Year: 2005 // Developer: Namco // Publisher: Namco // Also On: N/A
THE LEGEND OF TEKKEN’S FIRST LADY BEGINS HERE, the back of Death by Degrees‘ box proudly claims. And why not? Nina Williams was/is one of Tekken‘s most popular mainstays, and there was no reason why an action-based spin-off shouldn’t work when the Tekken team had previously ventured outside of the standard 1-v-1 fighting with the Tekken Force modes. Unfortunately, Nina’s solo adventure received poor to (at best) lukewarm review scores on release, and I even recall seeing Death by Degrees in a countdown of worst games for the PS2. I disagreed with these scores vehemently back in the day and, after revisiting the game in 2020, I can honestly say that I still enjoy this game.
Is it a misunderstood gem? No. There are loads of things about Death by Degrees that piss me off and were rightly criticised in period, but I feel that the good outweighs the crappy to enough of a degree (get it?) that I feel motivated to defend Namco’s Tekken spin-off.
Canonically, Death by Degrees takes place before the very first Tekken game, and sees Nina Williams working for the CIA and MI6 to infiltrate the shady Kometa organisation. It was the perfect opportunity for Namco to give Nina a break from the endless Iron Fist tournaments and let her be the secret agent/assassin that we’re always told she is. And – let’s not delude ourselves – it was a chance to make use of Nina’s other talents. At the game’s outset, for instance, Ms. Williams flips between a battle suit, bikini, and cocktail dress before dumping the latter for a skin-tight infiltration suit. Racy outfits become even more revealing when they rip and tear open as a result of battle damage, and I’m fairly certain that I don’t remember Nina’s hips being so child-bearing, or her arse being so in-your-face in the Tekken games. It also seems as though Namco crow-barred their way into rival fighting-game developer Tecmo’s office filing cabinets, specifically the folder labelled “boob physics”.
Not that I’m complaining. Nina has always been a favourite of mine in the Tekken series, and she’s pretty damn aesthetically appealing in DbD. But I thought it deserved mentioning in case there were any misconceptions of this being a game where a bad-ass woman kicks some bad asses about in the name of strong, independent bad-ass women. Much bad-assery DOES ensue, but this is still a game largely directed towards a male audience as far as I can tell.
It should be pointed out, however, that the sexy stuff isn’t intrusive or pushed as any sort of focus. The aforementioned outfits do actually make contextual sense, as does the steadily-increasing battle damage (which is honestly a nice detail), and the game doesn’t ever become all about Nina’s figure. What it IS all about is Nina showing the guards and mercenaries on Kometa’s payroll just why they shouldn’t fuck with her (as if the perma-scowl on her face isn’t warning enough).
But before we talk about the combat (and we will talk about it, because it giveth and taketh in equal measure), I want to touch on the fact that Death by Degrees reminds me of Resident Evil, of all franchises. The back of the box, trailers, and gameplay footage may do their best to convince you that DbD is an explosive, all-out action game but you spend just as much (if not more) time mooching about labyrinth-like environments, guided by a Resi-style map that shows all of the locked doors, and collecting files/memos to piece together the story. There is plenty of back-tracking on the menu, and it’s easy to get lost and forget which door/ladder/elevator leads where. Many extra items and weapons can be collected by venturing off-course, and there are heaps of daft methods for unlocking the way forward involving medallions, key cards, and sliding tile puzzles – design choices lifted straight from Resident Evil‘s mansion.
The game’s atmosphere even feels a little survival horror-esque. Tension and suspense accompany Nina, especially in the latter two-thirds of the game when the enemies become more dangerous and less than human.
But it’s the fixed camera angles that are, by far, the most obvious similarity between this game and Capcom’s famous survival horror series. Unlike the old-school Resi games however, you can hold the R2 button down to place the camera directly behind Nina and move about in a proper third-person fashion. It helps you to actually see what’s lying up ahead (when you’re otherwise running towards the camera), but it’s a half-baked solution at best. For one, you can only sprint in this view, so creeping up behind guards and snapping their necks is out of the question. Secondly, you can’t fight while holding down R2. Thirdly, it can be incredibly disorientating to snap back to a fixed camera angle when releasing R2.
These camera angles are great for showing off the environments and scale, but an utter hindrance when enemies are audibly approaching and you can’t see the direction that they are going to appear from. They also wreak complete havoc upon DbD‘s combat.
The combat in this game attempts to be innovative and different. The face buttons on the controller? They don’t even feature in this system. All attacks revolve around the right analogue stick: tapping it in the direction of an enemy initiates an attack. Multiple quick taps in succession unleash multi-hit combo strings. The same applies to melee and firearm weapons, except that you can hold the stick in the desired direction when shooting to keep firing. R1 allows Nina to grab enemies and subject them to her signature bone-snapping holds, while holding L1, at the same time as attacking, allows for different combo strings and special moves. Holding down the L2 button, and pushing in the direction of an enemy, presents you with a first-person x-ray view of said enemy, and lets you target the illuminated areas of their skeleton. The game then flips to a brief slow-mo cinematic of Nina striking those areas in style, before reverting back to the x-ray view and showing bones cracking, or even shattering for big damage. Nina needs to have juice in her focus meter to use these “Critical Strike” attacks but they look damn cool, and pre-date Mortal Kombat 9‘s graphic use of x-ray attacks by some years.
On paper, this battle system is an ingenious idea. There’s no large strings of button inputs to memorise, and the 360-degree combat is intuitive and instinctive – just push in the direction that you want to attack. Unfortunately – and ironically – Death by Degrees‘ combat is actually far too complicated and demanding for its own good.
The first cracks in the combat begin to show once you start trading skill points (earnt by defeating enemies) to unlock some more advanced moves for Nina, including some straight out of Tekken. From my experience, most of these moves were impossible to pull off consistently as they demanded that the player grow extra fingers. Most physical attacks require the L1 button to be held down while various inputs are executed on the left stick (including double-tapping to dash, left/right inputs, and 360 motions) and the right stick is being tapped towards a designated enemy. The commands often don’t register accurately (so you end up doing something completely different), and you have to be pretty damn precise with your left stick inputs, taking into account the exact direction that Nina is facing. Memorising all of these inputs is one thing; trying to pull them off when surrounded from all sides by fast-moving enemies (that really don’t mess about) is another.
It’s honestly easier to just spam the basic right stick kick combo and stay the hell away from the L1 button and all of the more complex attacks associated with it. Unfortunately, Death by Degrees‘ combat mechanics aren’t done with you yet. Nina can evade incoming attacks with a tap of the left stick, which is okay. But guarding? Well, that’s achieved by pressing the right stick towards an incoming attack. You know, the same stick that you use to attack with? It requires masterful timing to block rather than attack and, again, it’s a lot to ask when foes are beating on Ms. Williams from all sides.
There’s lots of advanced stuff you can do with regards to the fighting, including wall-running (which I only ever triggered a few times by mistake), flipping over enemies, and incredibly situational special moves, but it’s a lot less hassle to just ignore it all. Certainly, you can still beat the game this way. It’s a great shame, and a frustration, because you’ll never be able to look as cool as Nina does in the official gameplay trailers, where she’s flipping about everywhere, sprinting along walls, and switching between guns, melee weapons, and kicks on the fly. Some sort of god of gaming at Namco HQ must have been responsible for capturing that footage…
But I also said that the camera angles wreak havoc on the combat and it’s true. Fighting enemies anywhere near a point where one screen flips to the next will utterly overload the mechanics. All of a sudden, your directional inputs are completely wrong, because you’re viewing Nina from a different angle. Combos will crumble, and she may even spaz out and start kicking in the wrong direction. You have to actively draw enemies away from these transitional zones, and it’s something that you just shouldn’t need to consider in an action game.
My gripes with the fighting are pretty much where the negative portion of this review ends, but there are a few other small issues that I want to address before moving onto some good stuff. There’s a lot of loading for instance. Passing through most doors will trigger a black screen and a loading icon. Said loads aren’t too long in isolation, but they are frequent and do take you out of the game, as well as interrupting the music (which will reset in the next room), and spoiling the atmosphere. Menus are sluggish, and break up the flow of the gameplay whenever you need to access them. Finally, there are several insta-death scenarios that will force you reload from the last save – lovely stuff.
But IF you can stomach the loading, antiquated fixed camera angles, and overly-ambitious combat, then there’s a great game to be had. Graphically, Death by Degrees is up there for a PS2 game. Environments look good, and the character models have aged reasonably well, with convincing, smooth animation. Music is a mix of rock, fitting espionage-style tracks, and even some ambient – all of which contributes to the game’s fantastic atmosphere and reminded me of the island from Resident Evil 4 (no bad thing).
There’s a decent amount of variety too. In addition to the exploration, puzzles, and fighting, there are Time Crisis-style sniping segments, and areas where you have to fly a drone into locked rooms via air ducts in order to activate otherwise unreachable switches and take photographs. Nina can also swim underwater (in a first-person mode), crawl through shafts, and hang from pipes/wires to cross large gaps. Girl’s got the moves.
And while this IS a standalone game, there’s still a cache of Tekken references and easter eggs to discover. The biggest is a cameo from Heihachi who has loaned his Mishima Zaibatsu soldiers to Kometa in order to give them some field training. Then there are the cyborg enemies in the latter stages of the game, created by Dr Bosconovitch – clearly the earliest models of Tekken‘s ‘Jack’ line. There are also Tekken posters dotted about the walls of the soldiers’ rooms, and the opportunity to acquire Yoshimitsu’s Manji Clan sword as a useable weapon.
Nina also has to trade blows with her hated sister, Anna, at several points in the game. Through flashbacks, DbD attempts to shed some light on why the Williams sisters detest one another so badly, going all the way back to when they were little girls and their father got killed. Spoiler alert: the level of resentment between these ladies STILL doesn’t really make much sense.
There’s also some nice post-game content to sink your teeth into. Bonus Sniping and Stingray (drone) missions are available to play, there’s an “Anna” mode (recover 12 Tekken Force data cards from the prison section of the game), a music player, and unlockable concept art (which is actually pretty damn cool – I need to source an artbook or download of it…). Of most interest however, is starting a new game over your cleared data. This allows you to start over while retaining all unlocked moves and remaining skill points from the previous play-through. You also receive the clothes bag, allowing you to freely swap between Nina’s outfits. Beat the game twice to get Nina’s wrestling outfit (from the box cover and opening cinematics); beat it with a five-star rating to unlock…Nina in all her blocky Tekken 2 glory?!? It’s an unexpected but fun little bonus.
Of greater significance, however, are the infinite weapons that get added into a NG+ play-through: melee weapons with unlimited durability, and guns with bottomless ammo reserves. Going out of your way to acquire these from the crates with the sliding tile puzzle locks – plus the extra holsters to carry them all – certainly removes a lot of the pressure. The unlimited submachine-guns in particular make the game far too easy, and rip apart the bosses with ease. Even the basic handgun allowed me to win a boss battle against Anna by trapping her in a corner and simply standing still and firing continuously.
I’m sure you can deduce that I really like Death by Degrees despite its undeniable problems. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that DbD is underrated, but I don’t think that it deserves the scorn that the critics treated it with back in 2005. The combat tries to be revolutionary and clever but it doesn’t really work, leaving the player frustrated when they can’t get the most out of the system. The shonky camera and the constant start-stop loading when passing through doors don’t do Nina’s solo outing any favours either. That said, the game packs a great atmosphere, and the Resident Evil-style exploration provides a surprisingly nice balance to the action side. The game holds up aesthetically, boasts variety in the gameplay department, and should appeal to Tekken/Nina Williams fans with all the references to the main series.
I think that, if you go into Death by Degrees with modest expectations for what you will get out of the deeply flawed fighting mechanics, then there’s an enjoyable action-espionage adventure here that shouldn’t be written off on account of the review scores, or misplaced notions that Namco tried to sell a crap game with a sexy blonde. It’s actually the polar opposite: Death by Degrees only fails in certain (admittedly important) areas because the developers tried hard to make a great game. This is no lazy, outsourced cash-in on a big name, and for that alone it warrants a second look.