Death, Jr. 2: Root of Evil
Considering the overwhelming sense of 'meh' that accompanied the original Death Jr PSP game it's a bit of a surprise to see the character return for a sequel. Way back when the PSP was first shown to the waiting world Death Jr was one of the first games to appear blinking into the daylight, it's PS2-esque graphics meant it attracted a certain amount of hype and expectation in a world where proper 3D on a handheld was still a novelty. Unfortunately, upon release it became quickly apparent that despite an impressive graphics engine the game hanging off it wasn't much to write home about, solid enough with its fair share of control niggles but generally uninspiring pretty much summed it up. So, not exactly the overwhelming initial success franchises are built on, but here we are almost two years later with a sequel, Death, Jr. 2 : Root of Evil.
Boot the game up and as with the original, first impressions are good, from the cartoon look and feel of the menus and the short but amusing CGI intro to the first look at the game proper, everything oozes build quality and comes wrapped up in a visual style that's best described as Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas re-mixed for a younger audience with a more colourful pallet. The game starts with Death (senior) being captured by an evil she-creature who goes by the name of Furi. Having unwittingly caused this catastrophe Death Jr (DJ to his friends) and best mate Pandora set off to make things right. Unfortunately, despite this promising setup and an array of entertaining characters the game itself is strangely story free, occasional CGI cut-scenes try to hold it all together and, although always shorter than you'd like, are generally far more amusing than you'd expect when they do crop up to advance the plot. However, the problem lies in how the rest of the game seems to bare pretty much no relation to the events depicted in those scenes. That's not to say that a strong narrative is what's needed in a platform game, it's just a little disconcerting, like watching The Simpsons and pressing pause every couple of minutes to play an unrelated level in one of the Simpsons games.
But, as we all know, a well implemented story does not a good platform game make, and once you get control of Death Jr (or Pandora if you're that way inclined) first impressions are again good. The game engine renders an impressive world and the distinctive art style translates into it nicely. However, soon enough first impressions fade, and while the game continues to look good throughout and some of the level design verges on the great, it gets progressively less and less fun to play. What's the one aspect of a platform game that needs to be spot on for the game to succeed? Pat yourself on the back and take home a gold star if you were thinking 'the controls'. You'd have thought it was obvious, so it's unfortunate to say the least that Backbone Entertainment have managed to make controlling Death Jr frustratingly twitchy and counterintuitive. It's a real shame and ultimately it's what turns the game from being potentially good into decidedly average. No gamer in this day and age wants to be attempting the same jump ten times in a row because they were a pixel out on take off each time or to have to jump at the same ledge four or fives times before finally hooking onto it despite having not done anything noticeably different when they finally do. The lack of any kind of context sensitive controls is frustrating too. We've got used to other games and their user friendly single 'action' button that triggers the relevant action depending on whatever we're next to, not so Death Jr, the button combo (yes, combo, why have one button press for simple moves when two will do) to grab and climb up one rope is annoyingly different to the combo needed grab and slide down another. It just smacks of bad design, and considering these are some of the same problems that strangled the fun out of the original it's unforgivable that they weren't addressed this time round.
Not content with making controlling your character more of a chore than it should be, combat too gets repetitive after a few levels. Never really getting away from the simple swipe away at enemies with your scythe and they die routine, sure there are combo's to be earned and used but really the whole thing is just another exercise of bash bash bash repeat until dead gameplay with no real sense of skill or even influence at times. There are some guns on offer too, to break up the scythe action, but you soon realise the enemy AI has a very small 'sphere' of sight and all the inclusion of projectile weapons means is that you can sit at the very edge of an area without properly entering it and waste the majority of the bad guys before they even notice you're around. If you've got a friend, or more importantly a friend with a PSP and a copy of Death, Jr. 2 you can team up and play the whole game through in co-op mode which is a nice touch but it doesn't take away any of the problems and there is no real sense that you're getting anything new out of the experience by playing it with someone.
To be fair, despite my moaning there is nothing fundamentally bad on display here, and despite the niggles I've mentioned the whole thing is playable enough, its just so overwhelmingly average that those niggles overshadow proceedings far more than they would if they were to be found amidst large portions of innovation and excellence. Unfortunately, despite a genuinely well designed central character and a delightfully surreal sense of humour it's now two failures out of two for the Death Jr series. By managing to bring most of the failings of the original along for the sequel Backbone Entertainment have wasted the work they've done to improve other areas. It's a shame as the quirky sense of fun that runs through the whole experience deserves to be in a much better game than the one it has ended up in. In fact, take Backbone Entertainment's art department and drop them into a developer like Ready At Dawn (the guys who made the superb PSP platformer Daxter) and you'd have a fantastic game on your hands, as it is Death, Jr. 2: Root of Evil is as blandly middle of the road as games go.