Review: Who knew death had such lousy lock-on targeting?
In many ways, Death Jr. has been doomed since the day it was announced. As the first 'real' PlayStation Portable project officially shown to the world from developer Digital Extremes (now known as Backbone Entertainment), there was an attached level of hype for it, even though history has shown that just because you're first out the gate, there's no guarantee of accolades or success. As an original project for a system loaded with familiar console franchises, Death Jr. has the advantage of standing out in the crowd amongst these recognizable faces ? it doesn't hurt that the game is still riding out the 'first PSP game' hype and colossal publisher Konami picked up the game for publishing ? and has worked with Backbone to release an always-cool Limited Edition package. However, even though Death Jr. has all these things going for it, it seems to struggle with the most important thing ? the game simply isn't good enough to match the anticipation and hype. There's a certain feeling that Backbone took what they liked about Psychonauts, and then a little from Ratchet & Clank, but forgot the stuff that actually make those games great. It's a decent diversion and actually above average, but at the same time, it needed a few more months or so in development to iron out the serious issues.
Chances are, if you've been following PSP since it was announced in 2003, you know the basic scenario for Death Jr. You play as Death...Jr., the son of the Grim Reaper himself, proving that indeed, the bringer of death can create life, even if he's one freaky looking kid who inherited the ability to also bring death. Anyway, DJ (as he's affectionately called) and a few of his friends are wandering through a museum, when they encounter a weird box that just won't open. One of DJ's friends, Pandora, who likes opening boxes (gimme a break...) gets frustrated and this leads DJ to do something bad; he uses his scythe to open the box, and thus Kratos gained the power to defeat Ares and stop the gods from warring. Oops, wrong game. Actually, instead, the opened box releases an evil entity that traps all of DJ's friends and steals their souls, leaving them pretty much dead (though one character, Dead Guppy, is kinda already dead), and DJ must travel to weird worlds, find the soul pieces, and save his friends, before his dad finds out and gives him quite a lecture about having such idiotic friends. The whole 'save your mindless friends' angle is too Psychonauts-ish, but whatever. You learn fast that the story is irrelevant to the actual game, it merely drives it along rather than being truly vital. Though I can definitely appreciate the camp factor. The museum where this all takes place is the main hub world, so get used to wandering around this weird place.
Death Jr. has been touted as a platformer, but it's about as much of a platformer as Ratchet & Clank is, and that game was an obvious inspiration. Though there's quite a bit of platform hopping, the majority of the gameplay is based on shooting stuff and hacking things with DJ's scythe. At the outset, DJ finds a pair of guns that have infinite ammo, but as he progresses through the game and finds 'weapon widgets' scattered around, he can get shotguns, flamethrowers, and...C4 Hamsters, amongst others, by visiting Smith & Weston, your two-headed weapons expert. Only the handgun has infinite ammunition, the rest though require picking up ammo scattered around the levels. The Widgets you find also can be used for improving the strength of your weapons, adding moves and strength to your scythe, and other important enhancements necessary to advance through the game. Because the PSP lacks a 2nd analog nub for controlling the camera, the targeting system is lock-on based; simply lock on to an enemy and fire, and watch their health deplete. At least...that's the hope. Unfortunately Death Jr's targeting system is quite wonky, and sometimes it won't target anything at all, or highlight an enemy farther away while another closer gets near and attacks you. You can get by without actually using the targeting system by moving around and getting the camera to move automatically, but that just causes frustration. DJ can also enlist the use of Pandora's power ? on the right hand corner of the screen, a meter fills up as you defeat enemies, and once its full you can activate it and destroy nearly everything on the screen. Naturally it's most useful in moments when you're overmatched and outnumbered, or when you're involved in a tough boss fight.
Though platforming plays 2nd fiddle to the action, DJ does have some admirable qualities. Though DJ's scythe also plays a part in the attacking of enemies and destroying the environment (a great deal of the game's worlds are destructable), it also helps DJ get across gaps by swinging on hooks ? Tarzan style, grabbing ledges that are too far to reach, and swing down lines, for instance. Of course there are common platform gaming conventions, like moving and/or disappearing platforms, jumping back and forth between a narrow space to reach a higher ledge, and to an extent, collecting things, though DJ thankfully only has a few things to collect; namely ammo, widgets, life refreshers, extra lives, and health extenders. No out of control collecting like a few other recent platform-based titles. Disappointingly, like the weapon targeting system, the platforming aspects are also a bit messed up, thanks to touchy and sensitive controls. It's quite easy to miss a ledge because you merely overjumped, and moving DJ with utmost precision is a challenge at times. Like all games you can get used to the timing and adjust, but it doesn't make for a good first impression.
Where Death Jr. gets a lot of credit is its challenge ? though some of it is based on the flawed aspects, on the whole DJ is one tough game at times. You really have to keep on your toes, because enemies are all over and they attack with no mercy from both up close and at a distance, causing you a world of hurt. Unlike many platform games these days, DJ even has a limit on the amount of lives you get ? no infinite continues here, bub. You get 5 to begin with, but once those are gone you have to completely restart a level, old-school style. There's a lot of health pickups scattered around the level to help out, and a few free lives here and there, but regardless, the game is a toughie. You can't even just hold down the fire button until your finger falls off ? you might actually have to dodge, take cover, swap weapons, or outright run away. The game does make you fight since you can't progress unless you kill enemies and take their souls, which are exchanged for the opening of 'eye doors', but you don't have to kill everything unless you want a high score on the level. There is a feeling of repetition though ? almost every level has similar enemies and thus you'll be doing the same things over and over.
It's too bad that Backbone couldn't get a few of the problems fixed up, as Death Jr. had the potential to be something really special, and give PSP fans something cool, challenging and original to play. As is, despite the challenge and moments of inspiration, the funky controls and ineffective targeting system makes for moments of frustration, especially when you're in a tough level that requires complete precision. And though it has its moments, you can't help but feel you're playing Ratchet & Clank, only with repetitive, generic, one dimensional enemies (seriously, they almost all look the same and have really no memorable qualities) and no goofy partner spouting off one-liners, with artistic ideas taken right from the Tim Schafer playbook on top of that. However, the Death Jr. universe is interesting enough that the franchise has potential to be a PSP trademark, and it could have been if the game had just a bit more development time to iron out the hassles and make it work.
Visually, Death Jr. looks pretty nice, though it takes a few adjustments to make it so. By default the game is very dark, even with the bright and large PSP screen. But you can mercifully adjust the brightness in the options, so you can see the nearly completely destructable world in its glory. DJ looks sort of like a cross between Psychonauts and Nightmare Before Christmas
, just reduced to handheld form. The level variety is decent enough, taking place in locales such as a school, suburbia, and a world full of meat. Each one stands out from the other. Character designs are unique, though DJ has that really...funny run when he has the scythe in his hand. Like his hips are going out of control while he runs around. On the other hand enemy design is boring and generic ? they're just enemies who want you dead, nothing more or less. The camera, however ? sucks. Without a way to manually control it, moving it around can be a chore, since you constantly have to babysit it by pressing the button to realign it behind DJ. It's times like this you really wish Sony would have had the foresight to include a 2nd analog stick ? for 3D games, it's essential. However it could have certainly been handled better in Death Jr.
Death Jr's soundtrack is strange enough to fit this bizarre world, but it repeats a lot and sometimes is hard to hear unless you crank the volume. The main title theme fits the wacky tone to a tee, while the others are fairly basic world themes ? whether it's worthy of the included soundtrack with DJ's Limted Edition (which I didn't get my hands on) is a whole other story. The voice acting is good, though unfortunately DJ himself doesn't actually speak, but instead spouts off phrases that appear in text form when he encounters something worth commenting on. The other characters all speak though, and all do a good job, though none are capable of presenting the humor the game was supposed to bring ? there's few moments of actual amusement. Sound effects are pretty basic, though they're also drowned out at times when there's a lot going on. At least you finally get to hear DJ say something when he dies and screams.