Review by Nightfall

"Technical Issues Mar This Otherwise Impressive Game"

Behold, my Gamfaqs brethren, I have played an adventure/brawler game with a very hot babe in it, and I saw that it wasn't all bad. No, this game isn't as bad as reviews have said. In fact, it's very well done if you can get past the quirky camera problems. It certainly doesn't deserve the 1 1/2 out of 5 that OPM gave it, or the 5.5 out of 10 that Game Informer awarded it. Yes, it does have some problems. But it's not a horrible game. The first thing to strike me was the quality of the graphics. Once again, a developer has surprised me with what they can milk out of the PS 2. Death by Degrees looks amazing. It, along with a few other PS 2 titles, has cemented my belief that the PS 2 is capable of delivering graphics every bit as impressive as those of the Xbox. The environments are very crisply rendered with a lot of detail, and the package is delivered with a super smooth frame rate. There is no hint of fog, screen tearing, jaggies or shimmer . It has a very rich color palette, which is a rare thing in a Japanese game. Nina's animations, as well as those of her enemies, are very smooth and lifelike. That washed out, virtual reality look that so many Japanese games have, what I call the "Konami look", does not plague Death by Degrees. It appears completely American in its graphical presentation. Where we pay for these beautiful graphics on the PS 2 is the frequent and long load screens. These are a pain, and they are something you'll have to get used to if you want to enjoy Death by Degrees. Almost every door you go through brings up a load screen. It seems like you spend as much time waiting through load screens as playing the game.

Death by Degrees is a curious blend of gameplay genres. There's definitely a Resident Evil influence, with fixed camera angles, text messages that scroll across the bottom of the screen for certain actions, doors "locked from the other side", and mysterious item pick-ups that have no apparent purpose. There is also an action/adventure element, with Nina having complete freedom to explore very large environments full of puzzles, nasty enemies, and items to pick up. And of course the game is a brawler as well. Nina has a very large repertoire of hand-to-hand combat skills that would strike fear into the heart of the deadliest Ninja. Do all of these genres blend perfectly together in a seamless ballet of gameplay bliss? No, they don't. The main culprit here is the Resident Evil style camera. Fixed camera angles just do not work in this game. Why Namco decided to use an outdated, broken survival/horror camera in a game which takes a very innovative approach to it's combat system, who knows. A third-person follow camera would have worked so much better. The game also suffers from the survival/horror genre's love of using menus and reading things. You have to access your menus and maps quite frequently, and you have to read text for almost anything you do besides combat. The other import from the survival/horror camp is the frequent and long load screens. For some reason, it's considered okay for the survival/horror type of game to have lots of load screens. All these elements just interrupt the flow of the game. Survival/horror elements do NOT belong in an action game, period. Especially one that is a brawler. No doubt Namco was trying to emulate the Capcom style you see in games like Devil May Cry. But it doesn't work here. You have episodes of intense action followed by longer episodes of menu management, reading things, and load screens. The game never really picks up and takes off because of this. It has more of a stop-and-go pacing to it, so you never really reach that plateau of gameplay euphoria.

The game's combat system is where it comes under fire the most. It takes some getting used to, but it's actually a very innovative system that can work quite well if you get the hang of it. All of Nina's attack combos are executed with movements of the left and right analog sticks. The R1 button is used for grappling and the L2 button for Critical Strikes, but the vast majority of Nina's combat action is done with stick flipping, pressing, and rotating. I think it's a nice change from the drawn out button combos on which most fighters rely. I'm no good at button combos and thus cannot enjoy fighting games and brawlers, but to my surprise I found the fighting system in Death by Degrees to be something I could manage. I guess my brain is wired more for stick movements that it is for button presses. Whatever the reason, after some practice I was having a great time dispatching enemies with Nina's various moves, most of which are pretty easy to pull off. Note that I said after some practice. You will have to practice her moves to get the feel of how the sticks work in combat. The combo descriptions in the combat skill menu don't tell you everything, and the only way to get them down is to try them, over and over, until you get them right. If you're having trouble, the game has three different levels of sensitivity for the left stick, and you might find that having the sensitivity set higher or lower will help you. That the game offers no practice mode or training arena is a shame. It really should have one. As it is, you'll have to pick a quiet spot with plenty of room and practice your moves in the game itself between episodes of fighting enemies and solving puzzles. This isn't a perfect solution however, as some moves require engagement with an enemy to try them out.

The game's main problem is its camera. It alternates between fixed camera views ala Resident Evil, and a freestyle follow camera that rotates around Nina, activated with R2. The transitions between these two are ungraceful to say the least, and often lead to control problems while moving Nina around. Sometimes you'll have the freestyle follow camera engaged, but the left stick thinks you're still in a fixed camera angle, so Nina doesn't move in the direction you tell her to. Just the fixed camera angles themselves are often very unfriendly to combat situations. What is an evasive backflip one second, instantly becomes a forward roll toward your enemy the next, because the camera angle switches, and thus so do the control inputs. Enemies will often go off camera, and occasionally even Nina herself disappears while the camera shows us a nice view of the scenery. Sometimes Nina will be so distant in the camera angle that it's impossible to fight effectively. To my mind, these camera difficulties are the main obstacle in the game. Much of the maneuvering you do in combat will be to get yourself a decent camera angle, and that's just a pain in the butt. The designers, no doubt aware of this problem, put in a fix that is nevertheless awkward to use. Holding R2 engages the freestyle follow camera which hovers near Nina, and flicking the right stick toward an enemy while in this mode will lock the camera onto the enemy. This is a great help when sneaking up on enemies and even doing full head-on assaults, but when you're surrounded by enemies it's too clunky to utilize. And if you're fighting in an area that offers only a fixed camera angle, you don't even have that option.

There is another problem in the game that irritates me even more than the camera thing, but luckily it's not combat or movement related. Every button command for carrying out actions in the game or accessing menu items has a delay. Hit the square button to pull up your map, and wait two or three seconds for it to come up. Try to pick something up or carry out some other in-game action and wait while the game tries to comprehend what you told it to do. When it does make you do what you wanted to do, there is a delay before you can continue with the action or accept the denial of your action. When scrolling down the list of your inventory items or weapons, you have to pause at each item and wait for its graphic to come up before you can move on to the next . Select a meal kit to use for a health boost, and you have to wait for the game to confirm your choice. When you scroll to one of your sub-menus, there is a pause before the game will let you hit X to activate the sub-menu. That I even have to activate the sub-menu is ridiculous. I found myself just mashing that X button and thinking, "come on already!" This pause-before-you-do-anything style of menu and action management is supremely annoying. It interrupts the flow of the game. As I said earlier, it is probably the most vexing thing in the game to me.

Despite the annoyance of navigating and activating the menus, they are very well designed and look good. You know how people say you can tell how healthy someone is by looking at their skin or their eyes? The same thing applies to a game's menu system. I often use it as an indicator of how much attention to quality went into a game. A sloppy, confusing menu system often indicates a sloppy, confusing game. Death by Degrees passes in this respect, with a very well organized and nice looking menu system. The map system is very well done, although annoying to use because of the pauses when you switch floors. The menu screen with the list of all of Nina's combat moves would have benefited greatly from a graphic showing each move in action, so you could be sure you're pulling it off correctly.

Okay, I've dealt with what I consider to be the game's only real problems. Let me move on to what I think makes this game unique and great. The first two things that must be mentioned are: one, the graphics are amazing, and two: Nina is freakin' hotter than hell. Namco did a great job on her model. They also animated her very well. While running, climbing ladders, throwing kicks and punches, and grooming herself during idle animations, she comes through as one lively, vivacious woman that can take up space in my PS 2 anytime. The environments also are very well designed and look almost photo-realistic in parts. There are all kinds of little details that make you want to check everything out. The game also has a strong, varied color palette, which is something you don't often find in Japanese games. And while I usually don't count cgi movies into my estimation of a game's graphics, I have to say how extremely well done the cgi movies are. The artists behind them are pure geniuses. Sometimes you would swear they filmed actual actors and pasted them into the computer generated backgrounds. Even the cut scenes with in-game graphics are of a much higher caliber than most games deliver.

Although this game is considered a brawler, there is a strong exploration/adventure aspect to it which I find more appealing than the combat. The environments tend to be very complicated with numerous areas to explore. There are items you can find if you go out of your way to look for them that you might never have uncovered with a more linear, straight-through approach. I like the fact that the game lets the player explore at will. It doesn't push you from one area to the next in a linear fashion. But this can also create the situation of your getting lost and not being able to figure out where you need to go next. Enemies respawn in certain areas, and you can use this to your advantage to build up skill points, experience, and pick up items the enemies drop. I would recommend visiting all of the game's areas more than once, because you never know what you're going to find there on subsequent visits. Gold coins and fingerprints are two things you want to be constantly looking for.

By far the best and most innovative thing about Death by Degrees is the Critical Strike. Critical Strikes are special super moves Nina can do that target her enemy's heart or skeletal system, and often result in the immediate death of her opponent. When the Focus meter is full enough, holding L2 and flicking the right stick toward your enemy of choice will trigger a close up view of your enemy's skeletal system, while the action slows to bullet time. The trick is to lock an aiming reticle onto any areas of the skeleton that are highlighted in red. When the lock is accomplished, flicking the right stick forward initiates the attack. Nina carries out the attack in slow-mo, and when she connects, the effect on the enemy's skeletal system is shown in all its gruesome detail. A direct hit to the skull will shatter it completely. A strike to the center of the chest will destroy the ribcage and expose the heart. Arm and leg bones break in two, and even necks are potential targets. While admittedly grotesque, it's a much better combat mechanic than trying to flick analog sticks in combo patterns.

Thank god this game isn't stingy with save points. Save points appear at fairly regular intervals, and each can be used as many times as you want. You'll want to save often, because the game is difficult. Luckily, for those of us who suck, the game will offer to drop the difficulty to Beginner if you die during the first boss battle. If you're not entirely comfortable with using the sticks in combat, I would highly recommend going with this option. Them Japanese people are just a hell of a lot smarter and faster than us, and we slow Americans often need a little help getting through their games. It's nice that Namco had us in mind when they balanced the difficulty.

If you like your breasts active and bouncy, this is the game for you. Nina's breast physics are some of the best I've ever seen in a video game (top honors go to Lara in Angel of Darkness). Their movement is exaggerated just enough to make it visible, but not overdone. Nina's breast movements become even more obvious as she changes outfits. That's just fine and dandy with me. I know some may scoff at stuff like this, but I love it. Give me lots of bouncy boobs in a game, and I won't leave my room for two weeks. As Nina's outfit becomes damaged in battle, it reveals more skin. Very nice touch. In a game with a female lead, you gotta have some sex appeal.

Another element from the survival/horror influence is that Nina has all kinds of "essential oils" she can use which boost her abilities in combat (in other words, potions. At least she doesn't have to mix anything). There are potions to boost speed, offense, defense, and the recovery of the Focus meter, which enables use of the Critical Strikes. Enemies drop these essential oils in combat, and they drop a lot of them. It's become a thing with me to collect as many of these oils as I can without using them. The game doesn't appear to set any limit to how many of one particular item you can have, and this includes Meal Kits, which restore your health. The respawning of enemies in certain areas means you can visit an area repeatedly and acquire pick-ups that will help you out later in the game.

The combat isn't all hand-to-hand. Nina can use ballistic weapons like guns and grenades, and melee weapons like batons and swords. If you get tired of fighting with only your feet and hands, or find yourself surrounded by too many enemies, whip out your Japanese swords and do some serious slicing and dicing. The controls for this, as far as I can tell, are as simple as flicking the right stick repeatedly at the enemy you want to carve up. There are special combo moves you can buy for melee weapons, but they are very expensive. Grenades are my favorite. They are the best way to score several instant kills on a group of enemies, but they're hard to find. Nina has a very interesting way of using guns. For the two of you who saw the movie Equilibrium, Nina can use firearms in much the same way as the Gun Kata masters in that movie. When she is surrounded by enemies and you use the right stick to fire at one enemy after another, Nina will go through a series of deft motions that are calculated to hit every enemy around her. While not every shot is accurate, the motions represent the most likely positions of all her assailants. These Gun Katas are unique in that Nina's legs and torso do not move for the most part--they remain stationary while her arms and guns do all the work.

Bottom line is, despite Death by Degrees' technical issues, it does many things a lot better than other games. The graphics are amazing (seriously, I can't stress enough how beautiful this game is), Nina has a huge variety of different attacks at her disposal, and her animations are very well done. The environments are huge, which adds to the exploration aspect of the game, and the puzzle elements are pretty fun. With the problems that the game does have, you may want to wait until it drops in price before you pick it up. Chances are that won't be long, since every review I've read on this game has pretty much slammed it. Seriously though, if you're the kind of gamer that likes to play as a hot babe with very well done breast physics, this game is for you.

Final Rundown

Graphics: 10 This is one of the best looking PS 2 games I've ever played. Solid looking, colorful, intense, richly detailed graphics.

Audio: 10 The voice acting is good, the music is well done, and the combat sound effects for both guns and melee weapons are delicious. And Nina has one hell of a sexy voice.

Gameplay: 7 Fun, but marred by a frustrating fixed camera, frequent load screens, and a pause-happy menu system.

Replay value: High. Beating the game once unlocks all kinds of goodies for a second or third playthrough. Can you say, Nina in a bikini?

Difficulty: High if you're playing on Normal. Pitifully easy if you opt to switch to Beginner.

Presentation: 9 Stunning graphics, very high quality cut scenes, nice menu system and a well done color manual. The game really needs a training area to practice moves though. The brief tutorial you are given in the beginning of the game isn't enough.

To buy or rent: You may want to rent this title first to see if it's your cup of tea. Not everyone is going to like the stick flipping combat system.

Reviewer's Rating:   3.5 - Good

Originally Posted: 06/22/05

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