The Dead or Alive series is its own worst enemy. The two-decade-old franchise has been an enjoyable, easy-to-pick-up fighter built around an intuitive fighting system. But its focus on flashy moves and presentation also regrettably and irrevocably ties the series to its oversexualized aesthetic. Dead or Alive is notorious for its big-breasted — and more recently, creepily very young — female fighters and the exaggerated physics engine used to make their virtual flesh bounce.
Dead or Alive 6 shifts ever-so-slightly away from the series’ trademark cheesecake presentation, or so it appears on its surface. By default, the core cast of female fighters are dressed for a fight. Ninja warriors like Kasumi and Ayane now wear full-body suits with leather armor, instead of short silk robes that offer frequent peeks at their underwear, the series’ longstanding tradition. In other words, they’re all dressed like the men of Dead or Alive have always been.
But Dead or Alive 6 still attempts to titillate. There’s still a ridiculous focus on bouncing breast physics — which you can thankfully turn off — and the game is replete with unlockable costumes that are far more revealing than the default outfits. (The most revealing outfits are downloadable content, and the game’s publisher is already selling a season pass that promises 62 costumes and 2 new characters for $92.99.)
Those elements tragically overshadow an exciting fighting game. Brawling in Dead or Alive 6 is streamlined, and builds upon the series’ rock, paper, scissors-style fighting system: Punches and kicks can be countered using parries known as holds. Holds can be countered with throws. Throws can be countered with punches and kicks. It’s a straightforward, enjoyable fighting system that offers fast-paced, strategic thinking and thrilling moments.
Dead or Alive 6 adds a new layer to the fighting with the Break Gauge. It’s powered by a meter that fills as I deliver or take damage, and is depleted when I do one of a few special moves. I can perform a Break Blow, an explosive super attack triggered by a single button press. I can also perform a Fatal Rush, a simple combo attack that requires pressing a single button multiple times. That easy-to-pull-off combo makes me look like a fighting game combo master, but it is just as easy to interrupt using the same gauge’s Break Guard, a get-out-of-a-nasty-combo-free card.
I don’t have to perform complex inputs to pull off most of Dead or Alive 6’s moves. Just the tap of a button and a directional input. The fun comes from chaining these attacks together, confusing my opponents by mixing them up, and landing big bruising blows. Fights are fast, frantic, and gorgeous. The new Break Gauge adds real spark to the game’s presentation, offering an easy way for newcomers to feel like they’re pulling off cool, powerful moves.
The complexities of Dead or Alive 6’s fighting system are well explained through a series of modes. There’s an expansive tutorial where I brushed up on long-forgotten techniques and learned new ones. There’s a robust, challenging combo training course that serves as a nice follow-up to that tutorial. And there’s a new quest-based mode where I spent time with each of the game’s fighters, completing a specific set of challenges that help to reinforce the game’s basics and some advanced techniques.
While the cast is varied, with a broad range of fighting styles (taekwondo, professional wrestling, ninjutsu, karate, etc.), Dead or Alive 6’s excellent teaching tools make it relatively easy to switch between characters. Characters like the beefy wrestler Bass and drunken fist practitioner Brad Wong took a little getting used to after training on some of the game’s faster fighters. Two new characters — the blue-haired scientist Nico and faux-hawked street brawler Diego — add more variety to the roster, though neither interested me enough to switch off my go-to characters, the ninja team of Ayane, Ryu Hayabusa, and Kasumi.
Developer Team Ninja treats the fighters of Dead or Alive less like pristine dolls and action figures, and more like human beings in DOA6. They sweat, bleed, and bruise. They get dirty. Clothing and accessories break and fly off, but rarely in a salacious manner. Instead, characters’ clothing is damaged in a laughably unnatural way; I can knock out a bizarre looking hole in Kasumi’s outfit, exposing her scuffed midriff, for example. Or I can completely atomize Diego’s t-shirt, revealing his glistening abs under a leather jacket. Or I can demolish Christie’s bra, while the rest of her cleavage-exposing bodysuit remains intact. None of it makes any sense, and the game looks worse for this particular addition.
Fortunately, I can turn off much of the extraneous presentation. The close-ups on violent blows are a nice effect, but the blood and sweat look silly. The over-the-top breast physics are distracting, so I’ve had that turned off as soon as I found the option.
The fighters of Dead or Alive 6 look fantastic. It’s fun to play as these characters and unlock new looks for them, even if the method of doing so is grueling. The simplest way to unlock new gear is in a new mode called DOA Quest, a series of fights with specific challenges. In one, I may be asked to pull off an eight-hit combo, counter a trio of mid-level kicks, and perform a handful of throws. If I manage to accomplish all three, I earn some in-game currency and some points toward unlocking an outfit. Or I may earn other stuff, like some in-game trivia or a character bio.
DOA Quest ties in nicely to the game’s tutorials. If there’s a concept or particular move that’s confusing, a helpful tutorial is just one button away. Upon completing that tutorial, the game will put you right back into your current quest. It’s all surprisingly smooth.
DOA Quest is a grind, but it’s also a smart way to learn how to play Dead or Alive. I could easily win many matches against a friend or the AI by mashing out buttons, but the quests forced me to learn and hone core techniques. The extra stuff I get can feel like a nice perk on top of that knowledge, but the way that Team Ninja has implemented these rewards is convoluted and frustrating. Here’s why: At the end of a fight, I might receive 200 costume parts for my efforts. The game then allocates those points to a random fighter’s random outfit, not one of my choosing, nor the one I’m currently playing as. An unlockable costume might cost 100 parts, or it might cost much more, say 1,000 parts. If the parts I earned go to a 100-part costume, the leftover 100 parts just … disappear. If it goes to a 1,000-part costume, I still need 800 parts to unlock the outfit — if I even want it at all. I have no idea when I’ll even get those remaining 800 parts; it’s all random. The whole process is counterintuitive and overwrought, and it’s frustrating to see my work go toward unlocking items for characters I don’t care about — or in some cases even own. I’ve earned currency toward costumes for the DLC character Nyotengu, which the game reminds me I don’t have a license to play.
Team Ninja’s puzzling design choices extend to the game’s story, which is presented across a grid-like map. Instead of a straightforward story campaign, bits and pieces of the game’s narrative are spread across multiple characters, chapters, and cutscenes, the order of which is so confusing, I wound up just bouncing around the grid, trying to stitch it all together. As such, Dead or Alive 6’s story is horribly disjointed, whipping back and forth between silliness — fights over where someone parked their motorcycle — to horrific family drama.
While there’s plenty to do on the single-player and local multiplayer side, Dead or Alive 6 offers little in the way of online features. I could seek out ranked matches and find opponents in just a minute or two. The pace and flow was never as perfectly smooth as offline matches are, but many online matches felt great. My only options for finding opponents is based on their connection quality, and there are no lobbies yet for lengthier play sessions. Online matches are simply get in and fight, rematch, or get out.
Dead or Alive 6 is an immensely fun package. Fights are thrilling, regardless of skill level, and the cast of characters is varied and fun to experiment with. But the game is dragged down by the series’ tired adherence to a sexed-up cast and bouncing body parts, as well as the business of selling provocative costumes. Given the game’s first season pass, which costs close to a hundred dollars and is stuffed with costumes — and one guest character, the busty Mai Shiranui from The King of Fighters — it’s pretty clear where Team Ninja and publisher Koei Tecmo’s priorities lie.
Dead or Alive 6 was released March 1 on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. The game was reviewed on PS4 using a final “retail” download code provided by Koei Tecmo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.