Dead or Alive 6 Review: Definitely Between Life and Death

The new 3D fighter bounces around new ideas, but nothing groundbreaking.

Dead or Alive returns with a sixth installment that feels every bit like its predecessors — albeit with a few updates to bring it in line with the modern fighting game pantheon. It’s newcomer-friendly and gorgeous, yet still every bit as conflicted and sometimes frustrating as Dead or Alive can be. The result is a fighting game that feels both like everything you’d want, but nothing that surprises, which might not be enough to help it stand out in an increasingly crowded genre.

A note: if you’re a die hard Dead or Alive fan, you’ve likely already made up your mind about this game. That’s fine — you will get exactly what you want from it. But for the broader audience, Dead or Alive is usually a special haven for casual fans and those looking for a good local multiplayer game, rather than a competitive medium to practice. Largely, I’m speaking with that crowd in mind.

There are only a few buttons in Dead or Alive. Punch, kick, and hold are the universal tools for beatdowns. The rock-paper-scissors paradigm of strike-hold-throw is still the name of the game; holds (essentially parries) counter strikes but leave you wide open for throws, while strikes interrupt grappling. It’s refreshingly easy to pick up Dead or Alive 6 and feel up to speed in a matter of moments. And outside of a few half- and quarter-circle motions, the controller inputs are just as straightforward.

Dead Or Alive 6 Review

A Familiar Fighter

The act of playing Dead or Alive will feel familiar to anyone who’s picked up the series any time since the very first entry. Dead or Alive is nominally known as the “sexy fighter” series, thanks to years of breast physics innovations. But it’s also a punch-and-kick fighter, less focused on flashy super-moves and more on the raw combat. It’s a tense, careful balance of counters and jabs, painted over with a layer of Super Bowl beer commercial. The latter themes have been (mildly) toned down compared to previous iterations, but it’s still a martial-arts focused 3D brawler through-and-through.

The big gameplay additions this go-around are the fatal strikes, blows, and reversals. All activated by the R1 button for PlayStation 4 players, you have a meter that builds up mostly through taking damage. It lets you unleash either a heavy attack or a catch-all reversal — one that puts you on the other side of the opponent, opening them up for combos. These comeback mechanics help matches feel a bit more equal, as even a low-health and cornered foe can pose a serious threat.

All of this mixes to make Dead or Alive an incredibly approachable game at a lower level, but a surprisingly psychological one as you move up the ranks. It was easy for me to overcome even the highest level CPU, but playing against high-rank human opponents, it was all about reading their intentions and making the right calls. If you’re really into mix-ups, parries, fake-outs, and mind games, you’ll like a lot about Dead or Alive 6 — and all you button-mashers out there will probably have fun, too.

Dead Or Alive 6 Review

Reaching for the Stars

The game’s main attraction, the story mode, is what you might expect in our post-Mortal Kombat 9 world. That is to say it’s similar to NetherRealm’s excellent fighting game narratives; it’s just not as good.

Cinematics take you from character to character, where heated dialogue or random paths crossing lead to fisticuffs. It’s comical, in some ways intentionally so, but also incredibly frustrating to navigate. It’s on par with offerings like Street Fighter V’s cinematic story mode, but has nowhere near the production values, writing, and direction of NetherRealm fighters.

Likewise, Dead or Alive 6 adopts a lot of gameplay features that have become increasingly common in fighting games. You can mash out simple auto-combos if you’d like. Or maybe try some of the various single-button shortcuts, simplifying some of the two-button inputs down to one.

Dead Or Alive 6 Review

Quest for Glory

Even better is the “DOA Quest” mode, separate from the single-player campaign. A series of missions, structured as scientific research into the various fighters’ styles and moves, also acts as an advanced tutorial of sorts. Each one awards one star for simply clearing it (usually just beating the opponent). But you get more for meeting specific conditions like landing high holds or combos. There are also tutorials to walk you through the most difficult challenges, showing you the right timing and reads for tricky moves.

It lacks variety as you get into higher missions, but DOA Quest is an interactive, clever way of drilling good habits for less experienced players. The bummer is that costumes are tied to your progression, so if you want a certain alternate outfit for your favorite character, you need to grind a lot of missions as the rest of the roster to get it.

Dead Or Alive 6 Review

Familiar Pillars

Luckily, the cast of characters is solid — mostly because it’s filled with returning faces. Newcomers Diego and Nico round out a who’s who of Kasumi, Bayman, Tina, Christie, and the rest. Although Nico stands out a bit more thanks to her lightning-spark attacks (Dead or Alive is fantastical at times, but you don’t often see a fireball or kamehameha). If you’ve played Dead or Alive before, you probably have a favorite or two. And they’re probably in this lineup. While it’s nice to see so many familiar faces, though, I wish there were a few more surprises or new toolkits to try.

Beyond accessibility, most casual players will associate Dead or Alive with its visual fidelity. Dead or Alive 6 is no exception. It is absolutely gorgeous, at times, and there are plenty of options for extreme, over-the-top detail to fiddle with to your heart’s desire. Sweat, for example, makes a return in all its drippy glory…

Dead Or Alive 6 Review

The “Sexy” Fighting Game

This also brings us to the elephant in the room: how risque does Dead or Alive 6 get? Early interviews indicating a toned-down experience seem to clash with recent promotions in tone. This is the series infamous for its island vacation harem simulator (with a side helping of volleyball), after all.

You can turn off more violent animations and disable “natural motion,” Dead or Alive’s nomenclature for bouncing boob physics, to have an experience you’d feel less weird about your parents walking in on compared to past games. There are still plenty of revealing outfits. However, the costume degradation over the course of matches seems to target less… sensational areas; you’ll see a lot of broken hair accessories and exposed abdomens, but little else. It is what you make of it, it seems.

Beyond the two central single-player options, you can still play local versus and arcade modes. There’s also barebones online matchmaking with more features that will supposedly arrive in future patches. The netcode feels perfectly adequate. The major issue, however, is how many basic features the multiplayer is lacking: no challenging your friends and no lobby system. Both of which feel like bare minimum inclusions in fighting games nowadays. Yet Dead or Alive 6 has none of it. You can play ranked matches, at least.

Dead Or Alive 6 Review

Safe Bets All Around

That said, most of my enjoyment with Dead or Alive 6 felt extremely perfunctory. It’s certainly enjoyable in the moment. I’d be happy to break it out at a friend’s place and would feel comfortable handing the controller to a complete newcomer. Either party could probably eke out a win or two just mashing buttons. It’s pretty and stylish, too. Not to mention the comeback mechanics are helpful and the presentation is top-notch.

But little about the game is particularly memorable. I’ve played as most of these characters before. The story does nothing to pull me in, outside of basic comic relief, and even that falls flat more often than not. The DOA Quest mode is probably the most interesting feature, but it starts to grow stale once mission parameters become familiar — and the grind becomes more apparent.

Dead or Alive 6 is a perfectly solid fighting game, but it doesn’t seem like one I’ll spend excessive hours playing. So many other fighting games are at their peak form (Tekken 7, Soulcalibur VI) or pushing boundaries (Dragon Ball FighterZ, Mortal Kombat) that I want a little more than passing muster these days.

Dead or Alive 6 doesn’t try to fix what isn’t broken, but doesn’t try to expand past what it is, either. It is another sequential entry in the Dead or Alive series, just like it says on the box. That’s enough to keep it on my console, but not on my mind.