It was with some reluctance that I walked up to the Death Jr. 2 display setup inside Konami's booth at E3. After all, the first Death Jr. was somewhat of a disappointment, having failed to live up to the massive hype built-up around it being the "first action game for PSP" and "the PSP game that took two-years to create."
Not that the first Death Jr. was horrible, but the flaky camera and hit-or-miss controls sure did knock the PSP's inaugural entrant into the action-platformer genre down a few pegs.
I'm happy to report that the sequel doesn't suffer from those problems.
The first thing I noticed while playing the demo on display at E3 was that the focus of the game has changed. Unlike the original game, which was an action-platformer similar to Jak & Daxter , the sequel is more along the lines of an action-combat game… like Ratchet & Clank . Okay, so the underlying design still isn't very original.
Nevertheless, I came away feeling like it was a good thing that they decided to go in a new direction with the franchise. The two levels I played in the demo were both large structures with multiple rooms (a factory and a museum). While there was some jumping involved, to reach higher places or to gain the high ground on enemies, there weren't any tricky "leap across the bottomless pit" style jump sequences that were so prevalent in the first game. Those jump sequences were maddening, especially since the camera would often show the worst angle and the controls wouldn't always respond. From what I noticed, they've fixed the camera and controls quite a bit in the sequel, although that doesn't matter so much since the primary focus now is on combat.
Similar to Sony's Ratchet & Clank franchise, Death Jr. 2 has a few platformy elements (switches, some mild jumping), but is primarily centered on the wholesale slaughter of enemies and bosses.
Both demo levels open with the hero, either Death Jr. or Pandora, standing at the entrance to the level. After a brief cinematic, robotic enemies spawn and start shooting at the hero. Rather quickly, I got the hint that I was supposed to kill those things. The controls and fighting system seem to be identical to the first game. Both characters have a melee weapon, which can be used to slash at enemies. Each successive press of the square button causes an additional attack to be tacked on, resulting in multi-hit combos. Multiple long-range weapons are also available, which can be fired by pressing the circle button. Four weapons were present in the demo, the most useful being the default blaster and the lightning gun. Weapons automatically lock-on to the closest enemy, which is much appreciated. Boxes and decorations in the environment can be destroyed, and certain objects, such as barrels or idle tanks, can be made to explode–doling out damage to any nearby enemies.
It looks like there are still a few platform aspects to keep things interesting. For instance, in the factory level, there were two spots where I had to activate switches to open doors, and there was one spot where I had to destroy a giant fan in order to gain access to the tunnel behind it. On the whole though, most of my time was spent gunning down those robots.
Visually, Death Jr. 2 looks very similar to its predecessor. The surreal comic book style suits the game nicely, as does the third-person viewpoint. The animation appeared to be smooth, and there were plenty of different animations for all of the various attacks and enemy deaths. I still found the camera to be somewhat shaky, but it definitely was a huge improvement over the twitchy mess that was the first game's camera.
Based on my hands-on time with the 50% complete version on display at E3, I came away with a positive feeling toward Death Jr. 2. The switch to a combat-focused design eliminates many of the problems that the first game had, and is still very much in keeping with the franchise's comic book aspects. Judging by the cinematic scenes I saw, the events and characters in Death Jr. 2 are just as bizarre and twisted as they were in the first game.
As the saying goes, if at first you don't succeed, try again. Konami gave Backbone Entertainment a second shot with Death Jr., and it looks like they're making the most of it. Time will tell whether or not Death Jr. 2 can meet or exceed the standard set by games like Ratchet & Clank , but I will say this, I enjoyed gunning down enemies in the two levels I played in the E3 demo of Death Jr. 2 more than I did all of the fun moments in the first game combined.
Death Jr. 2 for the PSP is scheduled to ship in October 2006.