Publisher: D3Publisher of America
Developer: Vicious Cycle
Release Date: August 21, 2007
After a promising showing at last year’s E3 event, D3Publisher of America’s Dead Head Fred seemingly vanished from the scene. Thankfully, unlike its protagonist, Dead Head Fred has not been beheaded, nor has it lost the sharp-edged humor that made it stand out in the first place. Games often pick up notable voice actors to cover their various faults, but the addition of John C. McGinley (“Scrubs”) as the voice of private investigator Fred Neuman really seems to bring gravitas to a character that none of us should be able to relate to.
Mainly because he doesn’t have a head. Well, not a permanent one.
Things had been going swimmingly for Neuman, but when he got a bit too close to the shady dealings of mob boss Ulysses S. Pitt, he lost his head – quite literally. Neuman was beheaded and dumped in the toxic waste behind Pitt’s nuclear power plant. Luckily for headless Fred, Dr. Friedrich Steiner found the body and worked his scientific magic to bring him back to life. Now, with a special apparatus designed by Dr. Steiner, Neuman can swap domes at any time, with each offering a special ability that will help him on his quest to take down Pitt. But when Steiner is kidnapped for withholding Neuman’s brain, Fred must take a detour to rescue the man that gave him another shot at justice.
We were able to play the first half-hour or so of Dead Head Fred at a recent D3PA press event, and it gave us a chance to take in the extensive prologue and get a taste of how the simple (?) act of switching heads affects the gameplay experience.
Dead Head Fred is, at its core, a third-person action title with a heaping helping of button mashing, finishing moves, and some light platform hopping to boot. The basic brawling is instigated with the square button, which initiates a combo, but once started, the player can also work in attacks with the X button (usually the jump button). When an enemy is significantly worn down, the triangle button can be tapped to grab the enemy and claim its head. While the general brawling seemed simplistic, the enemies can read your actions and will block extensively should you rely on one attack or a noticeable pattern.
Some heads will give the player an advantage against specific foes, but the swappable heads really come into play when solving puzzles. The puzzle segments in Dead Head Fred do not take you away from the varied environments that make up the standard gameplay; rather, they make use of those environments to challenge the player to make use of Fred’s head-enabled abilities. For example, one segment trapped him in a room with furniture ablaze and no way to get out. The solution? Use the Corpse head to suck up water from the fish tank and put out the fires, thus opening up the locked door. Simple, right?
One can only expect the puzzles to get more complex as the game progresses and all nine of the heads are unlocked. Eric Peterson, president of Vicious Cycle and creator of Dead Head Fred, gave us a few hints of what to expect from the various heads. The human head, which appears to have been pulled from a mannequin or dummy, allows Fred to converse with other humans, while the stone head lets him break through weak walls and push heavy objects. Of course, his “standard” head (a water cooler jug filled with green liquid and his original brain and eyes) has its own special ability: temporary invisibility. All of the heads can be upgraded over the course of the game, so that shaky, short-lived invisibility becomes very stable and long lasting as things progress.
In our short playtest, we mainly got a sense of what was happening with the larger, more concrete elements of Dead Head Fred, but Peterson filled us in on some of the quirkier aspects of the experience. Fred will rely on a series of special juices to gain additional abilities, but obtaining these juices isn’t always as simple as finding or buying them. Worms can be pulled out of the ground and juiced, but they can also be used in a fishing mini-game. Using these worms (along with dynamite and other kinds of bait) will allow Fred to catch different kinds of fish, which can presumably be sold or traded in for special goods.
That’s kind of a roundabout way of telling you that Dead Head Fred is very focused on giving the player options and rewarding ingenuity. Peterson also told us about rocks – plain old rocks – that can be found within the game, but these rocks can serve a greater purpose. Head on down to the in-game Laundromat and toss those rocks in the washing machine. What comes out? Diamonds! Little things like that are bound to give the game lasting appeal, as Dead Head Fred promises a bevy of playable mini-games. Most sport amusing names like Consensual Sax, Gran Ratismo, and The Feather Doom, but familiar concepts (pinball, billiards, cockfighting) form the basis for many of these, albeit with a quirky spin.
Peterson predicts that a straight run-through of the game will take upwards of 15-20 hours, while an extensive sampling of all that the game has to offer may stretch that experience beyond the 30-hour mark. Our time with the game was limited, but Dead Head Fred shows a heap of promise, pairing an amusing premise and storyline (including sharp voice acting all around) with expansive gameplay options and real desire to offer a worthwhile, long-lasting experience to handheld gamers. Between Dead Head Fred and Jeanne d’Arc, the month of August may signal a shift towards original, compelling content on the powerful portable platform. Here’s hoping, at least.
Preview by: Andrew Hayward
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