In a parallel universe somewhere, a fighting tournament is taking place. This alternate dimension setting is a lot like our own world in many ways, yet different in a good many others. It’s a place where human females have water balloons strapped to their chests in place of breasts. A place where global warming has risen to the point where even a few moments of physical exertion is enough to cause sweat by the bucketload. A place where a 100-metre fall isn’t instant death, rather a mild annoyance that might leave a bit of a bruise and where a broken neck can be shrugged off in seconds. It’s a place in which stereotyping has grown so rife that its many and diverse cultures have decided to simply behave and speak as the ignorant society expects. And it’s a place where the slightest grievance leads to two people throwing each other through walls, off buildings and into explosions. Put simply, it’s a very silly place indeed, though that does at least make it the perfect setting for a fighting spectacle like no other.
But while so much is made of the spectacle angle, it’d be remiss to ignore the behind-the-scenes wizardry Team Ninja has performed to turn DOA from a button-mashy jigglathon into… well, a slightly less button-mashy jigglathon. The combo system – as properly explained for the first time by 3DS gem Dimensions – returns largely untouched, though the potential for ground-based strings sets DOA apart from the majority of today’s juggle-heavy fighters. Although you can’t block during an opponent’s combo, you’re free to try your luck with the franchise’s trademark catch-all ‘hold’ system. Correctly read an opponent’s attacks and you can break the combo with a counter attack, but fail and damage scaling resets, meaning you end up taking even more punishment. It’s a genuinely brilliant mechanic and one that forces both sides to consider their options before acting – attackers must mix up their strings to avoid being easily countered, while defenders must commit to counter choices entirely, though predictable play can be more easily punished this time around.
This is thanks in no small part to the new Expert Holds, advanced counters that offer greater damage to those with the execution and prediction to land them. The new system levels the playing field somewhat – the basic counters deal mostly uniform damage, while these enhanced versions give every character the reversal damage potential that characters like Hayabusa once monopolised. The game’s triangle system seems to work far better than it has too – strikes beat throws, thows beat holds and holds beat strikes and while a few features like Offensive Holds (grabs that can also beat some striking attacks) mess with the system a little, it still holds up brilliantly and presents mind games and mixups aplenty.
Despite refinements on a technical level, though, the franchise’s daftness seems to have infected a few other aspects of the game. Story mode for one is a big ol’ bucket of nonsense. Although it attempts to show the same (stupid) events from the perspectives of all of the major characters, all this really means is that you end up seeing the same cut-scenes a bunch of times and most of them aren’t even as impressive as the stuff that happens in the ring. It’s certainly worth highlighting the impossibly short fuses of the DOA cast according to Story mode though, even if only because it’s hilarious. ‘You’re wearing yellow – let’s fight’. ‘I skipped breakfast – let’s fight’. ‘Your name has a vowel in it – let’s fight’. Honestly, these guys barely need an excuse to start a brawl.
But beyond the brief, daft and repetitive Story mode, there’s very little on offer for those that don’t want to fight another human. Staples like Arcade, Time Attack and Survival modes are all present and correct but they lack the nuance and depth that the genre – and indeed the series – has seen in its finest hour. The latter mode is perhaps the worst offender in this respect. Tag Survival is nowhere to be seen and those that enjoyed beating items and rare pick-ups out of people forever in earlier iterations will be saddened to learn that 5’s version is a finite, bare bones gauntlet.
It’s a largely familiar cast that takes to the ring, with a few new faces on hand to mix thing up a little. The Virtua Fighter trio of Akira, Sarah and Pai – all taking breaks from the most technical fighter on the market to moonlight in one of the least – play and feel almost exactly as they do in Final Showdown, right down to the wooshing sound effects that accompany their circular attacks. They’re hardly great fits for the engine, to be fair, but if their second jobs here can raise the profile of their home property, it’s got to be a worthwhile break from getting tossed around by Jeffry. As far as the newbies are concerned, it’s a strong (if meagre) showing – Rig’s heavy-hitting and flashy striking game flows nicely, while Mila’s MMA mixups and feints make her a menace in the hands of a skilled player.
But is it the more mature fighter Tecmo Koei promised? On a mechanical level, yes – it’d take the most hardcore of fighting fans to put together an argument that this wasn’t a decent fighter at its core and they’d struggle even harder to claim that it wasn’t at least entertaining. On a base level, though, it’s business as usual. It’s a beat-’em-up loaded with increasingly damp and dirty scantily clad ladies whose breasts defy physics and one that has an Achievement for watching every questionably shot, moist, groaning defeat pose. The game might have grown up but the developer clearly hasn’t.