Rating: T (Teen)
Developer: Backbone Entertainment
Release Date: 08/16/2005
Death. It comes for us all, and the fearful spectre has been represented time and time again in countless video games, in both male and female forms. The most popular use of Death is the ol’ Grim Reaper, and Death Jr. focuses on another member of the family…namely, Death’s son, nicknamed “DJ.” As kids are wont to do, DJ went and screwed up royally, and he’s gotta fix things before Death comes calling for him. And since Death is his father…imagine how much trouble he’ll be in! Bummer.
While his Grim Reaper dad is off at the office, DJ is on a school field trip to a museum of supernatural history. He and his friends split off from the group, and begin exploring on their own. DJ’s got quite a motley crew with him: there’s the Seep, a limbless freak floating in a capsule of formaldehyde; Stigmartha, a girl who bleeds from her hands when she gets excited; Smith & Weston, a pair of nerdy twins joined at the head (literally!); Dead Guppy, the hardcore rockin’ party animal of the group; and last but not least, DJ’s love interest, the goth cutie Pandora. They all need to find something interesting to write a report about, and wouldn’t you know it, Pandora manages to find a magical box that no one has ever been able to open. Even she can’t open it, so the group gives up…all except for DJ, that is. He breaks out his trusty scythe, and splits the lock off the box with a single slash.
You can see where this is going.
With the box open, demons are unleashed, and they steal the souls of DJ’s pals, shattering them into pieces. With Smith & Weston providing armaments (he survived by hiding in the bathroom), DJ must use the weapons at his disposal to fight off the baddies and save his friends. Convenient that the museum had an emergency case with dual pistols in it, huh…complete with a sign stating “In Case of Emergency, Break Glass.”
Death Jr. is essentially a retelling of the classic “Pandora’s Box” tale, albeit with a cute widdle Death-child. And because the kids dig it, Pandora herself is oh-so-goth. While the basis of the story is relatively solid, it serves simply as a means to an end. There’s no big surprises or revelations to be found; it’s a simple good-vs-evil tale, and has a generous helping of the appropriate clichés.
The character models in Death Jr. are very good, indeed. DJ, his friends, and his enemies are rendered beautifully, right down to DJ’s rattling teeth and the demons’ claws and spines.
Animation is nice, too, with extremely rare instances of slowdown. Still, the only time you may see this happen is when there’s more than twenty to thirty enemies coming after you. Not a real problem at all.
The only thing that hampers the graphics is some of the environments and lighting. Some textures are rather bland, and worse, sometimes you can barely see! Granted, Death Jr. is meant to be a “dark” game, but when it’s hard to see ledges you’re meant to jump on, or where walls end, it can get rather annoying. The camera system makes this issue a lot worse, but we’ll get to that shortly.
Death Jr.‘s soundtrack is great. The music sounds like it came out of a Tim Burton film; it’s creepy, upbeat, and really seems to belong in a gothic cartoony game. In fact, the music’s likely the best part of the entire game! The sound effects are pretty good, too, but nowhere near as good as the music. You’ll often find yourself humming the tunes to yourself. Just don’t do that in public, or people will think you’re weird.
CONTROL & GAMEPLAY
The gameplay in Death Jr., sadly, is extremely derivative and generic. If you’ve played other third-person action shooters, like Ratchet & Clank, then you know exactly what to expect. Unfortunately, severe camera problems and a few control issues shove Death Jr. below those other action games.
The museum acts as a central hub, with warp gates to the various levels branching out from it. As DJ retrieves the soul pieces, more and more levels will open up. Each level is structured much the same as the others: fight your way through hordes of enemies, and nab a soul piece at the end. Sometimes, there’ll be a boss to fight as well. Even though DJ’s dad is the real Grim Reaper, our hero’s got some reaping abilities of his own; every time you defeat a foe, you’ll absorb their soul. These are used to open multiple walls that block your path in each level, and if you get more souls that you need, you’ll rack up bonus points.
As far as actual combat is concerned, DJ has a few options available to him. For close range, you’ve got that giant scythe; as you progress in the game, you can unlock extra moves and combos, which make the scythe much more useful. When enemies are further away, though, you’ve got firearms to deal with them. You’ll start out with your basic dual pistols, but you’ll acquire more weapons over time, like the requisite shotgun, flamethrower, and so on. The best weapons of the bunch are the C4 Hamsters. The diminutive rodents are apparently a suicide cult, and they’re all too happy to aid in your cause. Setting one of them loose elicits a cackle of glee from the little critter…right before it runs into an enemy and blows it to kingdom come. Beats hand grenades, doesn’t it?
Often, you’ll be using your ranged weapons much more often than your scythe; while the scythe is indeed good for close-ranged combat, you’d do well to pick off enemies before they can get close. While every weapon except the pistols has limited ammo, extra packs of ammo are spread liberally around each level, so running out is only a temporary problem. Plus, you can search levels for widgets; these will let you upgrade your weapons to cause more damage, use less ammo, and so forth. Besides widgets, there’s health extenders (collect four at a time to improve your resistance to damage), and Pandora Assists. The more of these you get (and the more combo points you rack up when beating down enemies), the more times you can call in Pandora to help you. This is your standard “deal out a load of damage in one big shot” move.
This all seems well and good, but the crappy camera almost completely ruins the game. The only control you have over the camera is the L trigger; pressing it will center the camera behind DJ…usually. Sometimes, if you’re in a corner or too close to a wall, it won’t even work properly! When you’re running around levels, the camera will auto-follow DJ, and that’s usually okay. Once a large number of enemies accost you, though, you’ve got problems. Often, when DJ gets knocked back by a particularly powerful hit, the camera will follow, but at a very poor angle; now you can’t see where your enemies are coming from! Reorienting yourself leaves you wide open to further attacks.
The camera complicates more than just combat. When you’re jumping from platform to platform or swinging around on hooks and poles, the fact that you can’t adjust the camera on the fly will often make you mistime jumps or miss what you were jumping for in the first place. When you have to do your jumps all over again, it’s frustrating. When it causes your untimely demise, it’s beyond irritating.
There’s a ton of items to collect in Death Jr.; after you beat a level, you’ll get a report card. This card assigns you grades based on how many enemies you defeated, how many combos you racked up, how many items you found, etc. More importantly, this card will tell you exactly how many items are contained in the level altogether; this way, you can go back and search for more if you know you missed some. While the camera may drive you nuts, replaying old levels to find more items (especially widgets) is essential.
Death Jr. starts out with the expected “training” levels, where you’re shown how to fight with your scythe, lock on with weapons, strafe, dodge, and perform special feats like wall jumping. Once you’re done there, the game guides you to the first “real” level, and as you beat that and successive levels, more open up. While you can generally tackle them in any order, Death Jr. usually makes it clear which ones you should head to next based on your current status and what weapons you have. But all the weapons and skill in the world won’t save you from that horrible camera; sometimes, you’ll simply be overrun by enemies, or worse, you’ll get quickly killed by foes you can’t even see.
Pandora’s Box? Nothing new. Third-person action shooter? There’s insane amounts of those. What saves Death Jr. from really bottoming out here is the character design. DJ and friends were obviously a labor of love, and the designers did a great job creating them and their individual quirks. If there’s ever a Death Jr. 2, let’s hope they don’t screw with the characters while fixing the gameplay.
Sorry, that damn camera kills it. While many levels are a lot of fun, there’s always a few instances where the camera gets so annoying that it almost becomes a chore. Death Jr. is a game best played in short installments, otherwise you risk your nerves becoming too frazzled.
It’s no secret that PSP owners have been starved for games. Plus, Death Jr. was originally supposed to be a launch title. Hype has been rather high for this game, and even though it kinda falls flat, third-person action shooters are an incredibly popular genre. Many a PSP owner will pick this up; there’s been a hell of a marketing campaign to accompany it, so I can easily see it catching many a gamer’s eye. Plus, since the whole goth trend has always been an “in thing” with the high school crowd, that’s a huge boost to that entire gaming demographic. Stereotypes are useful!
Gamers who preordered Death Jr. were given an extra treat: the “limited edition” package. This included a foil edition case, two custom UMD cases, and a mini CD-ROM containing the game’s soundtrack, plus the original Death Jr. comic book; both of these can be downloaded to your PSP so you can enjoy them on the go. In fact, the comic was specifically designed to take advantage of the PSP’s screen, and looks fantastic. Little extras like that enhance the overall experience of the game. It’s just a shame the game couldn’t stand well enough on its own.
Control & Gameplay: 4/10
Overall Score: 54/100
FINAL SCORE: 5.5 (AVERAGE)