I’m realizing twenty-five hours in that this might have been a bad decision. Death by Degrees was a game I added to my collection after finding it in the loose sleeve bin at my local Gamestop, my only knowledge of it beforehand being a brief comment by Shawn Elliot on the GFW podcast about it being really terrible. But I love Tekken, and I love bad games, so I figured it would be a perfect match.
But what exactly is Death by Degrees? Well, for one, it’s a non-canonical gaiden story following Tekken series veteran Nina Williams actually doing some spy work for a change. It is also one of Namco’s infrequent but typically misguided forays into the action genre, which leads me to my next point.
I think they might have had a game in mind when making Death by Degrees, two games actually. One of them involves sixteen year old girls with ninety-nine year old breasts, and the other one is that other game with Ryu Hayabusa in it. It all adds up; the bikinis and battle damaged sneaking suits, the fighting game turned character action game, the time frames line up perfectly! I think Death by Degrees might have been a misguided cash grab at all that Ninja Gaiden money.
But as I mentioned, DOA might well have been on their minds as well, and I’m talking the Xtreme Beach variety of DOA. There’s a lot of fanservice in this game. Your first costume is a two piece bikini with stiletto heels, and after that is a skimpy cocktail dress that gets more damaged with each successive boss fight you survive. This game’s version of powerups is various kinds of massage oils that you inexplicably pick up off of downed soldiers. It almost made sense on the cruise ship, but you even collect them later on in the derelict prison building so your guess is as good as mine on this one.
At any rate, these fancy massage oils boost her various stats for a short period. For example, the Rosemary essential oil boosts Nina’s hand-to-hand attack damage, whereas the eucalyptus oil boosts her overall speed. The only thing that would have made it any cheesier is if you went into a Snake Eater style 3d viewer and rubbed them on her yourself. Which you do not, in fact, do, for the record.
The funny thing though is that the gameplay barely even resembles Ninja Gaiden. For one, the difficulty centers mostly around getting used to the garbage-assed controls and those fucking camera angles. There was a reason the Devil May Cry series left the Resident Evil camera behind after 1. But the thing is, Namco lifted a whole lot more than just the camera from Resident Evil. In fact, with the exception of the tank controls, Death by Degrees copies over most of the Resident Evil formula. Which works fine for me, I have an irrational love for that kind of game. I even like the lesser known ones like Carrier, and Fear Effect.
But they really went the whole nine yards here. It’s got the weird contrived adventure game puzzles, it’s got the Metroid style map, you spend like half the game in the menus doing things, weapon item and health scarcity is a real issue, I mean they really did just sort of make a Resident Evil game. It also, oddly enough, feels a lot like Metal Gear Solid. One of the things I liked the most about Metal Gear Solid, was that it was sort of the 1998 equivalent to today’s Call of Duties, in that it’s packed full of bombastic set-pieces. And while most modern triple-A games’ use of set-pieces is bordering on self-parody at this point, it was a really good way to design an action adventure game back in the day, probably because back then that involved tying together more disparate feeling pieces of gameplay, making the final product feel more varied as a result.
And Death by Degrees does a great job of following the Metal Gear Solid style of set-piece design. There are points in the game where you realize that just a couple hours ago, you were doing Resident Evil puzzles on a luxury cruise ship, and now you’re sniping guys above a heliport on the roof of a prison. And the game has that kind of moment to moment variety for the duration. It’s got super deep melee combat, a good assortment of guns, adventure game puzzles, various kinds of stealth sections, boss battles, sniping missions. I mean, it’s almost bordering on too much. Especially considering half these things don’t even quite work right. Did I mention that this game is a complete train wreck?
Because oh man is this game a train wreck. The combat is the thing you’ll spend the most time doing, and I doubt you will ever get ‘good’ at it. This video does a great job of showing how awesome the combat can look, but that’s probably the best anyone has or will ever be at the combat in this game. Nina has about as many moves as she would in any latter-day Tekken game, but somehow you’re supposed to execute all of these moves with the two analog sticks and the L and R buttons. And all of that might have been doable if it weren’t for the fact that this is a Resident Evil clone. The fixed camera angles destroy the combat in this game absolutely. You can’t ever feel like you have any real command over a combat situation because you quite literally don’t. The camera decides whether you hit a guy or he hits you. And needless to say that can become fairly exasperating later on into the game as your patience gradually wears thinner.
The game does throw plenty of health items your way though, which tells me the combat was a known problem during development but they weren’t able to come up with a way to fix it in time. So now instead of having good combat, you just have to spend half the game in the menus making Nina stuff her face with candy bars. Which, funnily enough, is a pretty old-school Resident Evil design eccentricity. And there is always stealth. But if all the Tekken and SoulCalibur staff on the team couldn’t get the fighting down, then I don’t know why you would think they could get the stealth right. The stealth usually only amounts to you getting the jump on one guy before the rest of the enemies in the room are alerted, which can be sorta fun I guess.
But try as I might, I could not get into this game. I mean, I beat it. I bought in to it’s stupid bullshit. But I never really got into it. The combat I could have gotten over. The stealth wasn’t necessarily key in the first place. But this game has some of the worst load times I’ve seen in a while. And let me remind you that this game came out in 2005. So whatever optimizing didn’t get done on this game is kind of inexcusable. It’s a good looking game to be sure, but nothing about it tells me that the loading should take so long, or be so frequent.
And honestly, the loading could have skirted by my ire as well if it weren’t for the minigames, for lack of a better term. There are parts where you are required to do some swimming, or climb ladders and horizontal pipes on a timer, or fly a remote controlled recon drone, or other little things like that which fall outside the general gameplay, and I think it’s safe to say that all of them are abject exercises in trial and error. So cross trial and error minigames with terrible load times and only occasional checkpointing and I think you can see where I’m going with this.
It’s a real shame that the game feels as half-finished as it does too because I feel like I could have really liked it if it’d just sucked less. Like I said before, I really like Resident Evil style games, and Nina’s moves are all really awesome, her five and ten hit combos especially. The cruise ship is a really cool location too. The bright, sunny tropical setting is a real nice change of pace from your typical action games, and the mix of luxury and futuristic interiors make for one of the more memorable Resident Evil style game locales I can call to recent memory. The boss battles are actually pretty fun as well. They’re not Metal Gear calibur, but they are inching up on it in a way that would probably surprise you, given how much time I’ve spent complaining about the game so far.
That first boss battle is a bitch though. In fact, now’s probably as good a time as any to talk about the difficulty level. Full disclosure, I insisted on playing through the game on normal, despite the fact that some sections are nearly broken and there’s no reward for beating it on normal or hard over beginner. In fact, it even does the Devil May Cry thing and asks you every time you die if you would like to turn ‘stupid diaper-baby easy mode’ on now. But my pride wouldn’t have it. And playing through this game on normal is like a rollercoaster of difficulty.
You spend a couple hours just figuring out how to actually hit an enemy with a kick in 3d space with the stupid fucking right stick. Then, once you’ve gotten over that hurdle, you have to find a save point. A couple more hours later you can successfully defeat a regular enemy and save your game and you’re ready to take on the world. Now it’s time to try your hand at a broken sniping sequence. But don’t worry. This one is fucking easy compared to some of the later ones.
So twenty minutes of retrying a two minute segment later you’re done with the broken sniping part, you’ve saved your game and you’re smooth sailing at this point. Then you fight the first boss. And he’s not bad. It’s in a meat locker and you just have to hide behind the cover and hit and run with swords and you're set. Easy enough. Then you get to his second form. This time you’re fighting him in an enclosed arena with spikes on all sides. He’s got dual automatic pistols and animation priority over every move you have but one.
A couple more hours later, you’ve learned far more about evasive dashing than you ever wanted, and you’ve probably learned how important massage oils are to Nina’s success in boss battles. And if you haven’t given up by this point, then you’re back to smooth sailing for most of the game. But rest assured, there will be the odd minigame to gum up the works, such as the return of the sniping segment, or that one boss fight where Nina keeps jumping into a bottomless pit. Or my personal favorite, the part where they straight lifted the shape-memory alloy puzzle from MGS1.
If any of this sounds enticing, Death by Degrees usually sells for around two dollars these days. It’s certainly not the best game ever to bear the Tekken name, which might explain why it’s in such small lettering on the cover. But this was almost a great game. For every terrible part, there’s an awesome bit to match it. Sadly, they end up balancing out to a mediocre experience that sounds like a hard sell as I type it. But the more I think about it, the cooler this game seems in hindsight. Those of you without access to a PlayStation 2 should try bothering Harada for an HD re-release on twitter. I’m sure he’d find it a nice change of pace from people asking if Tekken X Street Fighter is canceled.
- Kris Osborn