The son of the Grim Reaper has already laid his fatal touch on one victim: my right thumb.
Death Jr., the long-awaited PlayStation Portable title from Konami and developer Backbone Entertainment, looks deceptively like a platformer. There's a cute and cartoonish character, there's a jump with a spin-jump double move, and there are floating platforms and fiery pits to leap over. It's Mario with a scythe. Or so it seems. But get into the gameplay, and it's something entirely different.
This PSP game is really an action title with some platform sequences spread in for fun. In terms of combat to platform hopping, it's probably close to 75% fighting, with the player wildly flailing away at the firing button and whipping out the reaper's bladed weapon when the enemy brings the fight to your face. Played with that in mind, it's the probably most manic and furious game so far on the handheld system. For a game starring the spawn of the Grim Reaper, DJ is much more apt to get your heart racing than to stop it cold.
The problem with the game, however, that last 25% of hopping and bouncing is undercooked, with awkward manual camera controls instead of scripted viewpoints. As frantic as it is, the combat could have used a little bit of extra time in the hopper as well. And while the twisted atmosphere of DJ's world and circle of creepy friends is a key draw, the game doesn't feel as if it's been given enough time to come to life. Death Jr. already took more time than expected to get to us (the game was actually the first PSP game ever shown), but the game still feels like it has been sent out into the world before its time.
What Death Jr. does really well is put you under fire. This game is a run through a gauntlet, and every time you turn a corner in the game, you'd better be prepared and packing heat. Although you won't be facing forces on the order of something like Dynasty Warriors, the DJ engine throws as much as you can possibly handle, and then some, without chugging. The combination of critters will often form an imposing challenge. You might enter a room and suddenly find yourself the standing face-to-face with several snarling beasts, while charging Kamakazes dash at you wildly before striking a Jesus pose and blowing up. In the background, towering Etherial wraiths will be hurling bombs at you, and if you duck those attacks, the needle-like shots from the Eyeballer toads creatures will likely be on their way to seek your pale flesh. Another beast will be firing icy homing blasts at you from the distance. And as you try to strafe to survive all of that, the mines left behind by spindly ghost-faced creatures keep your quarters tight. Large spiders will unwrap their legs from the walls and begin their march towards you. Then there are gigantic Shield Demons and mega-sized versions of the regular demon to strike fear in your heart. And all the while, bats are flying down from the sky to pick you apart.
DJ comes ready with some cool weapons to do his business. Although players will try to play the game at first as if it's a platformer, using the scythe blade to beat on enemies, you won't get far just button mashing with that attack, and the abundance of ammo crates should give you the clue that it's OK to waste your stash of weapon rounds. At its heart, Death Jr. is much closer to Ratchet & Clank than Mario, and it often pushes past that -- I haven't circle-strafed this much since the original Doom, and I've never put the target-lock button to so much use since I last played through a Syphon Filter game. While all of the heavy firepower DJ picks up is awe-striking, the balance and mix of weapons isn't all that it could be. You can pick up an electric gun, a flamethrower, a freeze thrower, C4 Hamsters, a rocket launcher, a chain gun, and shotgun, but your standard twin pistols (with their infinite ammo) are good enough for most tasks if you can keep your fingers moving fast enough. We love frying and zapping critters with the electric gun and flamethrower, but they make clearing a room too easy. The shotgun, meanwhile, is nearly useless throughout the game. And while we loved the freeze thrower (it's quite possibly the best ice bomb attack in a game -- enemies are frozen cold, but instead of stopping, they go into slow-mo while iced over), it's hard to work that attack into combos with other moves since there aren't hot-keys for selecting weapons. The D-Pad works for switching guns, but you have to scroll through the menu instead of having instant-selects ala Ratchet, so by the time you've selected a weapon to follow up a freeze, the ice has already melted. You can also power up your weapon by collecting widgets, but there is only one step of powering up -- by the time everything is powered, you will have already been well past the game's ending.
Once the smoke has cleared, Death Jr. becomes more like any other game with a jump button, and while some smart decisions were made in making DJ control well in the platforming challenges, there are also a lot of missed opportunities and underdeveloped features. Camera control on PSP will always be a challenge for developers since it only has one control stick, and Death Jr. isn't the game to solve that problem. We really wish many areas in DJ had featured scripted camera angles like those in God of War (or even Ratchet, DJ's big step-brother), as there are sections of this game that are needlessly awkward. When floating around on moving platforms, you'll have to babysit the camera, tapping slightly in the direction you need to face (but not moving so much as to fall off the edge) and then hitting the manual camera adjust button. A simple jungle-gym structure early in the game, with three platforms stacked askew to each other, became a nightmare to keep track of as the camera spun around and bumped off of the walls.
DJ has a bunch of platforming moves to help him stay on his toes, but some of techniques in his bag of tricks work against him as much as to his favor. The helicopter spin with the scythe, for instance, pushes him off of walls -- if you're trying to do a wall jump and get your timing too far off, you might find yourself pushing into a pit rather than up where you need to go. DJ can also use the scythe as a hook to grab onto ledges, but the same button used to grab is used to shoot down with a diving attack, so if you're spinning through the air and try to grab a ledge, it's easy to miss and dive right into the ravine if the camera isn't right. Not all of the control is tight here, and the scythe becomes notorious for missing ledges that you needed to grab or not hooking onto swing lines and hooks that are in your path.
If DJ had charmed us completely with its characters and story, we might have overlooked some of the more awkward parts of the game -- the control is often there, it's just unforgiving and unbalanced. But while we were pleasantly surprised by the Death Jr. comic book, the game that inspired it is mildly disappointing. Looking at the box, you'd think that storytelling in DJ would have been a priority, but there are very few moments where the story is given time to play out. There's an opening CG sequence, there are a few super-quick sequences showing DJ's friends when they're saved (but nothing of them interacting with DJ after saving their lives), and there's an ending animation. Outside of that, you get some occasional text break-ins where DJ is talking or somebody is talking to DJ, but those exchanges are few and far between. Your friends can be found hanging out in the hub world once you've saved them, but they don't have much to say to you if you try talking with them (especially Dead Guppy, but that's the joke there.) There's never really even an explanation as to who big baddy Moloch is -- you see hands stealing souls, you see your friends lifeless and encased in tentacles, and suddenly you're off to go fight demons until you end up meeting the dude with the hands.
In the graphics department, Death Jr. isn't the cutest kid on the block, but it does have its charms. It's a good thing that DJ is 75% combat, because that's when the game is looking its best. The enemy creatures lack definition in textures (everybody is either red, blue or brown, usually with a white face), but in masses, they make an impression. Especially when you come across the giant ogre-like creatures with masses of tentacles swinging about, these creatures look nice and mean. The framerate is always able to stay smooth even with the screen filled, and the draw distance stays as far as you can see (enemies will spawn in a flash as you enter a room, but pop-in isn't a problem, and often creatures will spawn and attack so far off in the background that you won't be able to target them until you get closer.) The look of the game world as a whole, however, rarely really gels -- there are times that the twisting hallways of a room or skewed angles of a neighborhood give you the kind of creeps that this game should, but more often, you're staring at bland lava textures and repeating theater signs that weren't all that amusing (or legible) the first time. It's meant to be a Tim Burton fantasy world, but the color palette and texture detailing doesn't distinguish this game world from other platformers aside from the fact that dark purples and blues are used more than leafy greens and sunny yellows.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved