Death, Jr. Review

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Graphics: 8.5
Sound : 8.0
Gameplay : 7.0
Multiplayer : N/A
Overall : 7.6
Review by Andy Levine
As the name implies, Death Jr. follows the tale of the infamous Grim Reaper’s son on his quest to rescue the souls of captured classmates from the clutches of an evil power. While the concept behind Death Jr. is inspiring, gamers will be left yearning for something more the entire time. Its mixture of platformer and third-person shooter holds considerable potential, but unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot of gameplay development throughout the relatively short single-player campaign.

The foundation beneath Death Jr. doesn’t initially seem like the perfect recipe for a PSP action game. The miniature version of Death—commonly referred to as DJ by his peers—is somewhat of a mischievous child at school. While on a fieldtrip to a museum, DJ wanders off with a few friends and uncovers a mysterious chest. When he busts the lock with his oversized scythe, an evil spirit is abruptly released, which then steals the life from everyone except DJ (the fact that he’s Death’s son obviously saving his hide). Being the noble hero that he is, DJ decides he must take it upon himself to save his friends and destroy the life-stealing malevolent spirit.

After learning all of this during the opening cinematic, DJ must use then special powers and weapons to overcome hundreds and hundreds of zombie forces, as well as a few peculiar bosses. In the beginning, DJ comes as a standard hero with a scythe for melee attacks, as well as pistols for ranged attacks, though new weapons are unlocked upon individual level completion. This extensive arsenal includes Freeze Guns, Rocket Launchers, and even Hamsters strapped up with C4 explosives. Each weapon comes in handy during different situations; the Freeze Gun can be used to slow weaker enemies, while the Shotgun is effective at taking down some of the larger baddies. The directional pad switches weapons, but doing so will leave your thumb off the analog stick and DJ vulnerable to attacks. Instead of always trying to find the right gun for each zombie, DJ’s scythe packs quite a punch.

As the game progresses, DJ can learn new moves with his scythe to get himself out of hairy situations. Sweeping the scythe in a roundhouse motion protects against being surrounded, while perfectly timing a slash can deflect ranged attacks. A vast array of collectibles are scattered throughout the game world, each offering a special benefit. Certain widgets can be collected to learn new moves, while others can be used to earn extra lives. However, armament aside, there isn’t much of a central storyline on offer here, and everything is pretty straightforward. DJ’s friends lost their lives, so he must go and save their souls. From that point on players are free to wander the museum looking for friends to rescue while battling incessant baddies. Occasionally, DJ utters witty remarks regarding his situation, but most of the game’s humor is subtle and only noticeable if you’re really looking for it. Any gaming title consisting of all of these characteristics is certainly promising, but the emergent gameplay mechanics truly separate the men from the boys.

Death Jr. would easily be one of the best games to hit the PSP if not for some distinct gameplay quirks. As previously mentioned, this title blends both platformer and third-person shooter elements into one UMD. For the most part, the game’s third-person shooter aspect is somewhat basic but effective. Pressing the ‘R’ shoulder button prompts a lock-on to the nearest target, and pressing ‘L’ switches between desired targets. A tiny green crosshair is always on the screen to show exactly where DJ is looking, but the primitive camera often makes accurate aiming near impossible. Tapping the ‘L’ button centers the screen behind DJ, but even this is not enough to resolve the camera’s deeper issues. The camera has a tendency to roam about on its own, making it difficult to maneuver around platforms. And, when facing enemies, if an aerial foe flies overhead it can take a perilous moment for DJ to turn around, often resulting in severe health damage. While locking-on to a target and strafing is practical enough in its implementation when targets are closely situated, it is rather difficult to fight your way out of 360° of mayhem.

Apart from viewing problems, the battle system itself is somewhat bland. Aiming by using the crosshairs is both difficult and ineffective, so most of the game is likely to be completed by simply locking-on and tapping the fire button. Combo points can be earned for completing attacks in succession and for being a gruesome killer, but this only results in a better overall mission rating at the end of each level. Despite the rather shoddy battle system, the platform features help diversify the gameplay. DJ can perform a variety of abilities to maneuver around dangerous obstacles. He can perform the Helicopter Scythe to hover across large gaps, use his scythe to climb to higher ground, and even perform wall jumps in close quarters. Unfortunately, the camera insists on interfering and spoiling the game’s platform elements as well. Instead of having a fixed camera option behind DJ, the view rotates around our hero whilst in midair. Jumping from one platform to another is hard enough, but having to use the PSP’s tiny analog stick to compensate for the camera angle will surely result in many gamers fighting the onset of frustration.

Saving during the middle of a level clears your current progress, as does wasting all of DJ’s lives. Dying at the end of a mission is extremely aggravating, and some type of implemented checkpoint system would have made Death Jr. a little less stressful in that regard. In order to proceed through the levels, a certain number of rescued souls must be obtained by killing zombies. A seemingly endless horde of enemies always seems to follow DJ around, making the game a real challenge, even from the very beginning. Although there are a handful of notable problems with this title, it’s still easy to become hooked with the excessive violence and massive beatings that Death Jr. has to offer. Slaughtering wave upon wave of zombies will find its place in any gamer’s heart, but a few recurrent bugs do prevent Death Jr. from being an outstanding title.

There isn’t much to boast about in the audio department, but nonetheless everything seems to flow together nicely. Considering the PSP’s limited hardware capabilities, most titles are going to sound a little weak without the direct use of headphones or some other piece of enhancement equipment. DJ’s scythe emanates a strong slashing sound, while each gun carries its own distinctive blast. There is never a moment of silence during missions; raging enemies or ferocious traps are prolific and add a defined sense of life to proceedings. Most of the plotline narration is text-based and solid, yet it would’ve been preferable to hear actual voices delivering the story. The soundtrack consists of a single spooky but uplifting beat that never seems to end. It certainly fits well with the tone of the game, but a little variation in background music would have been a plus. Even though the sound effects aren’t exactly state of the art in their execution, the audio experience in Death Jr. is unquestionably memorable.

The visual delivery is also nothing spectacular, but it manages to achieve what the developers set out to do. The character models are highly detailed, from the grimy head of DJ to the gaping tooth-filled mouths of his enemies. Unfortunately, the level designs are rather bland, and a stirred feeling of déjà vu may soon occupy the back of your mind. Almost every environmental object is destructible, which more than makes up for some repetitive features. The game’s most impressive visual feature is its particle effects, including the flames of savage fires and the blistering chill delivered from the ice gun. These effects come to life before your eyes, partly due to the PSP’s naturally bright screen, but mostly because of the vibrant colors. Still, Death Jr. has its fair share of camera bugs and minor glitches, which actively detract from the impressive aesthetics, otherwise there would be hardly anything on show to complain about.

In conclusion, the PSP’s Death Jr. is certainly a respectable title considering the relative dearth of PSP games currently on the market. Despite the abominable camera problems and ensuing control hiccups, there are still plenty of entertaining moments to make up for the mechanical follies. If you’re a casual gamer looking for an odd adventure where you kill practically everything in your path, then Death Jr. is the perfect game. However, some veteran gamers will not appreciate the maneuverability issues. All else aside, Death Jr. rises above the realms of the average game, and it’s definitely worth a rent, if not a purchase.