Developer: Backbone Entertainment
Release Date: Spring 2005
D.J. is one of the different kids.
For one thing, he’s a skeleton. His dad’s the Grim Reaper, which makes parent-teacher night awkward, but more importantly, it means D.J.’s a spectre of the inevitable end of life. Plus, he’s a teenager. It’s not a great time.
Fortunately, he’s got a few friends. One of them, Pandora, is an obsessive-compulsive with a thing about opening closed boxes. One day, while they’re all on a field trip to the Museum of Supernatural History, D.J. cracks a box open to impress Pandora. In so doing, he frees the demon Moloch and his minions, thus starting the apocalypse.
Before his dad can find out what’s going on, D.J. grabs his family’s scythe and an arsenal of weapons. If he’s lucky, he can slay all the demons, gather their souls, and reimprison them before the Grim Reaper gets home from work.
Death Jr. is one of the first original games for the PlayStation Portable, and if nothing else, it’s memorably twisted. It kind of reminds me of Johnny the Homicidal Maniac (done by Jhonen Vasquez, who’d later give an undeserving world Invader Zim), in the way it nonchalantly combines humor, gore, violence, and the same nonchalantly surreal tone you get in some of the best children’s books. The above description would suggest a dark if unremarkable hop’n’bop platformer; instead, it’s a surprisingly intense third-person shooter with the occasional bit of platforming.
You control D.J. as he hunts down Moloch’s minions and captures their souls. You can take them out with your trusty scythe, which also serves as a grappling hook and swing bar, or wield a variety of firearms. You begin with simple twin pistols, but you can also get a rocket launcher, mounted machine gun, freeze ray, flamethrower, an electricity cannon, and the ominous yet delightful C4 hamsters.
Yes, I said it. “C4 hamsters.” I think I’ll say it again. “C4 hamsters.” It’s like stroking a mink. Mmm.
Your weapons are keyed to the PSP’s D-pad, allowing you to switch between them freely at any time by pushing the pad in a certain direction. You swing D.J.’s scythe with the Square button, which is effective in a 360 arc around him. This comes in handy, since you get surrounded a lot in this game; most enemies rush you down immediately. There are life powerups all over the place, and odds are good that you’ll need them.
A lot of the time, Death Jr. is frenetic and fun, with plenty of objects in the environment to explode and lots of enemies to hack away at. Later levels add extra weapons and maneuvers, such as calling Pandora for an assist attack, multihit combos with the scythe, or the aforementioned arsenal of firearms. The final version, according to Gearbox, will have a great deal more in the way of interactive levels, and may include the ability to brutalize the cows that’re placidly standing around in the first level.
I know that’s a selling point for a lot of you. Cow-killing. It’s why we all gave Resident Evil 4 9s and 10s.
The cows in question form part of a cartoony world that slides by at remarkable speeds. You haven’t seen 3D animation like this on handhelds until now, and it could be held up with some of the better-animated PSOne games. D.J.’s world is exaggeratedly scary, with buildings that loom above you and weird eyeball-covered towers blocking you from making any further progress. There’re a lot of truly interesting visuals going on here, from the crisp shudder as you freeze a demon into an ice sculpture, to the oddly foreboding shops and taverns you pass in an early level.
It’s hard to say any more about Death Jr. from the incomplete build we played at Konami Gamers’ Day –aside from that it can be a lot of fun and it looks good – but truth to tell, it does have one serious problem.
The camera, as of this version of the game, is busted, since it gradually orients itself in the direction D.J.’s moving. It makes it hard to dodge incoming fireballs or deal with attackers at close range. This is nothing that couldn’t be fixed, perhaps by adding a strafe button or fixing the camera slightly above and behind D.J., but it’s a little annoying. To some extent, this can be blamed on the PSP’s lack of a right analogue stick, which would’ve been perfect for camera control.
Death Jr. is the initial offering in what’s going to be a minor-league media blitz. The PSP game will be accompanied by a toy line from Gentle Giant, a comic book from Image, and a feature-length movie (presumably animated). It’s easy to see why; Gearbox has come up with a great, idiosyncratic title with a memorable and unique protagonist. If they can tweak the game a bit before release, they might have the PSP’s first bona fide hit.
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