Developer: Backbone Entertainment
Release Date: October 31, 2006
I’ve been playing a lot of old games lately, which is sort of appropriate for discussing Death Jr. In a way, it’s a very retro sort of game, which reminds me of nothing quite so much as Earthworm Jim.
It’s not that the two games have a damn thing in common, really, but they use similar approaches. The action onscreen is actually nothing particularly new, but it has a quirky sense of humor that’s meant to pull you along regardless. It’s a solid plan, and a lot of the time, if the game’s funny enough, it actually works.
That’s the only reason I can think of why the original Death Jr. managed to do well enough to get a sequel. Backbone crafted a great character with a funny, memorable supporting cast, then gave him an idiosyncratic arsenal of high-impact weaponry. The C4 hamsters alone would’ve been enough to make a game worth playing (ahem).
Unfortunately, Death Jr. was also one of the first PSP games, and thus had serious control and camera issues. Like a lot of early PSP titles, it seemed to have been designed with a second analog stick in mind, but was trying to get along without one. Predictably, this did not work out well.
Death Jr. II remedies a lot of problems the original had. It’s much easier to control, and provides a couple of handy and innovative features that work very well for a third-person shooter on the PSP. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, it’s very much a generic action-platformer that’s redeemed by its storyline and characters. DJ should be in cartoons or a series of movies, and it’s a bizarre bit of miscasting to make him the star of a game.
Like the original game, Death Jr. II is a demented 3D action-platformer starring DJ, the middle-schooler son of the Grim Reaper. This time, his sidekick and fellow playable character is his friend Pandora, a girl his age who has a thing about opening boxes. In short, Pandora is a trouble magnet, and she gets the game started by accidentally freeing a creature called the Furi.
The Furi is a plant-based sort of demon, who promptly captures DJ’s father, thus disrupting the natural cycle of death and threatening the world. It’s up to DJ and Pandora to figure out a way to seal the Furi away again and save the day.
Both DJ and Pandora are playable, and use more or less the same moves and weapons; DJ uses his scythe, while Pandora wields a whip. You can jump, hook onto branches, slide along ropes, and collect energy orbs, which are the currency of Death Jr. II. These moves allow you to fully explore the bizarre worlds you’ll have to travel through, such as a toy graveyard.
The original Death Jr.’s camera problems have been addressed in this game by adding a helpful lock-on system, which can be turned on or off very easily. With it off, DJ moves like a standard platformer hero, and will run in the direction you push the analog stick in. With it on, DJ starts to strafe and backpedal like he’s in a third-person shooter. The system essentially allows you to change Death Jr. II’s genre at a moment’s notice, and it’s a remarkably elegant solution to the PSP’s control shortcomings. Hopefully, more games will take a cue from this as time goes on.
By finding various parts, you can construct and upgrade more bizarre weaponry to make your game easier, ranging from dual pistols to the aforementioned C4 hamsters. Most of the weapons are devastating or morbidly hilarious, which goes a long way towards keeping the player’s attention.
In fact, keeping the player’s attention is probably the game’s major issue. Death Jr. II is, at the end of the day, a by-the-numbers 3D platformer with occasional collision detection problems. For example, hooking onto an overhanging branch with DJ’s scythe may or may not work depending on your positioning, the angle of your jump, sunspot activity, your current blood sugar level, the price of tea in China, and how long it’s been since a major celebrity did something stupid in public. There’s no predicting whether or not DJ’s more advanced platforming moves will actually work when you need them to, which is troubling.
On top of that, there really is nothing in Death Jr. II that you haven’t seen before, unless you’ve never played a 3D platformer before in your life. It’s a little like Ratchet and Clank, and a lot like the host of mascot-themed platformers -- Spyro, Blinx, etc. – that have shown up on every system under the sun. The gameplay is fairly solid, making it a good example of the formula, but it’s still formulaic.
This is the kind of problem that you only tend to have with a game if you play a lot of games, though, thus making Death Jr. II the kind of game that reviewers tend to go off on without any real reason. There’s nothing wrong with a well-executed version of a formula, unless you’re a huge fan of the genre and you’ve played most of the other games that draw upon the same tropes. Death Jr. II at least has a solid cast, great voice acting, a unique world, and more imaginative art design than any given half-dozen other games, which goes a long way towards concealing its faults.
At the end of the day, though, the collision detection is enough of a problem to dock it a few points. A platformer with unreliable platforming isn’t anything I can seriously recommend, which relegates Death Jr. II to bargain-bin status. It’s not a bad buy if you’re starved for action on your PSP, but you should know what you’re in for first.
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