When it comes to launching a system, lead titles face immense pressure to be extraordinary, particularly in capturing the magic of the hardware and what it can do. Some games, like Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog accomplish this well and become legendary; others don’t fare so well and fade into the “what could’ve been” pile. When the PSP was first announced, a little title named Death Jr. was shown off as the first title for Sony’s handheld, primarily to show what the system could do. While it wasn’t a launch title, Konami and Backbone Entertainment’s ambitious game has finally slashed its way onto the portable system. Grab a scythe and your favorite shroud, because we’re hanging out with Death Jr.
Obviously, with a main character who's the son of the Grim Reaper, you're looking at a pretty unique storyline. Death Jr. starts like a typical school day, with DJ (as he's known to his friends) and his class attending a field trip to a museum. However, DJ isn't the only "special" kid in his class; there are a number of kids that are quite unique. This includes his friends Seep (a limbless kid floating in a vat), Stigmartha (who bleeds profusely from her hands when she's nervous) and his "girlfriend" Pandora, a goth-like girl with an overwhelming compulsion to open locked doors and boxes. As DJ and his friends sneak away from their tour group, they come across a mysterious box, which DJ quickly breaks open to impress Pandora. Unfortunately, his vandalism releases some ancient evil that steals the souls of his friends and trashes the museum. Like most kids with a sense of self-preservation, DJ sets out to save his friends and undo the damage before his father finds out what he's done.
As the son of Death himself, you'd expect DJ to pack a scythe for reaping, and you'd be right. He can inflict strong damage with his bladed weapon, creating a number of combos and attacks that will take care of most opponents. DJ can also use this weapon as a multi-purpose tool to grab onto ledges, grab onto hooks or helicopter spin off platforms to slow his descent. Apart from this, DJ's primary weapon will be the numerous firearms that he'll acquire throughout the game. While he'll start off with twin pistols that shoot an infinite amount of ammo, he'll quickly acquire new weapons, including shotguns, electric weapons and hamsters packing C4.
DJ will definitely need all the arms that he can get, because he'll be swarmed by enemies every step he takes. Apparently the evil that he unleashed brought along plenty of friends that claw, crawl and leap towards our diminutive hero. Unlike other platformers, where you can jump or avoid threats, DJ has to make sure he kills a specific number to progress from area to area, unlocking fleshy "Eyegates". Extra souls go towards filling up combo points and meters that he can use to trigger special attacks, which can be further augmented by breaking objects and wreaking havoc.
Or perhaps I should say that there’s been some havoc wreaked upon the gameplay of Death Jr.… For all of the development time and the demonstrations of the title itself, the game winds up a mix of creative and interesting concepts and disappointing gameplay. The idea of having a hero who’s the son of Death and his need to save a group of his unusual friends is perhaps one of the most original to grace video games. However, the storyline breaks down into a hodgepodge of thirty second or shorter cutscenes and random text pop-ups without any associated icons to the speaker or directed context of the situation. As a result, by the time you’ve gotten to the end of the game, you’re not so much interested in the story as you are in smashing buttons and getting through the next level.
This is not to say that the gameplay isn’t engaging; on the contrary, there are a number of sections that work, primarily when it’s a straightforward platformer on flat surfaces. Making well-timed jumps is another matter. Part of this is because control of DJ is not manipulated by the directional pad (relegated to switching firearms), but with the analog nub, which would’ve been better served to control the camera (more on that later). As a result, moving through some of the environs can be dodgy at best, and infuriating at worst. Expect to find yourself falling off a ton of platforms, repeating certain puzzle sections because DJ just doesn’t maneuver as well in mid-air. This is especially true given the number of ziplines and hooks that you’ll sometimes need to swing from, because just the slightest variation off and you’re going to miss your target.
In combat, you’ll notice a significant issue with gameplay balancing. The basic firearms are sufficient to deal with a number of the opponents, and while you can upgrade your arms, you don’t necessarily need to. This also extends to DJ’s special attack, which you don’t really ever need to trigger in the game, because you’ll be fine with the basic attacks. What’s more, you won’t have to ration ammunition, primarily because there’s ammo scattered liberally around stages, meaning that you can blaze away with your guns without worry. You’ll also notice that certain guns are relatively useless in comparison to others, so you’ll wind up disregarding them in favor of their more powerful counterparts. One downside with the guns -- You can’t move and change guns at the same time, which can sometimes leave you open to attack at any time.
Considering that you will be assaulted at any point, often by enemies that are off screen, this can result in constant scythe swinging just to clear a path around you until you can swing the camera around. Speaking of the camera, this is a significant step backwards for any platformer on the market. While there is a button to supposedly center the camera behind DJ, it more often than not centers the current view of the screen, leaving the perspective for DJ skewed or insufficiently angled for any jumps or fast paced battle. Considering that this also ties into the supposed strafing and first person mechanic, which works the way its supposed to about 50% of the time, it is extremely distressing to attempt certain sections without a large dose of patience. Simply put, the control of DJ should’ve been left to the directional pad, the camera should’ve been centered to the nub, and the weapon select should’ve been placed on a subscreen accessed by the start or select buttons.
It’s a shame, really, because the main character graphics are quite nice. DJ has a little bit of a waddle, which reflects his attempt to balance the massive scythe he carries, and while it isn’t a direct copy, it isn’t much of a stretch to see a little Grim Fandango influence for the character. The other kids, whether it’s the strange floating Seep character or the Gothy Pandora, look great. It’s the rest of the game that’s somewhat bland. Enemies don’t look particularly detailed or unique, and after a while you start to expect some generic enemy to shoot at you or take a swing before you return fire or impale them on your blade. Similarly, how many plain swaths of “lava” textures can we jump over before the levels belnd together in their blandness? Almost the same can be said about the soundtrack, which quickly feels like it fades into the same repetitive song over and over again, with sound effects and voice acting here and there.
I really do hope that Death Jr. gets redeemed with a sequel or an expanded console version that fixes the issues that this title created. The premise is one that should be further explored, and this could be a quirky little series that could find its place amongst other Sony favorites. However, for the amount of time that was taken in its development, Death Jr. doesn’t pay off for PSP owners at all.