Review: Dead or Alive: Dimensions (3DS)

Dead or Alive, you're coming with me!

The 3DS is the first console to bring us a glasses-free 3D experience, and now it's home to another genuine first: Dead or Alive: Dimensions is the first Dead or Alive game on a Nintendo platform in the series’ 15-year history, and it contains everything that's made the franchise so popular among fans and so bizarre to outsiders.

Whereas Capcom’s Super Street Fighter IV: 3D Edition was a port of a home console title, DoA: Dimensions is fresh to 3DS and wants you to know it from the get-go, the machine’s gyrometer letting you look around the stages displayed behind the menu. You also must unlock the majority of characters, with 25 fighters from DoA’s history, each with alternate costumes to earn through clearing the game or spending 10 Play Coins.

It’s understandable that many Nintendo fans won’t have a clue who these brawlers are, so Team Ninja has created the series-spanning Chronicle, a story mode that attempts to make a coherent narrative out of all four main games. While the occasionally featured rendered videos look incredible in 3D, the majority of the story is told through fully-voiced cutscenes that see fighters rooted to the spot in rigid poses, which jars with the otherwise highly kinetic style. Some cutscenes are fully acted, but many are moving camera shots of still characters, which can feel a little off-putting.

The cutscene-to-action ratio is also heavily weighted in the former’s favour at first, with only a few scraps that are over too quickly. As an introduction for players new to the series, the game imparts training advice along the way, easing you into the button controls as well as technical terms like Offensive Hold and Critical Stun, aiming to get you into the flow of battle step-by-step. It delivers most of these bite-sized training stages through Quick Time Events (QTEs) that see the action slow down and a command appear on-screen. These QTEs even appear in fights occasionally, serving as a reminder for the lesson you just learned, but they’re rare enough not to interfere with the game flow too much.

Chronicle Mode is a neat summation of the series’ spirit, if not its strengths: it’s decidedly daft, with a cast including a Mexican wrestler who excels at cloning humans, an opera singer in charge of an enormous conglomerate and a legendary Japanese supernatural being who crosses over to the human world. It’s fun, but not the game’s strongest mode, despite its top billing.

While Chronicle struggles to form an overarching story around 15 years of gaming, Arcade Mode is a perfect mesh of form and function. While SSFIV3D sticks to the traditional, DoA fires a series of single-round fights at you, pushing you to reach the best time. Clearing one course opens another, and so on until you unlock the sixth course and its much-anticipated final stage. This quickfire nature suits the handheld format brilliantly, letting you dip in for two or three minutes of fighting at a time, with a prize every time.

Those aiming for longer sessions will want to check out Survival Mode, which pits you against between ten and 100 fighters, your character recovering a small amount of health after each victory. There’s no save function, and reaching the final opponent in the 100 fighter challenge only to lose is absolutely as frustrating as you'd expect.

Tag Challenge treads the middle ground between the quick burst of Arcade and the war of attrition that is Survival. You and a CPU-controlled teammate take on expert opponents, who all deal more damage and feel less pain than your fighters, making conquering some of them an exercise in knuckle-chewing frustration rather than a finely-balanced chess game. What makes matters worse is the poor artificial intelligence of your partner, who will often stand dumbfounded when the opponent is wide open, only managing measly attacks in response to super-powered 11-hit combos. Were you able to control both characters, this mode would be far more enjoyable, but as it stands you’ll yell abuse at your ally as much as your opponent.

If you want to take on a human combatant, you can play either locally or online, with Wi-Fi running smoothly in our pre-release tests. All matches are ranked and there isn’t much in the way of options, but when playing against a friend it should do the trick.

There’s also the inventive Throwdown Mode that takes an artificial intelligence version of your fighter out on the road via StreetPass, with new opponents showing up to challenge you to fight at home. Like SSFIV3D’s Figurine Battle, only time will tell if this mode can become widespread enough to make it a worthwhile addition.

Lastly there’s a Figurine Mode that lets you take 3D photos of your collected figurines. With 1,000 different figures to collect there’s plenty here for completists, though earning a new one becomes less and less exciting each time, particularly as their only real purpose is looking at them.

DoA certainly boasts a long feature list, but all this would count for naught if the fighting itself weren’t up to scratch. Thankfully, DoA’s high-speed world of strikes, throws and holds has translated well, with the machine’s four face buttons more adept here than with Street Fighter’s six button scheme.

If you want to ditch the buttons, every combo, throw, kick and guard is available on a scrollable moves list on the touch screen, with just a simple tap required to pull off anything in your repertoire. The downside is you’re unable to execute shorter versions of the chains displayed, a necessary evil to keep the moves list somewhere manageable. Scrolling around is a chore at best, but its main appeal is as an interactive reference guide: pull off two punches and the list scrolls to show potential follow-ups, or how to execute powerful combination throws. It’s not a perfect system, and playing with the D-Pad and stylus feels impractical at best, but as an in-game guide it has value.

The use of a full 3D plane comes to life on 3DS, but it’s the context-sensitive moments that truly impress. Knocking your opponent through a window or down a hill sees some great camera work take over, and there are several over-the-top moments that were surely designed with 3D in mind — if you’ve always wanted to see a female wrestler ride a drunken kung-fu master down a snowy hillside like a sledge, this is the game for you.

One noteworthy point is the framerate, which has attracted plenty of discussion already. With 3D off the action moves at a lightning fast 60 fps, but with it on, it drops to 30fps, the same rate as Super Street Fighter IV 3D Edition. While the switch is visually noticeable straight away, it doesn’t affect the responsiveness or the speed of fights, and it ultimately comes down to personal preference.

Conclusion

Dead or Alive: Dimensions captures the speed and spectacle that’s defined the series over the past 15 years, with a heightened sense of the extravagant made possible by the 3DS. Its wide array of modes offer different depths and lengths of play, although overall there’s a slight sense that it lacks a truly meaty challenge for expert fighters. Still, it’s an excellent first showing for the Dead or Alive series on Nintendo formats, and sufficiently different from Capcom’s fighter to warrant purchase.