What happened? Death, Jr. was the first game ever shown for the Sony PSP, and after long delay it finally arrives in the state that I can only categorize as completely embarrassing. For starting out life as a showcase title and being one of the most visible and promising intellectual properties in recent years, the final result is so terrible I can hardly believe it.
For those who missed the media avalanche (multiple magazine features, online coverage, comic book, plush figures, action figures, and whispers of a Japanese animated series) the ubiquitous Death, Jr. tells the tale of the grim reaper's son and his class field trip gone awry. While on an outing to a museum, the little bonehead (call him DJ for short) opens a box containing an evil demon, so naturally it falls upon his shoulders to fix his mistake and put everything right.
The game can be technically described as a third-person shooter with platform elements, but I think it's best described as a huge, sucking hole of wasted potential as well as a perfect example of why the PSP should never have been released with only one analog nub.
Immediately after entering level one, I was assaulted from all sides by a horde of demons who either rushed me or sniped at me from a distance. Being the son of Death, my first instinct was to whip out the trademark scythe and start slicing six ways from Sunday. But this was the wrong instinct. The correct action? To equip my double pistols and start mashing the button like a pubescent choirgirl with a copy of Teen People.
Frankly, it took me about 15 seconds to realize that the camera completely did not work in this kind of situation. Play is shown from a behind-the-back perspective, and uses the left shoulder as a look-around while the right shoulder functions as a strafe/lock-on. This might have been serviceable in a more relaxed setting, but since the game plays like a scaled-down Serious Sam balls-out blastfest, it's nothing but trouble.
I don't understand why Backbone designed the game to play like a shooter when the character design and general appearance of the game scream out "I should be a platformer!!" With no second stick to effectively maneuver the camera, the poor visibility in conjunction with the general difficulty of the enemies meant that frustration and aggravation set in within minutes.
Camera issues aside, the fact remains that the game is simply not enjoyable—the vast bulk of gameplay consists of shooting demons at a distance in dark, simplistic environments. Killing demons enables DJ to collect souls needed to advance, but (news flash!) good video games moved away from centering on the "kill everything, move to the next room, repeat" formula a long time ago. There is simply no need to revisit that territory, especially when it's pulled off in such a technically flawed manner.
The rest of the game is equally baffling. With so much effort put into developing the characters and personality of Death, Jr., why is it not evident throughout the game? There's barely any dialogue, voicework or entertaining cutscenes, and little DJ himself comes off as a gun-toting cipher. Shoot, shoot, and more shoot, with little reason or motivation to keep going. Backbone could learn some lessons by studying more successful character action games-- and then borrowing liberally.
If there was a game with a crazier hype machine leading to a harder flop than Death, Jr. in the last few years, I'd be hard-pressed to think of it. Fable maybe, but even Molyneux's "greatest RPG of all time" had better gameplay and a smarter head on its shoulders than Death Jr.' s empty, witless, charmless noggin. If Backbone put as much work into the game as they did into puffing up their intellectual property, the PSP would have a genuine star who walked the walk as well as talked the talk. As it is, Death, Jr. is a whole lot of hot air and buzz with nothing to back it up.