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As I’ve stated on many occasions, when I purchased my PlayStation Portable, I only had eyes for Grand Theft Auto. However, even though Liberty City Stories may have been my first game, that doesn’t mean it was the first one I looked at, or was even interested in for that matter – quite the contrary. While it’s true nothing motivated me to purchase the PSP quite like my beloved sandbox series, in the six months or so before GTA hit Sony’s mighty little, a number of titles caught my eye. Among them, a humorous-looking (in a black comedy sort of way) platformer called Death Jr. really stood out. While the game didn’t exactly receive glowing reviews upon its release it attracted me, in part because of its resemblance to Edward Gorey’s (or, if you prefer, Tim Burton’s) work and its oh-so-unique story. In the game, you play as Death’s son as he tries to make it in a new school, make new friends and, hopefully, not destroy the world...you know, the normal growing pains. Though I unfortunately never did get around to playing the first game, when the chance came to review its PSP sequel – the aptly named Death Jr. II – I didn’t turn it down...but I’m still not sure if that was the right decision.

In Death Jr. II: Root of Evil, you once again play as Death’s titular son, but this time you also have the option of playing as one of his schoolmates, Pandora, a pasty young girl whose fetish for opening locked boxes wreaked hell in the last game. Sadly, though, this is another one of those cut and paste options as I noticed no real difference in the story no matter who I played with...but that does make this next part somewhat easier. While on a field trip with their friends – Smith and Weston (conjoined twins), Seep (a deformed baby that lives in a sort of specimen jar), Stigmartha (an anxiety-plagued take on stigmata) and Dead Guppy (a, uh, dead guppy) – DJ (as he is often referred to) and Pandora (who they just call Pandora...go figure) begin to fight over a strange cocoon high up in a tree. When they accidentally knock it down and crack it open, they inadvertently free Furi (a sort of demonic send-up of Batman-villain Poison Ivy), who encased herself in there until she could increase her evil to its max potential with some sort of malevolent enhancement formula. Right from the start, Death (Sr.) is kidnapped and placed in a cocoon of his own, so it’s up to DJ and Pandora to put an end to this evil menace.

Death Jr. II

Making it to the titular "root of evil" is easier said than done, thanks in part to some noteworthy level design and, more often, unpolished controls. Almost everything in this game is designed around DJ’s scythe or, in Pandora’s case, a skeletal whip, as they use it to hook themselves on ledges, hooks and wires, to twirl across large gaps and, of course, attack a myriad of foes. The game also uses a lot of weapons, though you’ll rarely use them in a puzzle solving capacity and they are more often simply meant to attack more dangerous foes from a distance and get a few laughs. While I’m far from saying this game’s construction awed me, I think some of the levels in Death Jr. II are certainly deserving of kudos. Though you’ll no doubt see familiar elements, sometimes the developers showed true brilliance in the game – a sort of misshapen brilliance that, on rare occasions, is even enough to rival the sleeper hit Psychonauts. Unfortunately, that same brilliance is often overshadowed by the ability to "cheat" your way through some of the more difficult challenges (though you likely miss out on the energy needed to purchase weapon upgrades and new moves) and cheap deaths.

Now, some of you may be saying, "a pound’s a pound, whether it's feathers or gold," but for me, a handful of enemies suddenly materializing and launching rockets the moment you land on a tiny precipice over top of some instant death drop or chemical bog hardly constitutes the same enjoyable challenge as a room that requires you to use every move in your repertoire to grab, swing, twirl and slide your way across a series of moving platforms and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, the former is much more present, so you’ll likely spend a lot of time needlessly dying until you can finally manage to make a mad dash towards a larger area...usually with only a scrap of health remaining. Thankfully, checkpoints and health are fairly frequent and you’ll usually find some (as well as ammo) after each major feat, so even if you die right afterwards, you’re still good most of the time. Including the bosses, there are only a couple dozen or so levels in the game (which you can revisit at any time), and each are of a decent length and puzzles are fairly obvious. So just when you start to wonder when the gauntlet of enemies and tricks will end, it usually does, making the pacing perfect for a portable title.

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Posted: 2007-06-07 07:55:25 PST