Death Jr. Impressions
We have fresh hands on with Death Jr. His bones are cold!
Backbone Entertainment's PSP title Death Jr. has come a long way since I first saw it a couple of years ago when it was merely a slow tech demo, but now, as Konami is revving its engines and preparing for the game's mid August release, DJ has blossomed into an enjoyable platformer that, despite being for the most part technically sound, is hampered by a nagging issue, though this design flaw doesn't keep it from being worthy of a purchase.
When my mom caught me forging her signature on one of my tests (it was for a B, no less) I was in a heap of trouble, but that's nothing considering the mess that DJ finds himself in. The son of the grim reaper, our hero makes a huge mistake when he, while trying to impress his crush, a girl named Pandora, uses his scythe to pick the lock of a mysterious box. Unbeknownst him and his friends, an ancient evil had been dwelling inside, and in an instant this dark menace captures all of comrades and renders them immobile, all except for DJ (because we wouldn't have much of a game if that happened) and Smith and Weston, a pair of conjoined twins. To rescue his buds, DJ's got to wade through hordes of evil creatures and locate various puzzle pieces that will in theory put his friends' souls back together again.
The museum where the box is located serves as the game's hub world and it's quite expansive, though the actual levels are far more important. Located on the first floor, they're marked with the body of a single friend who's been trapped within this weird slimy stuff. Upon entering, you'll see these shining orbs, and these represent the various levels within each world, of which there are several. One is Suburbia, a quaint money town that's suddenly been inhabited by all sorts of nasty creatures. Another is a school, and another is a place called Meat World, a rather disgustingly cool locale that features images of the bovine variety and heaps of gore. Not only can you slice apart lots of monsters but stationary cows as well, unleashing a large explosion of blood and guts.
In typical platform tradition, Backbone's pumped DJ with all sorts of special moves. There's a tutorial on the bottom floor of the mansion, and when you first start playing the game will teach you each individual move as you come across specific challenges, but you don't need to learn them all in order to progress. In fact, as long as you learn how to grab ledges with DJ's scythe in order to access hard to reach places (performed by pressing X, then SQUARE), you'll do just fine. As for the rest of the controls, SQUARE allows you to whip out DJ's scythe and perform emergency surgery on his enemies, X is jump, L engages the first person camera view (you can only look around while in this mode), R targets (inconsistently), and CIRCLE fires all of the ranged weapons, of which there are quite a few. I won't completely spoil it, but in addition to wielding dual pistols DJ will also acquire a shotgun, a freeze gun, and a flame thrower, among other devices.
You earn weapons after completing levels. Each time you finish a stage you're transported to Smith and Weston's make shift laboratory, and it's here where they'll present you with a new toy (which can be immediately tested on these monsters that re-spawn in two cages outside of the lab) and/or a chance to upgrade DJ's abilities (such boosting the scythe's overall effectiveness, for example).
The game itself is fun to play, though it is a bit conventional. Aside from the imagery, there's nothing about Death Jr. that you or I haven't seen before, but most things in the game are just a lot of fun to do. DJ can romp about the levels sliding along power lines, swinging on meat hooks, and twirling over large chasms (to twirl, tap X to jump and press it again but hold it), and just like in most games in this genre, you'll want to collect stuff, whether it's extra health, extra lives, or the specific number of souls needed to move past the wall of eyeballs (you'll see) to the next portion of the stage.
Blasting enemies is just as much fun as performing DJ's various acrobatics save for one glaring flaw, that being the targeting system. Whenever you want get a bead on your opponent all you have to do is press and hold R. It works quite well in a controlled environment, but drop just one more enemy into the mix and the game freaks out. Not only will DJ fail to target nearby enemies, but he'll look at the wrong objects. Going to blast a monster that's two feet in front of me and missing because DJ locked onto a park bench or trash can is extremely frustrating. This is actually the one thing that keeps this game from being a seamlessly enjoyable experience, and since I'm in possession of a review copy (and a review is of course forthcoming), the chances that Backbone will fix this are pretty slim.
One area that doesn't need improvement is the game's visuals. I don't consider DJ to be best looking games on the PSP, but it's still pretty damn good looking. The character art that greets you at the title screen is superb, and the in game graphics don't disappoint. They unfortunately feature that washed out look that plagues most PSP titles, but the level designs are great, the character animation is impressive (I love DJ's walk), and there are a pretty decent amount of enemies, so you won't find yourself repeatedly blasting the same monsters.
I'm not close to beating the game, so at this point I won't comment on how great a platform game DJ is. However, it's one of the better games on the PSP and it's worth picking up not only because it's fun but also because there aren't many games like this on Sony's hand held. Quirky, full of style, and action packed, this is the August PSP game to buy.