There’s an inherent, and worrying, satisfaction to be gained from sending pixelated minions to a sweet and splattery demise. It’s this inverse Lemmings effect that really draws you into Four Door Lemon’s 101 Ways to Die, its promise of experimentation and giblets is a combination that gets the digital sadist’s mouth watering. However, expectation and reality are two things that rarely balance out and getting into the pain-filled laboratories of a mad professor is not nearly as fun as the premise seems.
Players take up the role of an assistant to, the apparently extremely unbalanced, Professor Ernst Splattunfuder. His life’s work has revolved around devising numerous ways to cause death, all tested within his laboratories. As you would expect with a mad professor tragedy strikes and he loses his work in a lab accident and now it is your job to assist him in recreating the 101 Ways to Die. It’s an economical set-up but it serves well, and the comic styled intro perfectly lends itself to the cartoon mayhem about to unfold.
As Splattenfuder’s assistant you visit a series of chambers, each with an entrance (or multiple) and an exit - your goal is stop the Splats (your bio-engineered crash test dummies) from getting from A to B. To achieve this you will be given a predetermined set of tools to use within that level, from bumpers to launch the Splats into the air to bombs sure to send cartoon innards all over the map. Each chamber is a simple stationary map and before testing your plan you take your time and place all traps where you think they might work best, there are also environmental considerations when composing your murderous symphony as levels tend to be filled with hazards like lava pools or swinging spiked pendulums. The planning section, and general interface as a whole, is nice and simple and you’ll be setting up your murderous methods with absolute ease. Once you are ready it’s time to release the Splats, and mostly you’ll discover that your plan falls apart so it’s time to reset and try again - unfortunately this is where it starts to come off the rails.
Puzzle games by their nature invite failure, they expect us to fight for a solution and as a gamer you should expect nothing less from a puzzle game, but there’s a real dissonance at work here. Where you expect there to be a madcap and hilarious victory through the absurdity of physics is a puzzler that really wants you to do something exactly the way the developers want you to do it. Make no mistake, there is no room for you to achieve a positive result through a stroke of luck or an unforeseen physics anomaly. Of course there should be a definite solution to the problem but before long you will realise that there is no other way for you to succeed than to be funnelled down one path, perhaps the problem is that we have been spoiled with other physics puzzlers.
Tie this repetitive and gratingly specific approach to gameplay to an aesthetic that doesn’t change in any meaningful way and the game starts to become an uninspired slog pretty early on, and levels begin to blur into one another. To compound these issues is that you have two rankings (Graduate and Master) with each giving you a different star rating. The problem arises as you progress and you’ll get to a point where you can’t unlock levels as you haven’t accumulated enough stars, then begins a slog through levels trying to reach master status by working out the obscure, and only, solution. On the face of it 101 Ways to Die may seem like some kind of open-ended murder sandbox, with a promise of a unique splatter filled experience. Unfortunately the truth of the gameplay experience is very much something a lot less satisfying. As you plan, test, rejig and test your murderous method again and again, you will begin to realise that there is only one, predefined way, for you to succeed.
By all means you can experiment with your nefarious plans but if it isn’t the right method then you won’t progress, and this restrictiveness really starts to suck the fun out of the experience. Forget the possibility of having a unique story to tell about how you overcame a level as you will be having exactly the same resolution as any other gamer with the only difference being how long it took you to figure out the exact sequence of traps and events. While there may be 101 Ways to Die, there seems to be only one way to succeed and the frustration of failure is amplified by this lack of accommodation for player inventiveness.
It’s not to be said that 101 Ways to Die is a bad game, in fact you’ll have a fair amount of fun sending Splats to meet their maker and the early hours of play are really enjoyable. That doesn’t hide the fact that 101 Ways to Die is nigh on the definition of a reasonable distraction, which is a real shame. There is an unfortunate sense that this premise could have provided a robust and hilarious physics based murder ‘em up but the execution (pun absolutely intended) is poor. Stepping into these dungeons of squelchy homicide is fun for a while but by the time the difficulty curve really kicks in you’ll probably be bored to death.