Dead or Alive started life on the arcade circuit, and faced stiff competition from the other 3D brawlers that were already commonplace for those with a large sack of coins, or those who owned a PlayStation or SEGA Saturn. Developer Team Ninja needed to do something for their baby brawler to stand out on its own unique merits, rather than just being yet another arcade fighter. Itagaki and his team insisted on speed being the prime focus rather than complicated special moves, fireballs and the like. Speed and simplicity would have allowed for potential button mashing, but Dead or Alive introduced its signature counter system to vary the pace for more balanced matches. Throughout the years more varied moves, characters and expansive environments have been slotted in, but the core focus on speed, combos and counters remains ever present.
Translating something as nippy and responsive onto a handheld might have proved a daunting task, especially on new hardware where the primary focus is outputting in 3D, wherein a separate image is rendered for each eye. The result is a surprisingly pleasant one, particularly for a launch project that isn't a direct port of an existing game. Dead or Alive: Dimensions has been described as a "greatest hits" package. This is true in many ways, taking core elements from past games, including the lengthy story, and baking a refined, velvety cake that is a delicious treat in more ways than one.
The first thing you'll notice with the game is that it's fast, running at a blisteringly 60fps with the autostereoscopic 3D turned right down, or 30fps with the effect on. The reduction in smoothness in animation has been a cause for concern for some, particularly veteran Dead or Alive fans, but still offers a responsive enough system to pound your foes into 3D submission. The 3D isn't mind-blowing, but is still put to good use in building that extra sense of depth and making characters pop that little bit more from the background. Since Dimensions is a 3D-axis fighter, i.e. you can move in various directions instead of just left or right, it's harder to get an immediate impression of fore and background, but there is still a feeling that the combat is taking place within a 3D world. Lag isn't apparent, though the odd bit of slowdown drips in from time to time. Tuning down the picture into a sole image is equally gorgeous, even more reactive and, despite glasses-less 3D being one of the main reasons to own a 3DS game, we must lean ever-so-slightly towards playing the game with it off. Either mode does nicely and it's a case of finding what works best for you.
In terms of design and art direction, the game essentially follows the established look and feel from past generations, intricately designed environments that span multiple combat areas, from the serene Kyoto in Bloom, with its traditional oriental landscape and blossom trees, to the snowman stained Frozen Peaks, there are a wealth of levels to venture into. Characters are equally well designed, bearing their established looks with a wealth of different costumes to unlock - topless chaps and bikini clad ladies are a rarity despite the series' past, but developer Team Ninja have poured a lot of care into preserving the style, and Dimensions is one of the best looking 3DS titles to date.
Dead or Alive wouldn't be the same without its meaty story and with an opportunity to attract a new audience with Nintendo, the Chronicle feature aims to retell the series from the very beginning, sealing gaps to try and seamlessly blend in the newer faces. The mode also acts as a tutorial feature, explaining counters, blocks, throws and general combos. These detract from the main action perhaps a little too frequently, but it’s still a useful addition to have for newer players and those getting used to the 3DS setup. The story, however, is confusing. Despite having played past games in the series on PlayStation and Xbox 360 previously, it induces mass head scratching. My dandruff and poor hygiene aside, it really is quite the intricate weave of characters intent on taking the centre stage for your attention.
Cutscenes tell the bulk of the four-game tale, and these are generally made up of what Team Ninja dub "static figure movies", where stills are presented with voiceovers. Major sequences are fully animated 3D. It's a strange decision, whether it was due to time constraints or purely an art direction choice, but does offer a thorough enough tale and campaign to nip through in a couple of sittings.
Despite being labelled as a story mode, Chronicle really is more like a fancy tutorial mode, with the main bulk of the game derived from the Arcade, Survival, free play and multiplayer modes that have the potential to munch up your game time. Arcade takes a fresh approach to the conventional eight to ten fights you'd expect, opting for a set of six courses that range from easy to hard. What you get are a handful of single round fights that revolve around similar characters each time - you can complete each within minutes. Whilst the approach may not be familiar or meaty enough for fighting fans, it's a nifty way of getting a quick game in whilst on the move, unlocking pieces of content from time to time.
Survival and free-play are as they say on the tin. The former is a lengthy campaign that tests your survival skills and stamina through a near endless stream of oncoming fighters; the latter is a more relaxed approach where you can simply pick a fighter and do the business. Tag battles also make an appearance, albeit a minimal and confusing one. Unlike past Dead or Alive games, the ability to switch out with another fighter seems to be quickly bolted onto Dimensions. Essentially you pick your player and a computer-controlled ally. You seemingly can't manually swap players, though your CPU buddy may randomly decide to do so - often while we were being brutally battered on the brink of knockout, so there’s probably some correlation. You cannot control both combatants, and tag battles are absent from the other modes.
With the game running as smooth as a buttered up Nintendo 64 that's had the dust repeatedly blown out of it and a solid set of modes, what about the characters themselves? A roster can essentially make or break a game, especially if some characters are overpowered or too similar to others, but fortunately there are more than enough fighters to tackle. There are twenty five ladies, gents and genetically modified warriors to sink your teeth into, bringing together folks from the original Dead or Alive, up until Dead or Alive 4 and even including an exotic lady from the Beach Volleyball spinoff. The female fighters are generally nippier, landing in a dozen punches before you're able to gaze at her prominent assets, with the opposing gender muscle bound and driving through with kicks of all sorts. Despite looking similar to one another (perhaps there’s some shared ancestry?), there's certainly enough variety in movesets to keep things interesting.
Kasumi pounces with multiple spinning kicks and deadly mid range jabs, whilst Christie keeps it low as if a praying mantis, striking when the time is right. Tina, the all-American wrestler forces opponents to the floor with blows from above, with the bizarre Brad Wong specialising in some form of drunken combat. Swag! There are also a handful of bosses throughout the game's various solo modes that complete the line-up.
Pure ‘button mashing’ has been an element of the franchise that's been brought up since its conception. However, an intuitive counter system and dedicated block button thwarted continual tappers, or at least allowed a temporary role reversal. In Dead or Alive 3 some felt the counter system was a little too strong and the balance wasn't quite there. The follow-up, Dead or Alive 4 saw a far tighter counter system that was perhaps a touch too restrictive. Dimensions puts a bigger focus on stringing together combos that do less damage, with stronger moves needing a little more time to pull off. Counters are also simple to pull off, but can certainly be avoided with more considered play.
Essentially it’s a refined system that builds on the core Dead or Alive play, more accessible without dumbing down or overly simplifying. There are dozens of moves per player, varied even by the simple change of direction midway through a combo, and the touch-screen is utilised well by displaying a moves list throughout - like Super Street Fighter IV[ you're able to tap commands to execute, but it’s far trickier with the nippy fighting tempo. There are two options - manually scroll down the list, or opt for a dynamic approach, with the list showing commands based on the first button pressed. Tap kick and it instantly jumps to the kick-based sequences on the list. Pop in a forward punch and likewise it shifts. It's a small feature, but essential for those heated scuffles.
Dead or Alive wouldn't be the same without a strong focus on women's breasts. Near enough all the dames on display have slightly larger-than-normal chests that, by Team Ninja's admission, have their own physics engine. With the physical combat near enough spot-on, a whole team (or, more likely, one rather excitable designer) made sure that the breast work is perfect for the fans. In this instance there's enough fan service to keep chaps and chapettes happy, especially in the costume department, but there is a feeling that some of the costumes have been altered for the wider 3DS audience. Still, Tina's bikini costume is brilliant in 3D...
Nintendo's own blonde bombshell Samus Aran makes a quite literally explosive appearance in a level featuring her long-time nemesis Ridley. As Team Ninja collaborated with Nintendo on Metroid: Other M, an ickle tribute has been included in the form of a Metroid inspired level. Ridley hovers around the stage, grabbing unsuspecting foes that are pushed into his range, smearing face onto hot metal before throwing the victim back into the action. Disappointingly Samus doesn't appear for more than three seconds at a time, occasionally 'blowing up' the level. We've tried, multiple times, but word on the street is that she isn't playable. Unhappy faces all around!
If you exhaust the extensive solo and local multiplayer options, online is the next best thing. It's a mixed bag, and certainly depends on the types of connections you receive. We sampled combat against around fifteen different players - most had a decent enough signal for a solid match but the best we received was ever-so-slightly slower than standard play with 3D switched on. Slowdown, especially over wireless, is to be expected, especially with the fast paced nature of the game. That said, other fighters like Super Street Fighter IV have done it far more reliably and with a consistent connection speed, so a smooth online fighting experience is technically feasible. It’s an option worth tapping into from time to time, but it’s luck of the draw as to whether you'd have an experience as a smooth as Ayane's...hair or rough as Gohyakumine Bankotsu-bo's bottom.
Beyond the standard fighting modes, you're able to collect hundreds upon hundreds of character trophies - each striking a pose - to pop into scenery to take pictures of. It's a worthy bonus that keeps you playing with practically every mode unlocking trophies and costumes. StreetPass is also used in a neat way, letting you exchange your play styles with passers by, gradually building a profile. Received challengers can then be emulated by the CPU and fought for a varied and more human approach instead of tackling the built-in AI all the time.