Version tested: PlayStation 2
"Trust no one!" screams the tagline for this undercooked Tekken spin-off. Sadly, they might just as well have added "especially Namco!" as Death By Degrees quickly reveals itself to be a depressingly underwhelming action-adventure so full of niggling flaws that you'll probably be seeking some form of counselling after a few hours in its irritating company.
In a game that seems to make it its business to obscure what's going on, it's probably only fair to be just as oblique in describing the premise of DBD. Nina Williams' (of Tekken fame, in case you were in any doubt) initial intention is to show she hasn't lost her martial arts skills and scoop first prize in a fighting tournament on board a cruise ship. But when her real mission to help out the CIA and MI6 in some undercover work is exposed, Namco evidently reckoned this was a good enough reason to turn on its infinite respawning guard machine and press the scantily clad heroine into some high kicking action.
But rather than just concentrate on its undoubted fighting pedigree and give gamers a story-lead beat-'em-up adventure, this ill-advised project tries to inject elements of stealth, puzzle and even adventure into the mix without getting one single component even remotely right. And to rub salt in the wounds, the 360-degree combat is so weak that it will insult the intelligence of any vaguely proficient gamer, never mind those of you looking to further your beat-'em-up skills within the context of a more expansive affair.
Sink To Dishonour
Much like last year's overlooked Rise To Honor, the bulk of the combat takes place using the right stick, with Ms Williams able to attack enemies from any angle with a mere stab of the stick in whichever direction you wish to attack. Holding L1 and pushing up on the right stick lets you try out the various projectile and melee weapons at your disposal, but mostly you can get by mashing the stick moronically while unarmed. It makes little difference, in fact. Occasionally you might be forced to resort to grabbing shielded opponents with R1 and performing some kind of vicious bone-breaking combo manoeuvre, but for the most part the AI is pretty dense and seemingly only there to stop the game feeling empty and to give you a means to gain experience and buy new moves with all the points you earn.
This system of upgrading your moves would be all well and good if they really made a significant difference, but they don't count for all that much. They sure look impressive in the attract sequence, but the 'mash the stick' tactic still prevails to the extent that you never feel fully in command of what you're seeing on screen. The same goes for the 'focus' manoeuvre which allows Nina to smash her aggressors with a specifically targeted blow that may, for example, shatter their ribcage or even their skull and take off the majority of their health. Hitting R2 near an opponent brings up a stylish-looking close-up X-Ray of them; the general idea being to shift a cursor onto the area you want to target before landing a crushing blow. While well intentioned, causing near mortal damage to your enemy in this way doesn't affect their fighting capabilities at all, and they continue to fight on as if nothing's happened. Pure comedy.
As noted in our first impressions, the respawning of clusters of enemies the second you walk back into a previously cleared room produces the even more hilarious sight of a Benny Hill-esque chase as six or more beefy guards run and lunge haplessly after Nina like lovestruck puppies. Walk into another room or pick up an object and they'll obligingly let you carry on with your business, so you soon learn not to bother even engaging with these idiots. Very quickly you'll despair at just how pointlessly badly implemented the combat really is, with shades of early '90s brawlers springing to mind.
Death By Boredom
After some initial fisticuffs, the game suddenly descends into a survival-horror style information/object/key-finding slog, broken up by pointless face-offs with respawning drone AI and the odd mini-boss encounter to occasionally up the ante. Rather than go for the clichéd keycard system favoured by almost every action-adventure down the years Death By Degrees goes for a fingerprint-scanning system. This works in exactly the same way, however, so you're still forced to scour every room for sparkly objects to pick up - the only difference here is some of the might have fingerprints (or a part of a fingerprint) on them.
To add a layer of stealth to the proceedings Nina can also creep up behind guards, grab them and prevent an otherwise tedious brawl with a bunch of respawning cretins that arrive as back up. Partway into the game you also get to pilot an RC helicopter (called Stingray) to sneak into small air ducts and infiltrate otherwise inaccessible areas, but this is more or less the extent of the high-tech gadgetry. You also have to rearrange hexagon puzzles of varying complexity, but it's little more than a tiny diversion to the main action.
The most pointless addition, arguably, is the need to don infrared goggles and negotiate some moving trip wires to access certain alarmed areas. It probably sounded like a good idea in the design document. In theory they're not actually that hard; simply creep between the lines when the opportunity arises and move on. Simple. But, such is the genius behind the control system, if you push the left stick too quickly for the game's liking you'll instantly leap like a hyperactive gymnast and do a dramatic standing somersault dodge move into the red beams you've been so carefully avoiding. Cue instant death courtesy of a sentry machine gun in the ceiling. No chance to dive out of its way to safety, it's Game Over, goodnight and thank you, and back to your last save game.
Imagine all the joypads, living life in piece-s. Yoo hooo.
Now, this might only be a minor inconvenience were the game designed sensibly enough not to position these sections in breathtakingly dense fashion - just after boss encounters with no opportunity to save your progress, for example. Imagine how frustrated you'll be when you cock up this relatively simple section for the third time running and waste an hour of your life into the bargain. Keep a spare joypad handy; you'll probably need it after you've finished smashing the main one on the floor in despair. The fact that most games these days appear to have grasped the need to either checkpoint sensibly or provide a decent save system makes the incessant repetition in DBD all the more galling.
And, ho ho, we haven't even mentioned the terrible camera system yet. How is it possible in this day and age that you can be forced to tackle bosses that you can't even see, let alone target, because the camera wants you to run to the end of the room before it flicks the perspective around? It's beyond redemption, and just wholly unacceptable under any circumstances.
Now, if that diatribe hasn't successfully put you off buying this tedious game, then it won't help its cause for us to report at how mediocre the audio/visual side of DBD is as well. The character models and backgrounds aren't bad as such, but it's fair to say they're not exactly pushing the envelope either, with bland texturing, unimaginative environments, and nothing in the way of realistic lighting or physics to catch the eye. The animation's a little stilted and occasionally just plain inappropriate (the way guards lunge pathetically at you gives them the appearance of drunken imbeciles), with Nina's animations also cause for plenty of unintentional amusement. If her costumes aren't wobbling in all the right places then they're flapping to make sure we can see her stockings and sussies just so. It never quite reaches Dead Or Alive Xtreme Beach Volleyball levels of offensiveness, but it's getting there. As for her running animation; what were they thinking? Admittedly the actual combat animations are usually well done, but, as we've already said, you don't even feel like it's you doing them, so they're lost on you.
The way games used to sound
Predictably the voice acting is all sterile characterless stereotypes that, again, remind you of the way things used to be before Japanese developers bothered to hire decent voice actors, while the soundtrack is beyond bland. There are literally no redeeming features, with a few fairly uninspiring unlockables to look forward to (like the Sniper mode, for example) if you can be bothered to wade through the 18 levels.
But really. Only the most ardent Tekken aficionado could possible be motivated to spend 20 or so hours gritting their teeth to see this game out to the end. It's one of those games that reminds you how far we've come over the years, because it's just full of the old bad design habits that we all used to take for granted. Death By Degrees clearly started out as a game with good intentions to mix up several genres to appeal to a wide cross section, but ends up struggling to appeal to anyone. If you think you can put up with lacklustre design, half-arsed combat, tepid stealth, a terrible camera system, ill-conceived controls, insipid audio and bland visuals that barely raise a flicker of interest then this will be the game of your dreams. Otherwise, keep your money firmly in your wallet and get ready to aim a belly full of laughs at anyone who's misguided enough to buy it.
3 / 10