Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed), Xbox One, PC

Dead or Alive has always appealed to the lowest common denominator. While it’s always been a decently balanced and competitive fighting game, this is the franchise that pretty much coined the term “boob physics.” For every one person looking to play Dead or Alive for the fast paced 3D gameplay, there were ten others looking to play it for girls in skimpy outfits beating the crap out of each other.

The fanservice fighter

Layering your game with so much fan service is a double-edged sword. While you certainly attract more than your fair share of pubescent boys ogling your jiggle physics, you also kill any chance you have of becoming a mainstream e-sport (and the significant sales bump that comes with it). Koei Tecmo wants a slice of that pie, so it seems like Dead or Alive 6 was an attempt to rebrand their series with less focus on the T & A and more focus on serious fighting game mechanics and modes. Did they succeed?

Let’s start with the oddly sexy elephant in the room. Yes, DOA6’s character models are less outrageously exploitative compared to the rest of the series. Many of its female fighters are now wearing full costumes rather than skimpy outfits (though they still have more than a few skimpy custom costume selections). The boob physics, even when turned on, have been toned way down. To replace them are realistic sweat and damage physics, but that feels less trashy. Long story short, I did not feel like a complete scumbag while playing DOA6, and that’s an improvement. I do think that the current level of cheesecake is acceptable for the mainstream e-sports audience.

Ready to fight?

Now let’s focus on the other reason people play Dead or Alive, the mechanics. The major addition this time around is the break bar, DOA’s first foray into a super meter. You can spend half of it to do a “break hold”, basically a move that counters anything but a throw, and you can spend all of it to do a “break blow” which is basically a character’s super.

Mechanically, meter management always adds more to a fighting game and it’s certainly made DOA6 feel much deeper than other games in the series. Aesthetically, however, it feels like this was a bit of an afterthought. Many break blows and break holds share the same animation. Heck, like five characters share the same break blow: a single slow-motion punch. For a game so frequently praised for its aesthetics it could have made its supers feel more… super.

The next big addition to the game is the “fatal rush” button. It’s essentially an auto-combo button, which every fighting game needs these days. Fatal Rushes do medium to low damage but build a lot of meter, so even if you aren’t using them for their beginner friendly purposes, they still have an application in high level play.

The last major mechanic is the new stun system. Certain moves will put the opposing character into either a short “critical stun” state or a long “fatal stun” state. This gives you extra time to follow-up with a combo which actually makes designing combos relatively easy. However, when an opponent enters a stun state, a small portion of their health starts shining. If you deplete that health, they fall out of the stun and the combo all together. Essentially, this is the point at which you launch your opponent and start a juggle. It’s a simple-to-learn but hard-to-master combo system that is far more forgiving for newbies, and I think it’s a great addition to the gameplay overall.

Learning to play

Most of the old DOA mechanics come back, from the attack triangle to combo throws and holds. If this seems intimidating, don’t worry. DOA6 comes with an astounding tutorial filled with 40+ chapters of lessons and sub-lessons, starting at basic movement and ending with serious nitty gritty fighting game concepts.

I have to praise Koei Tecmo for trying so hard, but unfortunately there are some major flaws with this tutorial system. Some tutorials are just bugged out and don’t complete even if you do them correctly.

Some put you in situations that actively punish you for doing what you are told. For example, the “hit the opponent on the ground three times” lesson puts you up against an A.I. that will quick rise and counter your strikes every so often. This doesn’t make for good learning.

Some tutorials are just frustrating. The “combo throw escape” tutorial has you up against a grappler that can do half of your life in damage with a single combo throw. You have to escape three times, so essentially you lose if you miss once or twice. However, the game doesn’t say you lose. You have to just wait for your A.I. opponent to kill you because there is no tutorial restart button.

Still, even though it’s not perfect, the tutorial goes a long way toward elevating newbies to higher level play. In addition to these basic lessons there are character specific lessons, combo lessons, individual move lessons, and more. It certainly has one of the most expansive tutorials I’ve seen in any fighting game. Heck, you can even access these tutorials from other modes, like story mode, so that you don’t have to jump into playing a new character blind.

Single-player content

The story of Dead or Alive 6 is the story of Dead or Alive… the tournament. A bunch of people get together to fight and “oh no! Something evil happens!” It basically follows the exploits of the cast as they putz around before the tournament. Some are making new friends, some are going on secret ninja missions, and some are just looking for a really good drink.

Unfortunately, this meandering plot isn’t very compelling. It picks up later on but it’s dull as paste and full of “hey let’s spar for no reason” cut scenes before then.

The whole story is laid out on a timeline that shows how the stories of each individual character intersect. Unfortunately, most of the episodes on this timeline are locked and they don’t unlock in a linear fashion. This means you can complete a fight with one character, only to unlock a completely unrelated story earlier in the timeline with another. It makes it hard to understand where you are in the plot, which only compounds the game’s many storytelling flaws.

Then there’s the issue with animation. In combat, characters move fluidly and naturally. In cutscenes, however, they move like living mannequins. Their eyes have this vacant stare to them and their mouths barely move. It’s really unnerving and gave me this sort of full body revulsion whenever any character tried to emote in a story cutscene. I know they wanted to tone down the sexy, but they didn’t have to go this far into the uncanny valley.

Outside of the story mode there’s a new DOA Quest mode, which gives you a bunch of different missions to complete with new missions constantly rolling in. Unfortunately a lot of these missions are samey and repetitive and the only thing you really get for completing them is the privilege of unlocking new costumes. If you don’t really care about playing dress up, you’ll probably pass this mode over.

A million tiny flaws add up

This is the main issue with Dead or Alive 6. On the surface, it appears to do everything you need to do to be a successful fighting game in today’s market. It has a long and deep story mode that is told in a non-traditional fashion, an expansive tutorial, a ton of single-player content outside the story mode, and so on, but each of these modes feels just a little under baked. It will constantly having you say things like “wow it’s so cool that they did this… but…” and it’s that “but” that makes it hard adopt DOA6 as your main fighting game.

Even the netcode falls into this same trap. The netcode itself is pretty phenomenal. While it was difficult to find matches during the review period, the ones I did find were smooth as silk. I never had a single problem with slowdown.

At the same time, the only mode that was available to play was ranked mode. Lobby matches are going to be patched in later in March. Getting added in a patch is better than nothing, but it really doesn’t seem like lobbies should be a post-game update.

The only thing I can’t complain about is the fighting, and this is a fighting game. It’s deep, intuitive, and keeps you thinking on your feet. The fact that you can get put into special stun stated by interacting with stage hazards is great. The fact that certain moves do different amounts of damage in certain areas on certain stages is super fun. I cannot tell you how many times power-bombing someone into an explosive barrel put a smile on my face.

So if all you want is a good 3D fighting game to play with your friends, DOA6 will give you that. However, if you are looking for something more out of your fighting game, DOA6 will give you that too, but in a kind of twisted monkey’s paw sort of way.

Still, I applaud Koei Tecmo for trying. DOA6 is certainly more acceptable as an e-sports title now. It’s not going to be jiggle physics that keeps DOA6 from blowing up on Twitch, it’s going to be its own popularity. With great 3D fighters like Tekken 7 and Soul Calibur VI on the market, my personal assessment is that DOA6 is a fine fighter to try, but for now will only amount to a flavor of the week.

Who knows though? Koei Tecmo said they would support this game with patches and we already have new functionality on the way with a day one update. When DOA5 was done being patched it was practically a totally different game and maybe DOA6 will be too.