By Kris . March 28, 2013 . 12:00pm
My previous experience with Dead or Alive was relatively limited. I’ve played some Dead or Alive 2 through 4 at various friends’ houses, and while I had fun playing casually, I never felt like I had a proper hold on the game’s more complex mechanics. I like Virtua Fighter, so I’d just try to play the game like I’d play a VF character I didn’t understand, using directional attacks, and trying to figure out what I could do with multiple buttons simultaneously. Going into DOA5+, I intended to remedy that.
Naturally, I started with Tutorial, thinking that it would ease me into things.
I felt overwhelmed just looking at the menu. The basic tutorial had over 191 missions across 34 sections. Sure, a couple were easy things like “move” or “sidestep” but things ramped up pretty quickly, and were put together rather poorly. One tutorial had me learning to recognize how to avoid and recognize unblockable attacks, which might have been helpful if it didn’t teach me to recognize and avoid just one unblockable attack (Jann Lee’s flying kick).
I have no idea what indicates an unblockable attack from anyone else. For a general tutorial, certain elements seemed way too esoteric, and some of it felt like it should have been character or enemy specific. Another similar situation is the tutorial that taught me that one of Helena’s throws can go through attacks if timed correctly. Sure, it’s a helpful tool with Helena, I just have no idea who else can do it or how.
On the plus side, about halfway through the tutorials, it introduced me to DOA’s basics. There’s a rock-paper-scissors element to Dead or Alive’s combat called the “Triangle System”, in which attacks beat throws, throws beat holds, and holds beat attack. Holds are essentially counters, performed with the hold button (effectively a guard button with one designated to high attacks, one designated to low attacks, and two designated for mid attacks: one for kicks and one for punches. A proper hold can change the flow of battle, as they can even be performed while stunned. It’s the main way to escape lengthy combos, and can be used to turn a battle around if done correctly. I liked the concept of the triangle system, but that wasn’t the only core gameplay mechanic I had to learn about.
A particularly baffling and aggravating set of tutorials introduced me to Critical Bursts, a new mechanic in Dead or Alive 5 that only works with specific moves. If you hit with a certain attack, your opponent will be slightly stunned and unable to do anything but holds (if they guess your attack right), and it will highlight a certain portion of their life bar. Use a couple more (different, or else your opponent will be knocked away) stunning attacks to deplete that highlighted health, and you’ll have two options: if you use your character’s specific Critical Burst attack, the opponent will crumple, allowing you to combo them, or launch them slightly higher than usual. Deplete that health with an attack that is not your Critical Burst, and the opponent will be knocked away. Despite how much time I’d spent on the tutorial trying to get this mechanic down, I found myself completely ignoring it in combat. I never really felt like I lost out by stunning enemies, then juggling them, as opposed to crumpling them beforehand, and not attempting to Critical Burst my enemies gave me a bit more freedom in combat.
After two hours, I’d completed the entire tutorial (the challenges where you have to perform your new skills against a noncompliant AI didn’t exactly speed me along, and I completed the one I was stuck on accidentally), I figured I was ready to take on Story mode. Story mode was lengthy, narratively baffling, and relatively easy to get through with little more than tenacity. However, it gave me a little taste of each character, and I found my three favorites: Ayane, Christie, and Bayman. After running through their movesets and attempting a couple of Combo Challenges, I started running through different difficulties in Arcade Mode, Survival, and Time Attack, rewarded with a new costume for my first few completions of arcade and first Survival completion, but despite my victories in increasingly difficult modes, I didn’t find myself improving at all. I felt like I’d plateaued since I started playing. Even playing online (with its slightly delayed inputs) didn’t force me to improve. I just felt stuck.
I spent 12 hours with Dead or Alive 5+ in various training modes, combo challenges, going through story, and increasingly difficult arcade, survival, and time attack modes. While at first I tried to take advantage of Critical Bursts and each stage’s individual danger zones, I quickly found myself falling into routines. Sure, I’d pick up one or two tricks with each character, like Christie’s Jakeiho which effectively replaced my sidestep with a speedier version with more options, or ways to lead into backward facing combos with Ayane, but after those 12 hours and hundreds of tutorials, I hardly felt more skillful than I did when I was playing the game using my Virtua Fighter muscle memory. Dead or Alive 5’s specific mechanics had managed to not only consistently elude me, but just frustrated me.
The Critical Burst system felt limiting. Holds added a degree of randomness to play that I found frustrating. Yes, it was fun to read an incoming high kick and respond with a hold, but the visual distinction between a high and a mid punch typically seemed so minuscule to me, that proper holds seemed to be just as much luck as skill. The fact that certain characters also had special holds and the aforementioned “Hi-Counter” throws that could go through attacks further complicated things. I know complexity is inherent to most 3D fighters, but compared to Virtua Fighter, I felt that there was a huge barrier to surmount before I was even marginally competent. Honestly, I still don’t think I’m there yet.
Food For Thought:
1. If you’re worried about the game’s performance after Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2+, don’t be. Dead or Alive 5+ typically runs at 60FPS, with only a bit of choppiness at the very beginning of a round. I’m impressed that it looks as good as it does, the screenshots don’t do it justice.
2. DOA5+’s Vita-specific “touch fight mode” is kind of creepy. There’s something surreal about beating people up in first person, especially when a trigger is assigned to taking photos in that mode. Fighting opponents in skirts is particularly disquieting.