Death Jr.
Reviewed by Michelle Thurlow
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2005-09-01 PSP Action/Adventure T (Teen) Konami / Backbone

It's a likely story: Death Jr. (DJ for short) and his equally ghoulish classmates are on a field trip to the Museum of Supernatural History when his sweetie Pandora insists on causing mischief. With his jaded teacher's back turned, DJ and his pals open an ancient cursed artifact, unwittingly releasing a horde of evil demons who take over the museum... and steal his friends' souls.

Although DJ initially considers contacting his father for help, he quickly dismisses the possibility, figuring that it would be best to keep the old man out of this. It's like what Mom always says: whoever made the mess should clean it up. Unfortunately, rescuing his friends requires DJ to brave and conquer clearly the wildest, weirdest, most monstrous frontier of all: his friends' minds!

DJ's objective is to warp into his pals' warped minds searching for three broken and scattered magic puzzle pieces - similar to the perennial quest to reunite the Triforce medallions in the eternal Legend of Zelda series. When reassembled, the Psyche pieces animate his friends' bodies and bring their spirits back to life. Well, except for Dead Guppy.

Death's brat is evidently quite the chip off the old block, in the sense that he too is a soul reaper, complete with scythe, somber cloak, and shuffling footsteps. Killing demons and collecting their souls allows DJ to open "eye doors", granting him access to further stages in a level. A bit like Spyro the Dragon meets Dead Like Me.

But don't be fooled by DJ's continual reliance on his gigantic sickle on a stick; Death Jr.'s gameplay focuses on blowing away enemies that descend on you in droves like mosquitoes on a sweaty camper. Your friends Smith and Weston (naturally) are the weapons experts of the game who reward you with new, usually more powerful guns as you collect subsequent Psyche pieces. Once you've unlocked an artillery item in the game, you can upgrade your armaments with the Widgets you've found both hidden in and strewn openly across the game's different levels.

The game's enjoyable soundtrack includes predictably hyperactive Danny Elfman-like melodies in addition to more typically mellow platformer scores. Sound effects are great as well; DJ's cloak swooshes when he walks and his scythe clangs rather realistically when he strikes it against the stone and steel elements of his environment.

My reaction to the game's graphics, though, was a bit more mixed. On the positive side, DJ and his friends look great, suitably cartoonish with animated, expressive facial features. Well, except for Dead Guppy. No wonder comic books and other merchandise have been inspired by the character styling of DJ and his cabal.

On the down side, I encountered quite a few instances of clipping and pop-up in the game, which normally don't bother me unless they make me miss-time my jumps or divert my attention unnecessarily. Also, the graphics are quite dark, literally speaking, even with the brightest screen setting on the PSP, causing me some eye strain.

Incidentally, Death Jr. was the first handheld game I've played using an analog joystick, which was a good experience generally. The analog stick is an unobtrusive little button below the D-pad on the PSP that most people will mistake for a mini-speaker grille. Controlling DJ via the thumbstick is usually quite intuitive, except when using it to target an enemy. I found it rather difficult to move my crosshairs in first person view using the thumbstick, as I seemed to budge too much or not at all. This makes picking off enemies out of auto-target range quite frustrating, especially when distant demons are spitting laser bullets at my bony skull on rapid-fire.

Ultimately, shooter fans bored of figuratively donning military fatigues or fulfilling orders to liquidate an alien mother ship may want to consider making a date with Death Jr. This is a title for those who love difficult challenges and a dark sense of humor. And for a little taste of it, you can try the C4 Hamster game at the official site.

Having said that, not everyone will appreciate Death Jr.'s macabre style. Besides all the demon-slaying and soul scarfing, there is a character aptly named Stigmartha who bears stigmata wounds on the palms of her hands that bleed when she's nervous. My advice for those unsure if Death Jr. crosses a personal boundary is that you locate a store willing to lend you a copy of the game (not all game rental franchises carry PSP titles, apparently). That way, you can decide for yourself if the game's themes and sense of humor are to your taste.

Special thanks to Stephan Krause at Guerilla PR and Konami for providing a copy of the game.