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Friday, March 1, 2019

Review: Dead or Alive 6 (Sony PlayStation 4)


Review by Matt S. 

I can’t think of many games that I’d rather play than something from my beloved Dead or Alive series. I discovered it with Dead or Alive 3, and haven't looked back since. In fact, before Dead or Alive 3, I was a marginal fan of fighting games of any flavour. I couldn’t really wrap my head around combo systems or the speed of them. It was the accessibility of Dead or Alive 3, coupled with its aesthetics (yes, the very pretty girls) that got me into fighting games, and from there I’ve learned how to play them well enough that fighting games are one of my favourite pastimes. Dead or Alive was responsible for that, and as far as I’m concerned, within the best fighting game series of all, Dead or Alive 6 is the best of them all.


Dead or Alive 6 is the epitome of everything that the series has stood for and tried to achieve. First and foremost, it puts a priority on accessibility, and making a very complex genre easy to step into. No matter what experience level you step into DoA 6 with, the developers have made sure that you'll feel good about yourself before being truly challenged. One of the key modes in the game, called “DoA Quest,” is there specifically to act as as a tutorial. Across nearly 100 missions, you’re tasked with completing specific objectives, using a different character each time, in order to earn stars. These objectives will take you through just about every kind of attack, parry and deflection that you will need in a proper bout, giving you plenty of practice, while also providing some great rewards in the process. DoA Quest is the fastest way to unlock new costumes for your characters, you see, and you are going to want to do that.

Costumes are earned by collecting “parts points,” with each costume costing between 200 and 1000 points. Earn all three stars in any DoA Quest mission, and you’ll get a whole lot of points towards a costume, if not enough to unlock it outright. Otherwise, you can grind away in the arcade and survival modes, earning a point (yes, singular, one point) with each completed effort. Given the choice between 200 or more points for a minute's work, or one point for a half dozen minutes play, you're naturally going to delve into the former when you're looking to earn costumes. Helpfully, if you ever get stuck on a quest and unable to unlock a particular star, you can pull up the tutorial instantly that explains how to execute the attack or move that you need to to earn the star, and practice the move in isolation before going back and giving the quest another crack. So, while DoA Quest is the pathway to unlock the all-important costumes in-game, this mode doubles as the ideal tutorial and introduction to the game.


If you are an experienced player just going through those quests because you want the costumes, it will be a bit of a grind, and you'll likely wish that costumes could be earned from the arcade and survival modes, as they were in previous titles, but if there wasn't a genuine reward for playing those quests, newcomers would be tempted to skip over them too. On-boarding players is a huge challenge for any mature fighting game, but developers need to do it, lest they find themselves preaching to an ever-smaller choir. Dead or Alive 6 has done it better than any other game that I’ve come across, and it’s truly the newbie’s perfect introduction to 3D fighting games.

Once you're through the introductory process, Dead or Alive 6's depth should impress. One of the things I’ve always loved about Dead or Alive is how it enables truly defensive play. Once you’ve learned how to execute a counter attack in response to high, medium, and low strikes, and have learned how to read opponents and the behaviour of each character, Dead or Alive matches become a fascinating case of cat-and-mouse play, where all the combos in the world won’t save you from a bone-breaking counter attack. That’s not to say offense isn’t an option either. Each character has a huge move list - more than almost anyone could hope to memorise for their own favourite character, let alone across the whole roster. The learning curve with this game is one that should have you hooked for many, many hours, whether you want to become a proficient online player, or just learn enough to have some fun playing against the AI or buddies at home.

For returning players the mechanics will feel familiar, but there are all the expected small improvements from one fighting game to the next, and Dead or Alive 6 is a cleaner, smoother, and more energetic fighter than in titles past. One all-new feature that impressed me more than I thought it would was the break gauge. This is a meter that fills up as you land attacks (or are hit), and once it is filled all the way can be expended with a single button press to land a particularly bone-crunching attack. Again, this is great for new players because it means they can pull of some of the game's most visually impressive attacks immediately, but experienced players have another option, because half a full meter can also be used to dodge any attack coming from the opponent, and the amount of damage that the dodge can save you from can be far more significant than the damage you'd cause from a full break gauge. Once again, Dead or Alive 6 provides both easy accessibility and complex strategic options for the experienced player. It's a superb balance.



Sex and DoA

Of course, the big chestnut with the Dead or Alive series that has always put a number of people off playing it has been the visual element – and specifically how it handles its female characters. “Exploitation,” “sexism” “perverted” – these are all inevitable (and frequent) criticisms that come with each new entry of Dead or Alive, and they'll come with this new one too, because despite initial commentary around how the developers would be "toning things down" this time around, they haven't. Oh no. Legs, midriffs, upskirts and boobs abound in this one.

I’ve generally felt that such criticisms have largely missed the point - yes, fighting games can have points - and are rather unfair. The way I “read” those earlier Dead or Alive entries is that they were satirical in nature. Then series director, Itagaki Tomonobu, designed the characters to resemble a bunch of plastic mannequin or Barbie doll-like characters with hyper-exaggerated breast physics. Was it partly a consequence of having limited technical power available to render "realistic" characters? Undoubtedly, but I do think there was also more to it than that. Rather than make the characters to titillate, their design was, much like many people now view the Barbie dolls themselves, a deliberate pastiche on the expectations that society places on feminine beauty. Is that giving Itagaki's vision too much credit and over-analysing? Possibly, but looking at the director's other work, he's sharper in his social critique than people give him credit for - regardless of what you think of Devil's Third, it had some strong themes behind it - and I don’t know how anyone could look at those early Dead or Alive games and think to themselves that those things were trying to be sexy.

There has always been a parallel comparison that you can make to the way Dead or Alive handles sex, as the other infamous fighting game property, Mortal Kombat, handles violence. Mortal Kombat’s violence is so ridiculously over the top and extreme that it stops being grotesque and becomes quite comical. In western society, we're less sensitive towards violence, so we more readily see Mortal Kombat for the pure amusement that it offers, but in my view, both Mortal Kombat and Dead or Alive want players to respond in the same way. It's just the cultural discomfort with sex themes that we have in the west tends to result in Dead or Alive being seen in a different, less acceptable light.


The good comparative point, through which we can see that Mortal Kombat and Dead or Alive weren't designed as sincere depictions of their respective extreme material, is Marquis de Sade, the infamous author that made liberal use of both fetishistic violence and pornographic sexuality in his work. Audiences were (and still are) shocked by de Sade’s work, and sadism comes directly from his name. Indeed, de Sade was locked up and treated as insane for those writings. And the reason he was so shocking was because he very much meant for both the violence and sexuality to have impact, as violence and sexuality. His work was meant to be both vicious and erotic. He was a revolutionary writer in the thick of one of history's greatest revolutions, and those writings were indeed designed to shock the audience into moving against the incumbent culture. As the leading philosopher on de Sade, Georges Bataille, once wrote, “the fact is, that what de Sade was trying to bring to the surface of the conscious mind was precisely the thing that revolted that mind… From the very first he set before the consciousness things which it would not tolerate.”


I don’t think any argument that suggests that Mortal Kombat is meant to sicken someone with its violence, or Dead or Alive is meant to turn the viewer on, holds any validity. Some people might be offended by those respective games, and that's fine, but the exaggeration evident in both games is simply too extreme, and done too comically, to be taken seriously. As such, they’re not really exploitative. Mortal Kombat isn’t trying to inspire violence, and Dead or Alive isn’t out there promoting people to see women (and men, frankly) as sex objects.

With all that being said, Dead or Alive has been slowly shifting towards offering a more genuinely sexy aesthetic. Dead or Alive 5 was a step back from the Barbie doll aesthetic towards something more naturalistic, and Dead or Alive 6 is a solidification of this new aesthetic that Koei Tecmo has adopted post-Itagaki. It’s not really “realistic” as such – each character’s skin is still too perfect, the eyes are too big, and the dimensions – both bust and hip - are extra-human. Over on the male character's side... well, even body builders wouldn't be able to shape themselves into what some of those boys look like. So it's not realistic, however the character designs have stepped away from the plastic. On one level I do feel disappointed that Koei Tecmo has stepped away from the most overt hyperbole, as it does dilute the satirical themes a little. Now it seems like the developers are aiming for more a pin-up model look, and the silliness - while still there - is just that little more subtle. It’s not the rocks-to-the-wall bombastic humour of Itagaki’s original vision, in other words.


That disappointment aside, Koei Tecmo’s digital pin-up models are absolutely incredible. Dead or Alive 6 sets a new standard for character models, across the entire games industry, with the most spectacularly detailed bodies which, as befits the pin-up aesthetic, are expertly tuned towards the sensual. Koei Tecmo has done away with the silly, gravity defying boobs, but the little streams of sweat that glisten over the character’s faces, legs, chests and midriffs following a battle is so much more of a genuine sexiness. It goes for men and women, too – for the first time, Koei Tecmo looks like it has put as much effort into making the men as attractive as the women, and the oiled up six packs are certainly calendar-worthy. The only contention I have there - and this is going to sound silly but bear with me - is that the men are still absolutely flat in the crotch area. It’s always been odd that a game would go to such efforts to model women’s chests without even a cursory glance at the equivalent opportunity for jelly effects on men, but with the aesthetic of Dead or Alive 6, and the level of detail now being worked into the characters, having all the men look like eunuchs is a weird effect indeed. And it's a missed opportunity for humour, too. Imagine the fun you could have with screenshots with Hitomi giving Bass a good ol' uppercut to the nuts? Even Mortal Kombat does that... and again, it's played for humour in that particular game. Dead or Alive 6 would be so much more amusing if there were nuts down there on those boys.


All about the characters

Dead or Alive 6’s story also deserves far more credit for the way it treats its female characters than most people will give it credit for. Dead or Alive’s storytelling has always been fundamentally about a woman – Kasumi – but Dead or Alive 6 really goes all-out with giving the important roles to women. Much of the story this time around centres around three of the series newcomers – Honoka, Marie Rose, and Nico, while the newest male character – Diego – is just a punkish street fighter that doesn’t do much more than throw fists around and look cranky. His role in the plot is limited to his participation in the background martial arts tournament that barely frames the real story going on.

In addition to Honoka, Marie Rose, and Nico, the head of the most important company – DOATEC – is run by a woman (Helena), the most important assassin working for the baddies is a woman (Christie), and the two most important ninjas are still Kasumi and Ayane – women. Male roles tend to be for comic relief (Bass, Brad Wong), or they play a bit role, such as messenger boy (Zack), or a dude in need of women to come and save him (Raidou). Because so many of the important characters are women, many of the scenes in Dead or Alive 6 do even pass the Bechdel test, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say Dead or Alive 6 is exactly feminist in tone, it certainly does like its empowered female characters.


I really like the way Dead or Alive 6 handles its narrative, though there’s not nearly enough of it. You’re presented with a timeline for each character, with episodes involving them appearing as you work your way through the main timeline. Each of these episodes is a tiny vignette of a minute-long cut scene (if that), followed by a battle between two characters, and then another short cut scene to bookend the scenario. The patchwork nature of this structure, and the ability to jump all over the timeline in a non-linear manner, initially comes across as too disjointed to be enjoyable, but that initial impression quickly passes. Afterwards, it starts to make sense as a way to handle a very large ensemble cast, and place them in the context of an overall story. There are characters that have absolutely nothing to do with the main plot line, and rather than try and shove an encounter with them into the story, as Koei Tecmo's writers would have needed to were the story presented in the standard linear manner, this structure has allowed the writers to instead use them as little character arcs and digressions away from the main plot, while still making the character feel important to the overall DoA universe.

There’s just not enough of the story. I’m not one to complain about short narratives when they’re meant to be short, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that Koei Tecmo ran out of budget or time when creating the second half of the narrative. For the first half of the story mode, at any given point you’ve got five or six different vignettes to choose between, as the game explores different character arcs and sub-stories. But then you hit the second half of the narrative, and the supplemental character stories all but dry up and you're left largely following the main story arc in isolation. So many of the supplemental character arcs also feel underdone or lack a satisfying conclusion because they're wrapped up so quickly, to fit into the first half of the chapters. It’s like what would happen if Game of Thrones went to all the effort to introduce two dozen characters at the start of a season, and in the second half, just forgot that any those characters actually existed.

What’s there is good, though. Because the character models and environments are so detailed, there’s a nice cinematic touch to each scene, and limited as they are in terms of dialogue and screen time, the writers have done a good job of giving each character a distinct personality. Marie Rose is such a sweetheart. Dear Miku I love her so much.


It might seem strange to talk about narrative at such length within the context of a fighting game review, but I really feel that Dead or Alive needs its narrative, more than most other fighters. Because it’s so character driven, it needs to flesh out those characters so that we see them as more than performance combos and animated tools dancing around battle arenas. Furthermore, fighting games in general are doing a better job at telling stories these days, be it Guilty Gear or BlazBlue, or even Mortal Kombat, and while I appreciate the way that Koei Tecmo designed the story mode in Dead or Alive 6, I can’t help but think they now owe us some kind of RPG sub-sequel to really deliver on the potential behind this bunch of characters.


On the plus side, some of the unlockables that pop up in the DoA encyclopedia do a great job of adding to the characters. You can earn little bits of dialogue between characters which are great fun and further builds on the characters (one strongly suggests that Lei Fang and Hitomi are a little more than just BFFs, which we all suspected anyway, but it's great to see Koei Tecmo has the same headcanon as us). For people coming into DoA 6 new to the series, the story mode itself does assume a bit too much existing knowledge, but digging around in here will help get you up to speed with the lore and the dynamics between characters.


Looking beyond the story

Even if you’re not a big fan of playing fighting games online, there’s still plenty of meat on Dead or Alive 6’s bones. I’m not a fan of online play myself (and in the interest of disclaimers, even if I was, the review copy of Dead or Alive 6 was not yet patched to access online play, so I had no way of testing it). Series staples Arcade, Survival, and Time Attack are all back, each with full leaderboards over many difficulty setting options. There’s also costume, hair, and accessories customisation to play around with (no, you can’t actually remove the costumes from the characters), and as mentioned previously, DoA Quest is going to keep you going for a long time so you can unlock all the costumes.


Costumes are a big part of the DoA experience, because the pin-up nature of the characters naturally means you’re going to want to play dress-ups with them too. The range of costumes available on the disc is pleasingly extensive, and, importantly, these costumes are interesting. Swimsuits and other fetish costumes are relatively easy to design and creatively limited, so offering the interesting stuff up front is a much better way for Koei to approach things, with the added benefit that those who are really not comfortable with the most raunchy stuff will never need to download it, or see it in their game. As we all know, Koei is going to have plenty of DLC for Dead or Alive 6. In fact, the pre-order bonuses included a DLC costume for each character, and already the hyper fanservice is out in full with those costumes. Dead or Alive 5 had no fewer than seven season passes worth of new costumes, stages, and characters, and we’ve already had a King of Fighters crossover and a set of wedding dress DLC confirmed for the new game. I tell you what, getting Marie Rose into a crisp, white wedding dress is living the dream… Ahem. So, yes, Dead or Alive 6 will no doubt meet every fan's costuming preferences by the time Koei's done with the DLC.

The only thing I find genuinely disappointing about Dead or Alive 6 is the photo mode. We now live at a time where developers and publishers such as Sony are giving us the most ridiculously deep photo tools, such that we can take truly artful photos of the worlds that we're playing in. Even Koei itself, with Dynasty Warriors 9, provided the kind of exposure, aperture, and filter tools that people who go out and play with cameras in the real world like to use. Dead or Alive 6's camera mode is exactly the same as Dead or Alive 5's, which means, aside from being able to blur out some of the foreground and background, and have limited zoom features, all you can do is take screenshots. Not good enough, Koei. The development team goes so far to give us Pin-up: The Fighting Game, and then doesn't let us properly play photographer with the models. What a wasted opportunity.

Dead or Alive 6 is amazing. It’s the best looking fighting game out there, bar none, and has a combat system that is both instantly accessible for newcomers, without feeling condescending, and yet also offering plenty of depth and complexity for experienced fans. It’s not perfect; the story mode is enjoyable but slightly undercooked, and one suspects that we’ll have to wait until pretty deep into the DLC strategy for the real over-the-top humour that the series is most famous for to start to really shine through. But then, those criticisms also applied to Dead or Alive 5 when it launched, and Koei just kept adding to it, so it ended up being a game that I played on an almost weekly basis for six years. I can’t see Dead or Alive 6 being any different.



- Matt S.
Editor-in-Chief
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld


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Review: Dead or Alive 6 (Sony PlayStation 4)
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