Death by Degrees Import Hands-On

We go hands-on with the final Japanese retail version of Nina Williams' action-game debut.

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The cold, unfortunate truth is that fighting-game characters have historically been nearly incapable of branching out into other genres. The Mortal Kombat series tried to give its characters their own action games, with both Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero and Mortal Kombat Special Forces, and more recently Sega tried to create an action RPG revolving around the characters from the company's Virtua Fighter series. Unfortunately, we all know how those efforts turned out--poorly. In just a couple of weeks, Namco will be throwing its hat into the world of fighting-game-to-action-game transitions with Death by Degrees, a PS2-exclusive action game starring Tekken's blonde bombshell, Nina Williams. Death by Degrees is already out in Japan, and earlier today we had an opportunity to sit down with the Japanese retail version of the game and give it a whirl.

Don't let the bathing suit fool you--this girl will break you in half.
Don't let the bathing suit fool you--this girl will break you in half.

The game opens with a lengthy cinematic sequence that features some extremely impressive CG. The sequence frequently jump-cuts between some crazy superspy action on a cruise ship and Nina Williams herself, fighting it out in a cage against multiple opponents and holding her own quite nicely. Later, after the fight, Nina is accosted on the deck of a cruise ship (most likely the one from the earlier cutscene) by a group of thugs. After a brief scuffle (which also doubles as your first tutorial sequence), Nina is grabbed by another group of thugs, led by a white-haired Asian girl and a Spanish gentleman who looks a little too much like Benicio Del Toro for comfort. Nina is then locked in a room and left to her own devices--not exactly the smartest thing to do with a renowned agent.

Here is where you'll get your first look at the game's exploratory elements. As you walk around the room, you'll find doors that can be opened, items that can be picked up and stored, and even a save point, which you'll have to find via an onscreen display that tells you whether you're getting warmer or colder. Nina defaults to a leisurely pace when you're just wandering around, but you can make her run by holding the X button. The camera moves in a purely cinematic fashion throughout the game, and it actually kind of resembles the old Resident Evil style of camera work. This camera, however, is a little more free-form than the old RE one, and will follow you around a bit, rather than just staying in a fixed position.

After a bit of wandering, we finally encountered some more enemies to pummel mercilessly. Nina was unarmed at this point in the game, so it was all hand-to-hand combat, which actually served just fine. The combat system in the game closely resembles that of the Rise to Honor combat system, in that all your basic attacks are controlled by pressing the right analog stick in a specific direction. By tapping multiple times in the same direction, you can perform some basic combo moves, but since enemies tend to attack from all directions, it can be tough to focus your attention in one direction for too long. It can also be tough to make your attacks particularly precise, as the cinematic camera forces you to gauge exactly what is forward, what is back, and so on in every scene, and the angle of the camera can sometimes play tricks on you in that regard. On the plus side, many of the attacks are broad enough that you don't have to get the exact direction down to land in a hit.

Fortunately, these basic attacks aren't all Nina's capable of. During combat, you'll fill up a meter that sits beneath your life bar, and once it's entirely full, you can press a button to trigger an instant-kill move. When you do so, the camera will switch to a sort of X-ray view of your opponent, and you'll have a little cursor you can use to target a particular part of that enemy's body. Once you have your target, you'll press the right analog stick in, and you'll see an animation of Nina landing some brutal strike on the target region, and then another X-ray view of the enemy's skull, chest, or what have you literally exploding. Sure, Romeo Must Die did it before, but it's still cool.

Yep, she's a heartbreaker alright. [Insert rim shot here.]
Yep, she's a heartbreaker alright. [Insert rim shot here.]

Interestingly enough, the game's dialogue seems to be exclusively in English, meaning that it's likely this will be the final voice acting for the US version--which is actually a little disheartening, because most of it is pretty hammy. Voice acting notwithstanding, Death by Degrees does seem to present itself very well. We already mentioned the excellent CG cutscenes, but even the in-game graphics seem very well put together. The fight sequences animate quite smoothly, the models all seem pretty detailed, and the environments we saw were detailed and featured plenty of nice set pieces. The camera is really the only aspect of the game's visual presentation we took issue with, and it really appears to be the only questionable visual design choice in the game.

There's obviously a lot more to Death by Degrees than what we've played thus far, including plenty of gun combat and story exposition, but as it stands, Death by Degrees left us with a favorable overall impression. At the very least, it does seem like a cut above previous attempts to leverage fighting-game characters as action-game stars. Expect our full review of Death by Degrees right around the time of the game's US release.

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