Throws and holds have their uses, but are simply not as potent as punches and kicks.
Dead or Alive 5 still has plenty to offer for those unconcerned with the relationship between throws and strikes. In a fighting landscape filled with meters, gauges, and hyper combos, Dead or Alive 5 masks some of its complexity with a minimalist appearance. Take the critical bursts discussed earlier. There is a very subtle visual cue that indicates when you can successfully perform one; however, it is so slight that you would miss it if you didn't know to look for it.
Without a cluttered HUD, this fighter draws the eye toward its outrageous visuals. What starts as a friendly sparring match between friends could easily end up causing a massive train car pileup or a raging oil fire. Dubbed danger zones, the environmental hazards can give you an edge (so long as you're not the one getting your head slammed into an electrified barrier), and their over-the-top violence adds some extra excitement to the fight. These design choices let newer players pick up and enjoy the game, while still feeding seasoned fighters the information they need.
For players new to the Dead or Alive series, the best place to start is the game's Story mode, which doubles as its main educational mode. In brief, series veteran Helena has assumed control of DOATEC, a corporation that does something and is hosting another tournament to celebrate. Each fighter has his or her own reason for entering, but it's difficult to keep track of when (and why) events are happening. The plot is entertaining in its ridiculousness, but not so much that you stop laughing at the story and start laughing with it.
At the start of each fight in Story mode, a challenge is presented that is designed to teach you about the game. These start out simple enough: land five punches, block 10 strikes. A counter at the bottom of the screen tracks your progress, and success unlocks new titles (and occasionally characters) for your use.
In later fights, when more complex or technically difficult tasks are introduced, it becomes too easy to ignore these tasks. During the more difficult fights, your desire to win the round supersedes trying to figure out how to use a critical burst, so you could miss that whole lesson. And because there's no indication which matches correspond with which lessons, it's difficult to go back and retry the one's you've failed (or ignored).
Outside of Story mode, there are numerous single-player modes in Dead or Alive 5. Arcade, Survival, and Time Trial are all present. Each mode is divided into seven difficulty levels, ranging from rookie to master. Completing a play through on one of these difficulty levels could earn you a new title or costume, as well as a slot on the leaderboards.
On your journey to becoming a master, you need to spend some time in Practice mode. Two especially helpful tools are command training and move list. Command training takes you through the selected character's move list one move at a time, while the move list tool displays a short list of commands in the bottom corner of the screen that dynamically update as you perform combos. If you throw out a low kick, for example, the list updates to show which moves you can follow up with.
Once you feel confident in your abilities, you can test your mettle against new opponents online. Ranked matches improve your online standing, while joining a friendly player lobby does not. You can also pair off with a friend and practice sparring online. Replay support is the only area that is severely lacking. Finding a replay means diving into the general leaderboard and searching for an entry with the replay icon. Even then, you don't know which characters will be fighting until you download the match.
Performance-wise, Dead or Alive 5 keeps pace with genre standards. Against online opponents with three connection bars or below, there is noticeable input lag between when you enter a command and when you see it performed onscreen. In contrast, matches with four- and five-star connections run without serious issue.
Dead or Alive 5 is a deceptive game. The subtleties of its solid fighting mechanics are easy to miss under all the flashy visual effects layered on top. It is a game new players can pick up and enjoy without feeling overwhelmed by too many options, while still offering complexity to those who know where to look. It's a dynamic fighter that can be enjoyed by players of all skill types.