Dead or Alive Dimensions Playtest: Martial Arts Movie Meets Shounen Manga

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Somehow, over the last ten years, Dead or Alive has become a game that people look forward to at console launches. Dead or Alive 3 debuted the Xbox way back in 2001; Dead or Alive 4 was intended to be an Xbox 360 launch game — but arrived fashionably late — and now, following a similar delay, Dead or Alive: Dimensions is helping the 3DS find its early footing.


Prior to trying it, I’d only played previous Dead or Alive games casually with friends in the past, so I wasn’t quite sure what people liked about the series. I only had a passing interest in Team Ninja, which eventually bloomed into a nagging curiosity after they developed Metroid: Other M. Having played Dimensions, which is a recap of the four Dead or Alive games so far, I’d say the appeal of the series is its characters, partly evident in its reputation for allowing you to unlock a plethora of additional costumes for them.


Unlike a lot of fighters, Dead or Alive goes out of its way to try and tell a story and set up complex relationships between the different characters. However, the way this plays out is very much like an oldschool shounen manga (“Now, Hayate! Show me your Torn Sky Blast! Uoooohhhh!!”), which means it isn’t always believable or serious, even though it pretends it’s making an attempt to be. As a result, one moment you get a dramatic story about a childhood friendship between two kunoichi gone wrong, and the next, you get Ayane and Hayate teasing Ninja Gaiden’s Ryu Hayabusa about his girlfriend in the CIA while he pretends to ignore them. This is all intentional, of course.


In fact, Dead or Alive feels like someone at a manga publisher sat down and came up with a bullet list of items that mainstream shounen manga fans would like. Ninjas? Check. Robots? Check. Boobs? Check! Evil conglomerate? Check, check!


The problem is, Dimensions doesn’t really have an identity or personality of its own, precisely because it’s a recap of the first four games in the series. Each Dead or Alive so far has had its own particular focus, and when Dimensions’ Chronicles mode lazily tries to piece existing scenes from these games together into one long story, it doesn’t work. If you aren’t familiar with your DOA history, chances are you’ll have little clue what’s going on, outside of the most basic knowledge of the story, which I found a little disappointing because I liked the characters themselves.


Story scenes in Chronicles mode are a mish-mash of low-res FMVs from old games, high-quality CG from Dead or Alive 4, and custom-created “still” scenes using character models to help fill in the gaps in between. The quality of these elements is terribly inconsistent, as they’ve just been reused from whatever year they were created in. It gives the impression that Team Ninja didn’t have a lot of time to properly flesh the game out. In fact, a lot of other aspects of Dimensions give off that exact impression, which I’ll discuss later.


On the bright side, for everything Dimensions does poorly, it does something well. Chronicles mode is a good example of this. The first Dead or Alive apparently had close to no plot, so working my way through Chapter 1 in Chronicles mode felt incredibly boring. The game attempted to hold my attention by trying to teach me how to play it. It taught me basic combos, fighting terminology, and how to string moves together. As I progressed through the various chapters, however, it soon became very apparent that I’d actually learn very little about how to play the game from the built-in tutorials in Chronicles mode. Showing the player a six-hit combo and then expecting them to replicate it right then and there is a lofty expectation, and one that I wasn’t able live up to.


Luckily, at the end of each chapter, Chronicles mode rewarded me with a whole bunch of unlockable stuff like additional characters, arenas and costumes, which — along with the story and character interaction, both of which get better which each chapter — convinced me to keep going, despite its issues. So ultimately, Chronicles mode may not be of much use to a DOA newcomer from a “learning” perspective, but it is an entertaining way to ease yourself into the amount of content in the game, since it allows you to gradually unlock more and more.


This brings us to the fighting system. Speaking from the point of view of a relative newcomer, I’d say that Dead or Alive is probably amongst the more technical fighters I’ve played, and that it may not be apparent right away why the game is fun. There are no fireballs or fatalities to draw your attention; instead, Dead or Alive’s fighting system is based around the concept of predicting your opponent and reacting to them.


This is done primarily using the Hold/Block and Throw buttons. You hold down the Hold button to block. If you tap it, however, the Hold button allows you to turn an opponent’s strength against them. For instance, if someone tries to punch you, you’ll grab their arm and throw them to the ground. If it’s the reverse situation where you’re on the offensive and they’re blocking, you can stop using punches and kicks, and opt for a (unblockable) throw, which will either throw your opponent, or stylishly put you in an advantageous position (like sliding under their legs and getting behind them). In theory, both of these options are great. In practice, they’re difficult to pull off.


While throws ultimately shouldn’t pose too much of a problem, holds — let’s call them “counters” from here on out — do. This is because there are different kinds of counters for attacks that aim high, straight out, and low. Dead or Alive has a neat offensive system that lets you combine simple analog pad motions such as up, down, forward and back with your punches and kicks to pull off different variants of these attacks, and even string them together in combos. You can go from high to mid to low attacks very easily, and this doesn’t require nearly the kind of lightning-fast button tapping that, say, Street Fighter does. In fact, you can even modify these combos by slightly delaying your input on the next move in the combo string to make your opponent think you’re about to stop.


While this leads to a very cool “freestyle combo” offensive experience, if you’re on the receiving end, you’ll need to perform the correct corresponding counter if you don’t want to get your butt kicked. For example, high attacks are countered by moving your stick diagonally in the “up-back” orientation and pressing Hold. Mid-section attacks are countered using back + Hold. For low attacks, you’ll need to go “down-back” + Hold. How do you tell, instinctively, which one to use? Lots and lots and lots of practice and familiarizing yourself with the moves of various characters.


If you don’t make use of counters, you’ll end up playing Dead or Alive against AI opponents that are set to easy. It’ll feel like a bland game with very little to keep your attention. However, when you grow bored and increase the difficulty of the game or seek good opponents to play with online, you’ll find your every move being countered and punished over and over again. What this basically means is, there’s a certain way to play DOA if you want to enjoy it, and it involves studying the different characters in the game rather extensively, so you know how to counter them. It’s certainly a very different approach from other fighters, which are far more focused on offense.


On the flip side, once you start to get the hang of countering, Dead or Alive makes you feel like a real pro. You’ll turn your opponent’s moves against them, and fights will start to feel extremely fluid and stylish — almost like something you’d see in a martial arts movie, rather than a fantasy fighting game. Again, if you’re willing to put up with the game’s shortcomings and put in the time to explore it, DOA feels rewarding. So ultimately, Dimensions may not be able to convey the series’ appeal to new fans, but what it does very well is make for a unique experience if you learn how to play it.


Then again, perhaps Dead or Alive: Dimensions’ initial hook for newcomers isn’t in how it plays, but how it looks. Dimensions is a very pretty looking game, even despite its shortcomings in this regard as well. For starters, the 3D effect looks phenomenal. There’s a very nice sense of depth, which really stands out in a game like this where you have two fighters constantly circling each other, as the camera pans and tilts and zooms in on them different ways, depending on what moves you use. Over and above the “into-the-screen” depth, things also occasionally pop out of the screen, such as Kasumi or Hayate’s hands during their winning poses.


The downside is that turning the 3D effect on drops the game’s framerate to 30 frames-per-second. There are a lot of games where you can’t really tell the difference between 30 and 60, but unfortunately, Dimensions isn’t one of them. 60 feels extremely fluid and smooth, and 30 feels…less fluid and smooth. This caused me some grief early on because I liked the 3D effect enough to always want to keep it on, but I also liked the smoothness of 60 fps. Ultimately, I decided to switch between the two, depending on the stage I was fighting in.


Stages in Dead or Alive: Dimensions, like everything else in the game, consist of a mish-mash of arenas from the four main DOA games. Some of these can be a little bland, but the ones that were imported from Dead or Alive 4 really stand apart from the rest. The DOA4 arenas are more complex, with multiple storeys to fight on. In one stage, you can kick someone through a glass window onto a balcony below. You can then further knock them off the railing, down a long flight of stairs. In a very, very smart move, this stage appears to have infinitely recurring areas, so you’ll always have another balcony or another flight of stairs to use to your advantage. Another has you fighting atop a flimsy bridge, stretching above a gorgeous valley below, lush with greenery and a waterfall, which will take away a fair amount of your life bar if you get knocked down to it.


Unfortunately, there’s a downside here, too, which is that everything that isn’t from DOA4 doesn’t look as impressive, visually. It probably isn’t something you’ll notice right away, but as you start to unlock more stages and costumes, and figure out where they’re from, the little details will become more visible. Oh, and on the subject of costumes, it was a little disappointing to see that we didn’t get all of the costumes from the previous games, as this is supposed to be the “definitive” Dead or Alive to date. Judging from what I’ve unlocked so far, there are about 5 or 6 per character (including downloadable costumes), but if you look through the series’ history, there’s a lot more to be found.


So, that’s Dead or Alive: Dimensions in a nutshell — a game of highs and lows, and conflicting interests. It’s stylish, looks great, and has ninjas and robots and boobs…but it’s difficult to learn to play. It’s based on a series with a lot of personality, but Dimensions itself doesn’t have an identity of its own. For every pro, there’s a con. For every fault, there’s something fun. For every impressive feat, there’s something that makes you scratch your head and wonder what they were thinking. Here’s a few more, off the top of my head:


  • Online play in general feels pretty good. I’ve seen matches both with lag and without. Overall, the online is fun and you’ll find everyone from novice players to experts that will make you feel horrible. That said, there’s no “Rematch” option. When a match ends, you get kicked back to the search menu. Wha…?


  • The “Throwdown” matches are a fantastic feature. If you connect your 3DS locally with someone else who has DOA:D, it’ll create an AI based around their playing style for you to fight against. You can also download the AI of Team Ninja staff members, and these are actually very skilled. Unfortunately, you can only fight these AIs once, and can’t save them, which is such an odd decision.


  • The touchscreen controls are very unique. The touchscreen depicts every single move and combo your character can perform in a long list that you can scroll through. Except, you won’t need to scroll — the list is dynamic, and scrolls to moves that it feels are appropriate, depending on the situation. This is a fantastic idea, but…considering how much of DOA’s fighting system is about countering your opponent, why isn’t it possible to see their moves instead of yours, especially in Training mode, so you can familiarize yourself with their attacks?


And yet, despite these shortcomings, it remains an enjoyable game to play, with lots of interesting fighters to explore. If this is what Team Ninja can do on the 3DS with a constrained budget and schedule, it should be very interesting to see what they come up with when they finally get around to developing something original for the system.


Food for thought:

1. Every time I played a match involving Kasumi, Ryu or Hayate, I found myself wanting to use their swords in battle. It would be very cool if Dead or Alive 5 were to include weapons as an alternate stance or something of the sort.


2. The fantastic Dead or Alive: Ultimate opening in Chronicles mode is missing the Aerosmith song, which I felt took away from the dramatic feel of that story. Fun fact: that video was what got me into Dead or Alive in the first place!


3. I planned on using this video in my playtest somehow, but couldn’t figure out how:


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Image of Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan Sahdev
Ishaan specializes in game design/sales analysis. He's the former managing editor of Siliconera and wrote the book "The Legend of Zelda - A Complete Development History". He also used to moonlight as a professional manga editor. These days, his day job has nothing to do with games, but the two inform each other nonetheless.