Just another blonde joke.
I’ve been making video game locks for ages. I can remember when my Raven Crest door lock was the premiere choice for mad scientists, and my statue arrangement puzzles were the showpiece of the locksmith convention in Raccoon City. But recently, business has tailed off a bit, what with the fancy-pants personal ID scanners and unimaginative regular door keys going for half the price of my impregnable creations. So naturally, I was skeptical when Namco called wanting my services for their action-adventure mishap, Death By Degrees.
We promptly went into contract negotiations; I made a few demands, they made a few demands, and when we were finished we had a binding agreement that guaranteed a pretty boring, uneven gameplay experience. Death By Degrees has plenty of interesting locks and puzzles and some occasionally decent action, but it also has enough unwarranted obstructions to forever lock it out of success.
Their demands were simple: they wanted their game to star Nina Williams, a buxom blonde that made her name doing all sorts of circus stunts in the Tekken series. I didn’t mind that, especially when Williams’ agent demanded that she disrobe throughout the story. Heck, I even volunteered a new door lock that required that you be naked to enter and the Namco people jumped on it like it was the cat’s pajamas. I was even the one who originally suggested the name be Nude and Perky by Degrees, but at the last moment, management switched to the more ominous, less descriptive title under which it was released.
Namco also demanded a 360-degree fighting system utilizing the right analog stick to control the direction of the attacks. Seemingly lifted from Sony’s weak Rise to Honor, the control scheme has been tightened and includes a laundry list of fightin’ moves employing shoulder buttons and left-analog manipulations. Still, only a few of the moves are genuinely useful, since Nina’s straight ahead attack can take out most foes without problem.
Forgoing her one-on-one fighting background, Nina takes on greater and greater numbers of bad guys, reducing the combat to pushing the right thumb stick in the right direction at the right time. The only break in the tedium of stick-mashing is a rechargeable “critical strike.” When triggered, the screen goes dark and a close-up, slow-motion X-ray of an opponent’s body appears. You then use a cursor to select which bones you wish Nina to crush in the allotted time, and she does so via a cut-scene in which she kicks at the chosen limbs. When she connects, you’re treated to a satisfying crunch and the same X-ray vision depicts the bone or skull shattering. It becomes a bit monotonous, except for the fact that the fights are generally monotonous as well; by adding one monotony to another, you almost get something like variety. Almost.
Unfortunately, the game isn’t very immersive since using items such as health “meal packs” requires pausing the game and going into the menu. While you can switch between weapons – both melee and firearm varieties – on the fly, you will find yourself doing a lot less of that and a lot more pausing and consuming. Considering Nina’s trim figure, she binges like the Twinkies were hitting their expiration dates.
Namco’s final demand was for mini-games. I wasn’t too happy about the lock-less Sniper mode or the unpuzzle-like remote-controlled camera game, but they said they would make a logic puzzle mini-game and I was satisfied. I even grew to enjoy the Sniper mode, which has nothing to do with sneaking and sniping and everything to do with popping as many bad guys in the noggin as quickly as possible.
In fact, the entire shebang depends on the mini-games to break up the pace. Just as I began to tire of the fighting, I got to snipe. And when I was getting bored of sniping, I got to pilot a camera. And when I got bored with that, I got to experience the sublimity that is logic-puzzle locks. And you can never get bored of puzzles! Right?
After I had granted all of Namco’s demands, I had a few demands of my own. First of all, I wanted to create as many redundant locks and inane puzzles as could possibly be crammed into a game. My package included infra-red lasers, rotating clock-hands, temperature-sensitive metals, fingerprints, steam-valves, briefcases buried in robots, international flag charts, chess pieces, Chinese chess pieces, and a honeycomb number arrangement mess adopted straight from the pages of the MENSA home journal. I even included a Unicorn Key to, as they say, keep it real.
And the Namco people said go right ahead. You see, keeping Nina searching for keys and locks kept her from asking pesky questions about a plot so half-assed that it could only fart sideways. From what I understand, the bad guys have hatched a suicidal plot involving the use of satellites to warm bacteria on the ocean floor that release toxic bubbles which will destroy the world. It may be more elaborate than Dr. Evil’s Death Ray, but the result is the same.
Having experienced single-cheeked plots before, I suggested they include the number-one plot stuffer in the book: zombies. So in went the zombies, a strange arctic variety and a mutant cyborg variety. Phew!
I also suggested they make the plot more mysterious by writing some of the worst dialogue of all time. In the finale, antagonist Anna reveals to Nina her true motivation for wanting to destroy the world with a whiny, “I hate you!” Why? “Because you were always picking on me!” I can’t imagine a more noble cause.
I thought my final demand would be a deal-breaker. Fondly recalling the days when I could sip my beer during the load sequence every time I opened a door in Raccoon City, I requested that each room have at least a five-second load time. I was astounded when the game arrived with an outrageous ten to fifteen-second wait every time a door was opened or stairs were ascended. Going at my beer every time the game loaded a new area left me drunker than these fellows, although presumably less inclined to dance.
Mercifully, in my load-time induced inebriation, I didn’t have to deal with moving cameras. However, the constant shifting of the fixed camera angles gave me the spins, making it difficult to keep track of the action without hurling. Other developers will want to work on perfecting a camera-angle suited for this style of fighting before wading into the two-thumbstick territory again.
Locksmiths don’t care fiddlesticks for graphics so long as the key items are marked by conspicuous twinkles (which they are – subclause N15.3), but I was impressed by the CGI-movies even if the fixed camera makes the rest of the package feel dated. The sound is roundly bad, though, opting for an arcade-style rock din that almost, but not quite, passes for music. During non-combat sequences, the “music” fades a bit, providing the ears relief, but when the fighting gets furious the noise and annoyance increases proportionally. You can even unlock a music player so you can use the racket as a tool of torture against your neighbors.
The other unlockables include variations of the aforementioned mini-games, as well as a mode in which you play as Anna, your so-ticked-off-she’ll-destroy-the-world sister. The depth of unlockable modes and challenges is a welcome surprise and allows for plenty of action without the mess of searching for keys without a decent map. Did I mention that the map is worthless? It is.
When we finally signed the contract for Death By Degrees, I was appeased, having gotten nearly everything I asked for in a subpar game. Plus, I had finally been able to implement one of my most elaborate locks: an elevator controlled by a rotating piano puzzle whose key involved a statue of a Greek mythological figure, a laser projection of a sequence of letters, two identical keys found in sailboats submerged in aquariums, and a heat-sensitive piece of metal. It might sound insane to you, but that all depends on how badly you want to protect your cyborg-zombie and your bubbling bacteria.