In the cutthroat world of fighting games, Dead or Alive has consistently proven that it's a solid contender. From its arcade debut in 1996, the series has made a name for itself with striking visuals, fun and memorable characters, and engaging fighting action, carrying the series along through some of the genre's darkest days. Now, Dead or Alive finds itself in one of the most crowded markets the genre has ever seen. Dead or Alive 6 still has the chops to stand out after all this time--though it does slightly stumble along the way.
When you first boot up Dead or Alive 6, you're greeted by a close-up of one of the game's many characters, staring you straight in the face as you navigate through the initial set of menus. It's an early glimpse at DoA6's graphical prowess, as you get to see one of the cast members before they step into the ring and turn into a bruised and battered brawler. The way the fighters themselves sustain visual damage during a fight is quite impressive. There's dirt, torn clothing, and flying sweat--even some of the heavier hits leave a little bit of blood, transforming every match into a fierce brawl. Thankfully, if you find these effects distasteful or distracting, there's also the option to turn them off. Combined with the flashy character costumes and colorful, elaborate arenas, DoA6 is a game with a distinct visual flair.
But the game's appeal is more than surface-level. DoA6 delivers solid, satisfying combat with its own twists. New to the franchise is a Break Gauge that fills as you deal or receive damage with your blows--a mechanic that's been seen in many other fighting games. There are a few things you can do with this shiny new gauge, thanks to a newly added "special" button that puts it to use: An offensive sidestep into an attack by pressing up or down in tandem with the special button, do a "Break Hold" universal hold counterattack by pressing back and the special button. Finally, you can execute a powerful "Break Blow" by either pressing towards the opponent and the special, or automatically at the end of a four-hit special button auto-combo, assuming the Break Gauge is full. These Break Blows are incredibly flashy, packing a serious punch both in lifebar and visual damage to the opponent. It's hard not to feel a bit demoralized when you're watching your fighter get physically wrecked by a secret ninja skill or a fist to an extremely vulnerable face--but it's super rewarding to push that same humiliation onto your foe.
The Break Gauge is a great addition to the game, as it's easy to understand and doesn't require a lot of execution beyond knowing when to use each special technique. All of these techniques are useful; the sidestep attacks can screw up somebody fishing for you to mess up a hold counter, the Break Hold can take some of the guesswork out of hold counters (and counter an opponent's Break Blow), and Break Blows just look cool and satisfying as hell… well, provided you can land them.
But the Break Blows aren't the only flashy thing about DoA6's combat. The series is known for having some pretty wild combat arenas, and DoA6's lush battlefields might be some of the craziest yet. They include a dilapidated theme park overrun by dinosaurs, a moss-encrusted battleship being assaulted by an angry kraken, and a multi-car pile-up with some very volatile vehicles that might go kaboom when someone touches them. These stages are littered with specific danger zones that both play an amusing cinematic and deal extra combat damage to an enemy when you send them flying into one with a well-placed blow. In some cases, you can even pull off unique combos with the aid of danger zones; the aforementioned dinosaur stage features an angry pterodactyl mama who will hoist a fighter into the air before dropping them again, setting them up for a big juggle combo. Alas, while the really nutty stages are quite memorable, most are a lot more sedate, and the stage selection as a whole feels somewhat lacking.
DoA6 also offers plenty of minor tweaks to the moment-to-moment gameplay, and options to make the game more beginner-friendly (such as simplifying the game's hold counterattack system inputs), but the most important thing is that the fighting just feels good. The rock-paper-scissors element of the holds-throws-attacks balance works nicely into gameplay with smooth animation that feeds into a seamless flow of combat. Every character offers something unique in terms of their fighting style, but once you have the basics down, it's not too hard to learn another character if you're not feeling who you're currently playing with. And while I'm not terribly fond of the designs of the two new characters (street brawler Diego is terribly generic, and blue-haired anime teen scientist NiCO looks like she belongs in a different game entirely), they both bring something new to the table in terms of their combat abilities.
Where DoA6 falters, however, is in its single-player content. Story Mode isn't too bad; the cinematics mostly use the in-game graphics engine, further showcasing DoA6's strong visuals, and the game wisely has an optional tutorial feature that teaches you basic strings for each character you'll assume control of so you're not thrust into blind combat. However, the weird multi-timeline presentation is a mess both in terms of interface and storytelling, leading to a confusing series of events that oscillates wildly between serious drama and goofy comedy.
Then there's the other big single-player mode, DOA Quest: a series of themed battles that offer in-game rewards, like parts for new character costumes and in-game money used to purchase and view extra story content. By completing sub-objectives in these battles-- like landing a specific attack a certain number of times or beating a quest within a time limit--you earn additional rewards and unlock more quests to attempt.
DoA6 also offers plenty of minor tweaks to the moment-to-moment gameplay, and options to make the game more beginner-friendly, but the most important thing is that the fighting just feels good.
DOA Quest isn't a bad idea on its own, but the game's grindy, frustrating unlock system turns a fine little challenge mode into an absolute chore. The main thing you'll want to use DOA Quest (and other single-player modes like Arcade Mode) for is unlocking character costumes and customization options, of which there are many. However, you'll soon discover that when you earn points that go towards unlocking new outfits, you have absolutely no say in where they will go. You could earn 300 costume points in a quest featuring Zack, for example, and those points you earn would go towards unlocking a random costume for Hayabusa instead--meaning you invested time and effort to earn partial rewards for a character you potentially don't care about. This happens a lot. To add insult to injury, even when you do get enough points to open up a costume for a character, you still have to pay earned in-game money to actually buy and wear it. It's an extremely ill-thought-out grind that sucks all of the reward out of playing single-player.
Provided you're not absolutely attached to using a specific customization in battle, versus play against another human is far more satisfying than the neverending solo grind. Local versus mode works just fine, but most people will probably gravitate towards online play. While there aren't many options for online head-to-head--just Ranked and the promise of a future Lobby mode--what is there works well, and given a good connection, online play feels smooth and enjoyable. One particularly brilliant feature is the ability to see if your potential online match is using a wi-fi or a wired connection. It lets you avoid a lot of potential lag-spike headaches, as wired connections are ideal for head-to-head fighting games like this.
Despite some missteps, DoA6 is a fun, engaging fighter with great-feeling, easy-to-pick-up combat, a strong sense of visual style, and a lot of personality. If you're looking for a new fighting game to learn the ins and outs of--or perhaps a nice entry into the 3D side of fighting games--DoA6 is a fighter of choice.