Death in a Leather Jacket
The B-tier of video games which once housed low-budget on-disc titles for consoles is now largely disestablished or has arguably evolved into something else entirely with the explosion of independent games over the past several years. That’s what makes something like Wet such an oddity; it’s essentially a B-tier console-only title, but it was released as recently as 2009. In Wet you play Rubi Malone, a no-nonsense, tequila-swilling specialist in wetwork, a term used to refer to assassination jobs due to the way it literally makes the perpetrator’s hands wet with blood. The game goes in cold, giving you the lone pieces of information that Rubi needs to recover a briefcase that was meant for a man named William Ackers, and that she needs to kill some criminal scumbag in order to do so.
The gameplay is an eclectic grabbag of concepts, incorporating hack-and-slash, platforming, and third-person shooter mechanics, but with a slight twist. When confronted with enemies you can aim and shoot at them like a normal human being, but that would be boring, difficult, and wouldn’t score you many points. The shootouts are instead based around jumping into the air, power sliding along the ground, or performing other feats of acrobatic prowess to enter a slow-mo mode, allowing you to more easily dodge incoming attacks, get in a few good shots of your own, and score combos. Where Wet’s slow-motion diverges from similar mechanics in something like Max Payne is that you can manually aim and fire at one enemy while Rubi auto-fires upon another, matching you shot for shot. This means that in the right circumstances you can take down two cronies at once or fire on an enemy that has already been auto-targeted to take him down faster. It can be a little awkward constantly launching yourself around the environment before you attack your targets, especially in confined spaces, but sending yourself flying across the room, bullets whizzing past your head as you unload a firearm into a man’s skull is fun in a pure, unadulterated form.
For situations in which there’s a little less space between you and your enemy you can opt to eliminate them faster by whipping out your katana and going to town in melee combat. After killing one enemy with your blade you can then chain this attack to any other nearby enemies to cut them down with a single swing of your sword in an elegantly butcherous display. This, along with the lack of a need to reload your guns, and a score multiplier which increases providing you can continue taking down bad guys fast enough, keep your fights moving along at a blissfully rapid pace. Even simply moving around the stages has a certain thrill to it, from the way you can swing off of poles like a trapeze artist, run along walls like Faith Connors, or slide down ladders while Rubi hangs upside down shooting wildly into a crowd of enemies like a maniac. Now and then Wet will also break the gameplay up with some exciting action sequences like a shootout with a mob that takes place as you’re jumping from vehicle to vehicle on a highway or a firefight in a freezer filled with huge, breakable ice blocks.
This adrenaline-fuelled, high body count gameplay is an essential part of the game’s style. Wet is one big homage to grindhouse cinema, complete with film grain, flicker, and scratches that overlay the screen, and fittingly filthy environments, story, and characters. It’s a world where organised criminals hang around in Hong Kong back alleys ready to be obliterated in one big bloodbath and dying means seeing the screen burn out like a reel on an old projector. Considering how many games use a grim grittiness to make themselves seem darker and deeper, it’s refreshing to see one assume this kind of look to evoke a sense of pulpy, gleeful fun, and it’s cool to be part of that style of old-school cinema badassery. The best of the visual extravaganzas in Wet however are Rubi’s bloodthirsty killing sprees during which everything is rendered using cel shaded models coloured in only red, black, and white. It’s a masterful use of art design to a degree you rarely see in games.
The thing is, while a lot of this is genuinely enjoyable and all the ingredients exist here for an amazing time, Wet executes on almost every one of its ideas well enough to make it good but never well enough to make it truly brilliant. It kept giving me what I needed to keep me engaged and wanting to play, but at every turn I wished the game could just pull this thing or that thing off a little better to become more than the sum of its parts. For example, when using weaker or shorter range weapons, especially without upgrades, it can take slightly too long to kill enemies. This isn’t a difficulty concern, but imagine an action movie in which a character goes diving through the air all-guns-blazing only for their adversaries to still be standing when they land. It’s an anticlimax. The “Golden Bullets” difficulty is free of this issue, allowing you to take down thugs in one hit while significantly limiting your own health, but this difficulty frequently lacks challenge and you shouldn’t have to switch to one specific mode for the game to work this way. Sometimes the melee combat doesn’t flow quite as well as it should either.
There’s too great of a delay on the regular sword attack and the camera is entirely capable of positioning itself so that there are enemies ripe for the slicing which end up just off-screen. The platforming mechanics have some similar problems with fluidity: there’s a pause between when you land on one ledge and when you can jump to the next, you have to wait for a specifically timed window to jump off of a pole, sometimes you’re asked to jump to ledges that aren’t in view of the fixed camera, and if you want to shoot from a zipline, ledge, or pole you need to buy a specific upgrade from the in-game upgrade store. Besides sometimes being annoying within themselves, issues like these mean that you can too frequently find yourself performing compulsory clambering about the environment while being shot at by enemies with no means to retaliate, and the situation isn’t helped by the fact that when clinging onto environmental geometry these enemies often end up out of your line of sight. Occasionally just keeping your killing spree going can be an issue when you need to go find enemies that really should be coming to find you much faster. Not even the quick time events are safe. Animations don’t play immediately after you input your commands, the game doesn’t always assign prompts for animations it probably should, and worst of all it will misuse QTEs entirely, implementing them where regular game mechanics could have done the job fine, or mistakenly believing these light mini-games will be adequate for what should be serious confrontations with key villains.
On top of everything else, the experience as a whole could do with a tad more variation. While the gameplay holds up pretty well throughout, there's not much new to see after the first few levels and you start to see big pieces of music and other features of the game getting repeated here and there. Even the hyper-artsy cel shaded sections get overused at a point, while other components of the visual style seem openly forced, like the monkey motif which the game uses but can’t quite commit to linking back into the narrative, or the animated movies played during some of the loading screens. These movies are fashioned around educational videos of yesteryear, drive-in advertisements, and similar fare, and they’re pleasingly kitsch, looking impressively like the genuine product, but they don’t really have anything to do with anything, the game just jams them in there and presumably thinks they’ll be thematically appropriate because they're something from the bygone days of cinema, just like the game's source material. The sound design is also of a wildly varying quality. Sometimes the game accompanies its fights with a thrashing punk-like soundtrack which is exhilarating to listen to, but other times it doesn’t seem to occur to it that now and then you might want more sound filling the space than just incessant gunfire. The characters and story could also do with a little more meat on their bones. Rubi may be a woman of few words and the story may be intended to be deliberate B-movie fodder, but there’s a point at which this stops being an interesting identity choice for the game and just you wish this character action game had a little more character. Despite having the voice talents of Eliza Dushku and Malcolm McDowell backing it up, sometimes the script falls flat or the actors don’t sound like they give a damn.
In truth, I have a lot of affection for Wet. Its design and the implementation of that design have a lot of tiny holes in them that add up to create larger problems, but under its blanket of flaws there’s a much better game that peeks out over and over. It can be awkward and stilted, and looking at it makes you start to wonder if it encountered major production difficulties on its journey to shop shelves, but for all its mistakes it rarely feels like it disrespects you as the player. Wet has a vision and is obviously trying, and that takes it a long way, even if it can’t quite be the Tarantinoesque rollercoaster it wants to be. In an odd way it actually achieves its goal of replicating traditional B-movie schlock, creating a somewhat underproduced experience that few are going to remember, but one that more than suffices if you just want to kick back with some fast-shooting, splatterhouse action for your weekend.