If you had said five years ago that the Dead or Alive series would one day make its way to a Nintendo platform, with an exclusive release no less, we don't think anybody would have believed you. Franchise creator Tomonobu Itagaki always made it clear he had no interest in pursuing business on Nintendo platforms, and him and his minions at Team Ninja were quite happy finding huge success on the PlayStation and Xbox platforms, as well as the arcades. How times have changed. After the departure of Tomonobu Itagaki, Team Ninja collaborated with Nintendo to produce Metroid: Other M. This would seemingly sow the seeds of a longer relationship that we're now seeing the fruits of.
Exclusive to the Nintendo 3DS, Team Ninja presents us with Dead or Alive: Dimensions, the first portable iteration of the franchise, as well as the first without Tomonobu Itagaki's creative input. Rather than pursue a continuation of the saga, Dimensions acts as a compendium of all things Dead or Alive, covering the events of the four main games in the Chronicle mode, while having the largest roster in the series, and a slew of modes and features known well to Dead or Alive fans.
On paper, there's a lot on offer. In theory, it should please everyone. In reality, Dimensions is a mixed package that won't necessarily satisfy every player, and we won't be surprised if the reception from long term fans differs greatly from those unfamiliar with the brand. After all, this is also the very first Dead or Alive title on a Nintendo platform, and it is clear that Dimensions is targeting these newcomers as a priority.
For those left in the dark when it comes to Dead or Alive, know this; Dead or Alive is nothing like Street Fighter. The series forgoes a 2D fighting plane and ranged attacks in favour of close quarters battles, emphasising hand-to-hand combat and juggling, 3D movement, and a rock-scissors-paper system of holds, throws and strikes. Practically every attack can, in some way, be countered with another attack, throw or hold, and it all boils down to who has the quickest reflexes and smartest play.
To the favour of the 3DS, this fighting system is mapped almost perfectly to the 3DS buttons. Unlike Super Street Fighter IV 3D, which has six attacks clumsily spread across the face and shoulder buttons, the Dead or Alive series is built on only four, sitting in its entirety comfortably on the face buttons. Much like SSFIV 3D, the d-pad's clumsy positioning is far from ideal, though unlike SSFIV 3D the circular pad works surprisingly well, largely due to the greater freedom of movement, like sidestepping. Combo shortcuts for beginners are selectable on the touch screen, though a little fiddly to activate and will probably go unused.
Mechanically, Dimensions offers an attractive fighting system that, at its deepest, becomes an intricate balance of choosing the right move for the right time, making best use of criticals and juggles, and harnessing those cat-like reflexes for perfect counters. At its core, the rock-scissors-paper mechanics of Dead or Alive, on a fundamental level, are among the most user-friendly and easy to learn in the fighting genre. Beginners need not be intimidated, for here is a good place to start.
In fact, Dimensions might be the very best Dead or Alive for newbies to start with, especially with Chronicle mode. Covering the events of the Dead of Alive games, Chronicle gives a relatively comprehensive insight into characters and relationships that compose Dead or Alive. Though the disjointed narrative can be difficult to follow at times, it's an ideal entry point for beginners, enhanced by notes appearing on the touch screen during cinematics that give insight into the terms and definitions spoken throughout cut-scenes.
Surprisingly, these cut-scenes take up an extraordinary amount of time, to the point where there's more watching than fighting. Some might see this as a plus, with the game offering plenty of cinemata to flesh out the saga, but sadly many of these cut-scenes are produced with low production values, switching between full animation and motionless statues from scene to scene. Jarring and disappointing as this may be, the fully animated sequences are quite impressive, with many camera angles chosen to specifically show off stereoscopic effects. As a bonus, some computer generated videos from past Dead or Alive titles make an appearance, with post-production 3D effects for extra zazz.
Once the watching stops and the fighting begins, Chronicle becomes quite literally a giant tutorial. Reiterating the point that Dimensions is for beginners, nearly every fight in Chronicle, from start to finish, will teach the methods of fighting, starting with the very basics and exploring advanced tactics in later chapters. As a means of easing players into the Dead or Alive fighting system, Chronicle offers one of the more impressive and engaging methods of tutorialising mechanics, with a smooth learning curve that will deeply benefit new players looking to get into the series. By the end, plebs will become men (or women, if they prefer).
The downside to this user friendly focus is that Chronicle is unlikely to offer an engaging challenge to familiar Dead or Alive players. The various tutorial cues that guide players through attacks and combos cannot be turned off, and the overall difficulty level, right through to the end, is extremely low, hurt more by the inability to set it higher. Furthermore, because Chronicle covers the events of past titles, veterans will likely find most, if not all fights retreading old ground. Though we don't doubt that some will enjoy the trip down memory lane, the lack of truly new content combined with the low difficult severely questions the appeal of Chronicle to anyone other than the newest players.
Though Chronicle has been the main focus in marketing, don't be fooled into thinking that's all Dimensions has on offer. Free Play and Training are there and operate as expected, while Arcade, Survival and Tag Challenge present specific roster line-ups and difficult levels for a more focused objective. Arcade is exactly as one would expect; chew through a roster of characters in sequence, like any fighting game, with a predetermined difficulty level. Though six 'levels' of Arcade are available, only the final one ups the difficulty above normal, making the whole tier quite easy to breeze through. Survival, on the other hand, forces players to take on waves of up to one-hundred fighters at increasing difficulty levels, requiring a higher level of skill to make it through to the end.
The largest list of 'levels' can be found in Tag Challenge. Playable offline and in multiplayer, Tag Challenge pits you and an AI or friend up against increasingly difficult AI tag teams and solo boss fights. Though this offers the most content, and is arguably where the most challenging gameplay lies, it's also a root of frustration, notably when playing alone with an AI companion. For some absurd reason, Team Ninja felt fit to give the AI teammate the ability to tag in whenever they like and against your will. Handy as this might be when you're on the verge of death, it's immensely frustrating to have them tag in mid combo or when you've set up a perfect attack. For this reason, we found Tag Mode far more enjoyable when playing online.
Tag Mode, along with versus, are the two online offerings. Starting matches is quick and easy, though sadly hindered by borderline broken net code. Forget about playing with anybody other than Australians, as the choppy performance can reduce the game to single digit frames-per-second. We had such difficulty with online matches that it wasn't until we managed to secure gameplay with an Australian that we realised what fun could be had. Dimensions online play will benefit most from a popular local audience, as its practically unplayable with anybody across the ocean.
When it comes to presentation, Dead or Alive: Dimensions ranks as one of the nicer looking launch window games. Characters and environments are attractively rendered with a decent effects and shaders, though occasionally let down by muddy textures. Unlike SSFIV 3D's static maps, Dimensions features lively and animated stage effects and details. We were particularly impressed with the sinister Ridley flying about in the bonus Metroid: Other M themed stage. Graphically, Dimensions is at its best during the photography mode and stage intro/exit animations, where high quality character models are used along with impressive effects such as depth of field.
However, what will likely come as a disappointment to fighting fans is the framerate, specifically in 3D mode, where it averaging approximately thirty frames. Fighting games demand the fastest performance possible, and it isn't there with stereoscopic 3D. On the plus side, turning the display down to 2D mode instantly boosts the framerate to a silky smooth average of sixty frames per second. Though this is hugely beneficial for gamers who demand the best performance out of fighting games, its disappointing that the platform's marketed feature could be seen more as a hindrance than a bonus.
Oh, and yes, they jiggle. They jiggle in the fights, they jiggle in the cut-scenes, and they even jiggle in photo mode whenever you shake the device. Jiggle fiends will not be disappointed, for this is a jigglers paradise.
There's nothing more disappointing that booting up a game to find a bare-bones package. In this regard, Dimensions is one of the most impressive 3DS titles out there. There's a lot of modes and challenges, a large roster of characters and stages, quite a bit of bonus content (costumes and trophies), and even support for downloadable content (more costumes). Rather than feel like a port or cash-in, Dimensions seems like a genuine effort by Team Ninja, especially as a means of catering to the new audience found on Nintendo consoles.
Where it slips is in technical issues and longevity. Even though it isn't a port, there's a lot of rehashed content through the Chronicle mode, roster and stages. There's very little truly 'new' here. That's fine, if you're new to the Dead or Alive series, but maybe not so much for long time fans. The low difficulty makes it clear the target market is new players unfamiliar with Dead or Alive, and the shaky online performances puts doubt on top tier gamers being able to find competition elsewhere.
Still, Dimensions is an enjoyable and well presented fighter wrapped in a mostly impressive package. It's a welcome alternative to Super Street Fighter IV 3D, especially for novice fighter gamers, and will hopefully pave the way for more fighters on the Nintendo 3DS, and continued Nintendo platform support from Team Ninja.