When I first heard about 101 Ways to Die I thought it was a tie in to a movie or TV show of a similar name that I had never seen before. To be honest, I didn’t even know which movie or show it was, but I vaguely remember properties with names that sound like this and I just figured this was something of a horror/slasher gimmick that was all talk and no substance, but now in video game form. Tie in of properties like that aren’t typically worth your time. Luckily, this has nothing to do with whatever nonsense I may or may not have created in my own mind. I was way off.
When you start the game, you’re treated to a little comic strip-type scene that sets our story up. We open on the home of Professor Ernst Splattunfuder – who is described as an industrialist, a scientist, and a mentalist – and get a bit of his backstory on how he’s a recluse and the mansion has been all but abandoned for years. Where we really end up is well below the mansion, in the basement catacombs where he’s spent most of his life and has built labs designed to find new ways of killing, to create a compendium, the “101 Ways to Die”, and he’s just about done with his research. Unfortunately for the good ol’ doc, one of the Splatts (the humanoid creatures he’s Frankenstein’s Monster’d up in the labs) has accidentally set off a bomb, and, yeah, you guessed it – the whole operation explodes with it. Not quite dead, and definitely not yet satisfied, the doctor vows to restart his work and finish it once and for all. And that’s where we come in: the Professor’s assistant. An assistant he’s found through a temp agency. We’re tasked with rebuilding and rediscovering the lost research for him.
That’s pretty much the extent of the story we get, love it or hate it. It definitely has a few chuckles in the brief minute or so of plot. It’s oddball, that’s for sure, but a game like this doesn’t really need a story on par with something like BioShock or The Last of Us. Get in, give us a reason, and get out, allowing us to participate in the task at hand. And that task at hand? Organized murder. Well, is it murder if the things we’re killing were created specifically for murdering purposes? I don’t know the answer to that, I’m not a geologist.
What game the developer Four Door Lemon has created here is basically the anti-Lemmings. Reverse Lemmings. The opposite of Lemmings. Basically, I’m saying it’s like the franchise Lemmings, but instead of saving the poor bastards from their famous “walking off a cliff” routine in numerous ways, we’re here to kill these poor bastards in unique and numerous ways. There’s just not too many games like these. After a brief stint of “get the mechanics down” in the Training Labs, we move on to the Basement proper. From there, we head to the Control Room, the Bio Zone, and Sector Zero. Each stage has at least 10 levels to help us on our journey to bloodshed.
The crux of game play progression here is your standard 3 star system that is all the rage these days, and it works well enough in execution, pun probably not intended. Each action nets you points, too, so there is leader board considerations if that’s the kind of player you are. The levels are structured in Easy, Medium, and Hard difficulties and honestly, sometimes even the Easy levels aren’t so easy, especially when trying to get all 3 stars. In order to unlock newer levels you need a certain amount of stars, so progression isn’t always to just get out by the skin of your teeth, which sometimes you’ll want to do. If you only achieve the Graduate goal in a level, you’ll eventually have to replay it to attain the Master goal and the 3 stars so later levels will open up for you. It’s not a new gimmick by any stretch, but it works well for the style of game this is.
As I mentioned earlier, sometimes even the Easy levels can be a pain in the ass when you’re setting out to Master them. The “problem” is that each level isn’t just “kill some Splatts” for 1 star and “kill all Splatts” for 3 stars. That’d be too easy and too simple. Eventually you’d stop having fun. With how hard this game can be, you may end up not having fun anyway, but that’s a different argument for a different day. I use problem in quotes here because it’s not really a problem in the sense that it hurts the game. It’s you and your character’s problem to solve each level in specific ways. One level may allow you to kill Splatts any way you see fit for the base goal, but some may require you to use specific traps and gadgets to get that entry star. Working on the Master goals are even tougher. Some may be simple, kill 2 Splatts with spikes, but more often than not these goals (multiple goals) require you to chain combos with traps to kill the little monsters. Challenging is a nice word to describe it. Fucking-insanity-inducing is another way.
As I progressed through the various stages and levels, I got into a groove and at times I felt like an unstoppable genius. Then I hit a brick wall. Hard. This game can definitely be a struggle sometimes. Timing is the key to most success here. It can be super important. It can be the most important in a level. And apparently, a lot of the time, I just don’t have the proper timing. That’s no secret to anyone who knows me, but I suspect that this will be true for a lot of others, too. This isn’t a bad thing, it just is what it is. That’s a major part of 101 Ways to Die. This is especially true as levels get bigger and wider where you have to manage not only the built in level traps, the level specific traps that you have direct access to and where you place them, the traps that you have to manually trigger and the time frames they have to turn on, but also where the Splatts emerge from, how many and how fast each pod produces them, and if there are multiple pods and/or exits for the little guys to escape to. It can become overwhelming at times, but, there are solutions, you just have to figure them out. And when you do, it feels great, especially after struggling.
There’s a lot of trial and error here. Sometimes I’d set up a trap, start the Splatts in motion and see how they reacted to it. Then, I’d reset and move on to the next problem area, rinse and repeat. You don’t have to, but it may help you to do so. You don’t get penalized for restarting, so unless you like torture, make use of ALL the tools you have. Sometimes even taking a break and coming back hours later would be all the help I needed to pass a course. With these types of games, you can get into your head and no matter what you do, no matter how “locked in” you think you are, you aren’t. You just can’t see the forest for the trees. Walking away, refreshing your mind, and returning can be exactly what the doctor ordered. Lucking into a 3 star completion is wonderful, too. There were many times I would be stuck and somehow one of the Splatts reacted just differently enough to get himself killed, or I hit a manual trap just a smidge earlier or later than I had been doing before and boom – Master Goal complete. There’s just so much trial and error here that luck is sometimes the only thing that got me to the next stage.
I’ve mentioned these Splatts several times without really getting into them too much. They’re kind of cute in their gross, cartoon-y deformed-ness. The Professor wasn’t trying to win beauty contests with these guys, as evidenced by their mismatched limbs, missing skin, and the fact that everything is seemingly crudely stapled together just well enough to be functional. They’re dumb little movers who have just enough awareness to avoid simple dangers, and that’s really it. There are several variations of them as well, each with varying health bars and characteristics. Killing them isn’t always a walk in the park, either. They do have a charming little hum when they move, though. Well, until you sever their head or splatter them across the wall.
So you’ve made it this far and I’m sure you’re wondering what the 101 ways to die are, right? With traps such as lava pits, deathlogs, slime, and cannons, there are a lot of combinations available. And don’t worry, there are more, I just listed a sample. The main menu has a nice area called The Vault were you can track every way you’ve managed to bludgeon, maim, and splatter the test subjects in the book you’re creating. Each death has a catchy name, too, like Bouncing Broadside, Highway to Hell, Slip ‘n’ Boom, and Tanks for the Memories. Again, just a sample, there are 101 after all. You’ve got a stats sheet, as well, where you can track the different tactics and kills you’ve performed. Not always standard, but always welcomed.
Graphically the game looks fine. I know that may seem like a dig, but it really isn’t. A game like this doesn’t need to have visuals that blow you away every 4 seconds (pun?). This isn’t that kind of game. What it needs to show you, it shows you well enough. The effects are what they need to be and I rarely if ever had any slowdown if a lot was going on at once. Again, if any of this sounds like I’m bashing the game for being simple, I’m not. Simple works here, and simple is really all we need in a game like this. Plus, the load times are fairly quick. A win in my book (I don’t think a pun was intended).
The music and sound design won’t blow you away, again, pun probably not intended, but sense the theme here – it doesn’t have to. Most of the time you won’t even be paying attention to the sounds it’s offering. You’ll be focusing on the timing you just screwed up or on whether you’re going to allow that one Splatt close to the exit pod to escape just so you can get a star in the books before you start over. The effects sound as you’d expect and nothing seemed odd or out of place. It all turned out fine, and this is a good thing.
The only areas I really find fault in the game are minor and some nit-picky stuff. You’ll be starting over and over a lot, so I wish there was a button that allowed you to instantly reset a level rather than going into the menu and scrolling down to it. It only takes a couple of seconds, but after the 20th time in a row doing it, it can get annoying. For a game called 101 Ways to Die you’d hope there were actually 101 ways to die. There aren’t. I mean, there are, but it incorporates a lot of combos in there. While there are certainly an adequate amount of weaponry and traps to massacre, I just wish there were more that didn’t necessarily need to be added into a combo to be one. I understand that this is exactly what the puzzle game was made with in mind, so, this is why it’s just a nit-pick and nothing major. The final nit-pick is that I just wish the game weren’t as challenging as it can be at times. What I mean by that is, sometimes scenarios just seem so luck and timing based that it’s frustrating in the wrong way. In my Fortified review, I explain just how frustrating the game can be, but it was the kind that made me want to immediately try again and not give up. Maps sometimes took upwards of 15 minutes to complete in that game, and depending on the mode, even longer. You’d frequently be down to the last moment and lose. In this game, sometimes I just wanted to give up. Period. In a game where levels can take a minute or two to complete, including set up, where repetitious start and stop happens, that’s just a bummer when that feeling hits. Again, a nit-pick, so, take that for what it is.
Overall, this puzzle game is certainly enjoyable. At times, it can feel too repetitious, and when that starts to hit, it’s best to take a breather. Burn out on something like this can ruin the next experience, whether it be the next time you boot up this game, or another game like it. If you’re looking for a different kind of puzzle experience than what you’re used to, you could do worse than this game. I mean, come on, your entire goal is to kill things. That’s a great premise for a puzzler. Maybe the game isn’t as hard as I sometimes found it, but it sure felt like it sometimes. You can’t fault a puzzle game for challenging its players, but you can point out some flaws. This game isn’t perfect, but, really… What game is?
Chrono Trigger is. If you said Chrono Trigger, you get 3 stars.
101 Ways to Die is out now on Xbox One and Steam for $14.99. The PlayStation 4 version will be released on 3/22/16. An Xbox One code was provided by the developer/publisher for this review.