I can't think of a PSP game more anticipated than Death Jr. It was announced a good nine months before the system shipped and didn't itself land on store shelves until five months after the PSP's March 2005 launch. You'd think more than a year in development would have produced the "best game ever." Not quite. Death Jr. is a mostly run-of-the-mill action game that's a Jekyl & Hyde mix of great ideas and puzzling problems.
Plot? Who cares?! Death Jr. and his school buddies, a ghastly mix of people with names like Stigmartha and Smith & Weston, have accidentally opened Pandora's box while exploring a museum. The demon inside the box has broken the souls of DJ's friends into pieces, and now DJ has to retrieve them. That's where you come in. You control Death Jr. as he slashes and shoots his way through 18 gigantic 3D environments full of demons and assorted bric-a-brac.
A lot has been made of the game's art style, which obviously owes its genesis to Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas . Death Jr. is a pint sized skeleton, a younger version of his daddy (the Grim Reaper). DJ's friends are a hodge podge of monstrous stereotypes. Pandora looks like a zombie without eyes. Stigmartha is a girl that bleeds from her hands as if she's been crucified. Smith & Weston are the underworld version of conjoined twins, attached at the head. There's a dead baby with a foul mouth and a flatulence problem named Seep that lives inside a filthy test tube. And then there's Dead Guppy, who is simply a dead fish that doesn't do anything, but manages to turn up everywhere. To go along with these twisted characters, the environments in DJ's world are equally twisted. There are bug eyed faces growing out of the walls and giant slabs of bologna lying on the ground! Clearly, you'll either love or hate the game's artistic premise. Regardless, the PSP handles the graphics with ease. The environments are huge, there's plenty to destroy, and the framerate never dips. Of course, it helps that the Tim Burton-esque art style requires that all of the characters and buildings look somewhat simple.
For some reason, the development team didn't put the same degree of thought into the game's audio. There's a little bit of voice acting, and the voices are necessarily eerie (dead children-scary!), but subtitled dialogue is far more plentiful than the dozen or so brief cinematics that crop up to advance the story. Primarily, the game's soundtrack is a bunch of stereotypical "ooooh" music and a boat load of sound effects for all of the slashing, gunplay, and screaming that goes on as a result of DJ's violent fury.
Arguably, things like plot, dialogue, voice acting, and the intellectual merit of the soundtrack don't matter so much when the game in question is an action game. In any event, Death Jr. definitely keeps players too busy to care. The levels are packed with respawning enemies, many of which have weapons of their own. Within each level, you'll also be occupied by destructible objects, platforming elements, and the never-ending search for hidden nooks and crannies. For instance, blow up a certain gas pump in the first stage and you'll reveal an underground tunnel containing a couple useful items. Young Death is well equipped to handle all of this running around. His main weapon is a scythe that you can swing around for close range attacks, but it can also be used to latch onto ledges, helicopter around, and grab onto zip lines. DJ also carries an ever-growing arsenal of weapons, mainly guns, although the heat-seeking exploding hamsters are a nice variation on the typical video game grenade.
Some aspects of the game's design are genuinely great. Certain weapons are more effective on certain monsters, and some monsters die quicker if you soften them up with bullets first and finish with a scythe attack. The scythe itself seems to have five or six unique combo chains. Every two or three levels, you'll go toe-to-toe with a boss. Beating them requires a good mix of pattern memorization and platform jumping, not to mention a sense of humor. That cow is shooting milk bullets out of its udders! The levels, meanwhile, are expansive and teeming with interactive spots and clever platforming sections. Switches open up locked areas and explosions can reveal secret caves and pockets. You'll find many places in each level where you can jump or climb up to higher spots. And then there are the hooks and zip lines that you can latch onto with DJ's scythe–that usually lead to another part of the level or a gorgeous lookout. If you want a real thrill, climb on top of a roof and you can see out across the entire level. By God, best of all, you can destroy a good 50 percent of the scenery. My favorite thing to do is find a car and shoot it until it explodes big-big.
So why isn't this the best action game ever? Well, you see, the dev team screwed up royal in a couple of areas. Don't get me started on the jumpy camera, which jitters and spins almost with a mind of its own. Aiming is damn near impossible, and that's no small failure considering that there are buttons devoted to realigning the camera and locking on to enemies (the L & R buttons). Thankfully, you can actually do pretty good in a crowd just by mashing the lock on and scythe attack buttons… but where's the joy in that? To complicate matters, the control nub is far too sensitive. DJ will change directions with the slightest touch, which makes it a pain in the ass to nail pinpoint ledge grabs or to swing across the hooks that dangle in mid-air. Expect to spend half of your time in the game falling to the ground and working your way back to where you need to go. Taken together, these problems put the big bitch slap on all that good stuff I spent hundreds of words writing about above.
For a game that spent so much time in development, Death Jr. turned out only "so so." It didn't have to go down that way. A dodgy camera and touchy controls can be fixed. I know I wasn't the only one at E3 who told the producer that the camera was a mess. But, alas, they shipped this most stylish and most gore-riffic game with its major problems still intact. What a shame, considering that without those problems, Death Jr. would have gone down as a AAA genre-defining milestone.