Developer: Vicious Cycle
Release Date: August 28, 2007
In recent years, the action/adventure gaming genre has seen some of the most innovative progress. It has evolved gaming into more of an art form than the insipid, mindless offerings doled out by other genres. Psychonauts and Ico reached a level of sheer brilliance and originality of concept but have unfortunately been passed over by many gamers on their way to stock up on copies of Halo 3. Dead Head Fred may not quite reach the artistic or cult status as the aforementioned titles, but it stands out from the crowd by offering original and stylish storytelling with wit, depth and hilariously funny voice acting.
In Dead Head Fred, you take on the role of Fred, a private investigator who suffers from the rather major handicap of being killed and decapitated by the mob boss he was investigating. Not to let such a minor infirmity slow him down, Fred is rescued by a local mad scientist who is able to reanimate his body, sans the actual head, by keeping his brain alive in a jar of liquid.
Apparently, being dead and headless has some advantages. Throughout the game, you acquire new heads that can be swapped at any time whilst playing. Each head possesses individual abilities, strengths and weaknesses, which will prove vital in Fred's quest to avenge his death and reclaim his lost head.
You aren't alone in this quest; a creepy cavalcade of characters aide you by selling you items, giving you various missions to complete around the town or even fashioning new heads out of those you ripped off of unfortunate adversaries. Your enemies in Dead Head Fred possess almost as much depth of character and comic intuition as Fred; listing some out of context, there is a necrophiliac voodoo priestess, the mob boss's "right hand man" named Lefty due to the size of his left arm and a wise-cracking headless horseman. The whole game is incredibly well thought-out, and even though it takes the recently deceased hero in a new and more adult direction, the title feels an awful lot like Medieval. This comparison limits Dead Head Fred's originality, since there are glaring similarities between the two games' comedic styles and characterizations.
Another problem with Dead Head Fred is the idea that it's an "adult" title and meant to reach a more mature gamer. Although there is a substantial amount of violence and gore in the game, the difficulty curve is on par with learning to juggle jelly, so it seems like overkill to rely so much on cursing to tell the story or create a comic atmosphere. Medieval managed to make me laugh without going to an almost Tarantino-like level of swearing, and I cannot help but think that removing it completely would open up the title to more gamers without losing the comic effect.
Dead Head Fred has an incredibly easy-to-use, pick-up control system. Combat is controlled by the Square, and the X button creates combos and only delivers minor confusion to the gameplay when the X button suddenly decides to double up as jump. The menus are easily accessed through the left shoulder button, and changing heads couldn't be quicker or smoother through this menu if it tried. The right shoulder button handles blocking and is also conveniently linked to panning the camera around, meaning you do not sustain extra damage whilst fiddling with the view point. This compensates well for the PSP's lack of dual analog sticks.
Unfortunately, the praise for the controls stops here. Fred suffers from the same maneuverability issues as many other action/adventure games, like Tomb Raider. The movement feels far too loose, and often when you are not pressing anything, Fred will start sprinting off into some imminent danger or precarious situation, leaving you to smash your console in frustration. Aside from a few controller issues, Dead Head Fred runs remarkably smoothly; combat is a tad repetitive at the beginning until you start fighting the later enemies and unlock newer and more powerful heads. Later fighting against throngs of enemies becomes almost ridiculously difficult, so it's a good thing that you can purchase many powerful and diverse head upgrades.
Gameplay is nothing if not diverse. There are plenty of mini-games to keep you amused, like pool, pinball, fishing, and even finding and collecting radioactive worms that can be used to purchase upgrades to the different heads. With the variety of enemies, heads and even head upgrades, Dead Head Fred offers gamers a chance to change their styles throughout the game so that it never feels stilted or repetitive.
Even though there is a detailed introduction to get you used to the controls and different heads, the difficulty of the game ranges from challenging to PSP-smashingly ruthless. Enemies can be dispatched fairly easily with newer heads, but if you get caught by more than one at a time, it can lead to a very short life expectancy. I can understand how this title is intended for more mature gamers so you don't need to be handheld through every puzzle, but sometimes, no direction is given at all, forcing you to spend hours looking for a path or a switch so mind-numbingly obvious yet easily overlooked that you kick yourself.
The playing and replaying of sections Dead Head Fred to look for items, new heads or extra missions more than compensates for a lack of multiplayer; in an age where the "wireless multiplayer functions" seem to be unnecessarily tacked onto otherwise incomplete single-player games, it is refreshing to see a title strive for and achieve single-player excellence.
Graphically, this title is very well assembled and presented in a fashion which clearly shows D3's commitment to bringing a comically noir-looking game to the market. It does not lag, the edges look defined and not nearly as jagged as Medieval's PSP debut, facial and cranial expressions are detailed and play a key role in creating comic effect, and animations are fluid enough to identify enemies and allies from their movements alone. This is not the greatest looking game on the PSP to date, but it is competent and lives up to expectations; the detail on character models is especially important in this respect for capturing some of the slapstick tongue-in-cheek comedy on which this title plays so heavily.
The title's reliance on audio is not misplaced; the voice acting is superb and offers great performances from the voice of Fred, John C. McGinley (Dr. Cox from "Scrubs"), whose sarcastic fast talk epitomizes the character. Aside from the magnificently scripted dialogue, effects such as running water, fiery explosions and groans of zombie adversaries are all captured adequately enough to complete the gameplay experience. The soundtrack is hardly inspiring, but when you're listening for the next funny quip by Fred or any of the side characters, you don't want to be drowned out by an epic chorus.
Dead Head Fred is genuinely funny, well written and simply fun to play. All of this should be more than enough to overlook a few minor bugs in the control system and gameplay. It isn't groundbreaking, but it is innovative to the point where the story is actually intrinsic to the gameplay. The title is varied so it never feels stale and presents a challenge to even the most seasoned adventure gamers. Even though this may alienate some less experienced players, the "Mature" rating means that the target audience will be able to quickly pick up and master the gameplay. Dead Head Fred is a breath of fresh air in an industry that is essentially based on generic titles, so no matter how you look at it, you won't lose your head by purchasing this title.
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