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Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Play-Asia review: Dead or Alive Xtreme 3

Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 review

Review by Matt S.

I kid you not, but after playing Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 all night (because I love you all so much I wanted to get the review done as quickly as possible, not because I was, uh, mesmerised by the, ah, bounce), I was going a little loopy, and had developed a genuine craving for jelly. So I type this as I chow down on a big bowl of wobbly, wobbly, raspberry jelly…

Related reading: Matt's review of Dead or Alive 5: Last Round.

So Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 is everything that you were expecting it to be, based on whatever you’ve seen of it or heard of it to date. It’s also awesome fun. Assuming, of course, you can get past the whole exploitation thing.

I’m sure there are going to be people who are now going to take to the comments and yell at me for stifling creative freedom or whatever (despite being one of the biggest fans of the game out there, and as far as I can tell I was the first in the media to actually campaign for a Dead or Alive Xtreme 3), but the simple reality is that there's no rational, plausible way to argue that this game is not exploitative. That is because the entire game is literally built around the theme of exploitation, and its sole purpose in existing is to indulge the male gaze. A lot has been said about the male gaze and its relationship to video games, and a lot of that is completely inaccurate. So, before I go on to rave about how much I absolutely adore this game, I’m going to start out by contextualising it by explaining what the male gaze is, and why it’s worth being aware of it, even if you then join me in really enjoying this game.

The concept of the “male gaze” came out of feminist criticism and analysis in cinema, and it’s is a really simple theory in practice. First conceived by Laura Mulvey (one of the most important film theorists in the history of the medium), it works on the principle that in many examples of visual arts, the process in creating and then viewing an art work is focused on the masculine viewer; i.e. film, paintings, and games often depict the world (and the women within it) based on how men see it and in relation to masculine world views.

It’s a theme that is overtly the case in Dead or Alive Xtreme 3, given that the entire experience is designed around drawing your attention to the beauty and physical anatomy of the girls. A thin premise of a narrative places these girls on a tropical paradise of an island, where men don’t exist, the girls exclusively wear swimsuits, and they don’t feel the slightest inhibitions in what they get up to. It’s very much a male fantasy, sitting somewhere between dreaming of harems and sleepovers-and-pillow fights. Further, the “camera angles” and scenarios are almost universally designed to draw attention to the girl’s chests, crotches or backsides. Before you serve the ball in a game of beach volleyball, the camera is placed firmly at a low angle, with your character’s backside in the middle of the frame. Another minigame tasks you with using your girl’s bum to bump another into the pool. The male gaze can be subtle, too, such as scenes where the girls are relaxing by the pool and the menu fades away quickly so as to not obstruct your view of anything, where in any other game the menu would remain in place for the sake of functionality. These is all, quite explicitly, examples of the male gaze at work.

The only time the body of whatever girl you choose is not centered firmly in the middle of the camera is when you venture into the casino. There, where the roulette, poker and blackjack games require gameplay elements not directly related to manipulating the body of the girl, there are no character models to act as a distraction. Instead characters are represented by little icons on the screen… but then you’re dealt a hand of cards and the pictures on them are of the girls in swimwear.

Koei Tecmo sexy game review

As a final example of how Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 is male gaze 101 stuff, the gameplay is actually broken up into two separate play options. One way to play is to directly control your preferred girl as she goes rock climbing, pool hopping, or works on her tan. The other is to activate “owner control” which instead of controlling anyone, you’re provided with a virtual camera and full 360-degree control so that you can take photos of your favourite girl as she does those same activities. Calling this mode “owner mode” is not coincidental, and works on two levels. Narratively it’s because Zack, the guy who built the holiday resort, has given you “management responsibilities” over it – which doesn’t actually task you with any chores but does have the benefit of placing you, the player, on the island. But more than the flimsy narrative excuse, by calling this “owner mode” the game positions you of having ownership over the girls. You take control of them. You photograph them in whatever way you please, because they are yours. It’s making the male gaze theme as explicit and as domineering as you will ever see in a work of art.

With all of that out of the way, Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 doesn’t apologise for what it is, and if you do find the exploitation uncomfortable, of course this isn’t going to be the game for you. Controversial as the move was, I do applaud Koei Tecmo for opting not to release the game in the west, where sensitivity around this kind of theme is higher. By releasing an English version of it to the Asian market, Koei Tecmo knew that the fans that weren’t offended by the content would still be able to import and enjoy the experience in full, and indeed the localisation effort that’s gone into this game is impressive. I’ve seen other examples of English localisation for Asian markets and they’ve been illiterate, but aside from the lack of English voices, there was nothing to distinguish this localisation effort from one that was designed for a global release.

The flip side to the game's exploitative theme is this: for what it does, you’ll not find a better game out there. And I genuinely love this game, because it’s silly, light hearted, casual and relaxing fun. The character models are absolutely incredible, for a start. Each girl is rendered at such a high standard that I don’t think there are better examples of character modelling out there. The effort that’s gone into perfectly drawn tan lines (which show up as costumes break), or the way the water rolls off each girl’s body, is technically perfect. The hair effects could have been improved, because these girls often have gorgeous, long hair that is let down by being overtly polygonal and even clipping through their bodies. It's forgivable, though, as a likely consequence to basing the game's engine on the same one that drove Dead or Alive 5; a game that's been around since the PlayStation 3. Other than that, though each girl is just beautiful, and a perfect, albeit exaggerated and idealised vision of the female form.

Dead or Alive sexy

While it’s disappointing that the entire female cast of Dead or Alive isn’t included in the game, the nine girls that are there should manage to check off at least one of most fans list of favourite characters from the franchise. I got really lucky, and all three of my favourites (Hitomi, Kokoro, and Marie Rose) all made the cut. Whether they are playing beach volleyball or lounging by the pool, the luxuriously way that they move, the way the light plays across their bodies, and their impossible but idealised physiques are all very much in the tradition of exploitation cinema of the 60s, 70s and 80s; it’s not pornographic, but certainly sexy and fetishistic. Which, again, is exactly what you want from a game like this.

Related reading: An in-depth look into pin-up art and how the genre might apply to games.

Dead or Alive’s characteristic breast physics are in place, as you’d expect, though they continue the change of direction that we saw with the mainstream Dead or Alive series under Team Ninja's current head, Yosuke Hayashi. By that I mean that the jelly-like bounce is more constrained by gravity than the physics-breaking behaviour we saw in previous Xtreme titles, as directed by Hayashi's predecessor, Tomonobu Itagaki. This game takes that engine two steps further, however: 1) the girl’s behinds also have some physics built into them. It’s more subtle, but equally hypnotic, given the way the camera likes to hone in on that wobbling movement in motion, and 2) the swimsuits themselves now break. You’ll never actually see anything when they do, but the sight of a broken strap falling down is certainly teasingly sexy.

The core gameplay loop involves earning enough virtual cash (mostly through a casino, though there are rewards for performing well in the minigames too) to buy new swimsuit costumes for your favourite girls, or gifts so that their affection towards one another can grow. These swimsuits range from the relatively conservative, right through to being so eye-openingly daring that they’d be illegal in the real world. Each girl has her preferred costumes, but will ultimately wear whatever you give her.

Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball game

That might not sound like much “gameplay” in the traditional, sense, and that much is true. A little like Farmville or clicker games there’s not really any “lose” conditions in Dead or Alive Xtreme 3; you might not be able to buy every swimsuit in every 14 in-game day play through, but there’s no penalties involved in playing badly, and persistence alone will be enough to slowly accumulate the full collection of costumes. There are only six minigames to play, and none of these, even the beach volleyball, have any substantial depth to speak of. Even after throwing in the camera mode and casino games, the amount of gameplay content that’s on display in the game is really very limited. But to suggest that’s an issue is really missing the point. Dead or Alive Xtreme 3 is very much a “premium casual pure play fan service” game. It’s targeting the same people that buy the DLC costumes in Dead or Alive 5.

In that context you’d have to say it’s a resounding success. Watching your favourite girl frolic on the beach in a swimsuit that you picked for her is silly, but fun. Watching her eat an icecream in the most erotic way possible, like from one of those bad cheerleader movies, is ridiculous and over the top, but it’s fun. And with no pressure to “succeed” or “win”, it’s easy to simply kick back and enjoy it all.

Mechanically it’s all put together well as well. Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 and Paradise didn’t have a particularly enjoyable beach volleyball game. This one is simple, but it’s fun. All the other minigames play simply, but well, and none of the gambling games feel like the odds are ever rigged one way or another. What I really liked about this one, and from memory it is new to the series, is the ability to be a bystander during the minigames and instead take photographs. You’ve always been able to snap your favourite girl as she lounges or poses, but the addition of dynamic shots of her playing volleyball or rock climbing is a nice addition.

Koei Tecmo PlayStation 4 game review

The camera controls are nicely comprehensive, too, complete with control over the aperture if you want to get fancy by blurring backgrounds and so on. Because the girls are always in motion nailing the perfect photo isn’t as easy as it sounds, and I suspect most people will spend most of their time in playing this game trying to time shots just right. I like to think that I'm taking art photos, myself.

Related reading: Dead or Alive Paradise, a predecessor to this game, is still available as a PSP game on PlayStation Vita. Matt's look back at that particular game.

There’s the promise of DLC to come – packed in with my copy of the game was a code for a free “devil’s costume” for Marie Rose, and if the DLC strategy is anything like we have seen with Dead or Alive 5, there’s going to be a lot of very boundary-pushing costumes to look forward to yet.

This is the kind of game I like having in my collection for short sessions in between my other games. It’s silly, sexy, and stupid good fun. It doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, and had it been released in the west proper, it would have been roundly criticised. I like that I don’t have to deal with that. I like that I can simply kick back and enjoy this game for what it is. I’m glad that it got made in the first place.

PlayStation 4 sexy game review

Oh! And your reward for "playing well" is a pole dance from Kokoro (or whoever your favourite girl is, I guess...). Exploitation games will never better that.

- Matt S. 
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld

Play-Asia review: Dead or Alive Xtreme 3
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