As a property, Death Jr. is simply hilarious. The characters are delightfully twisted, in a sort of Oblongs-meets-Jhonen Vasquez way, and some of the humor and dialogue can only be categorized as ridiculously funny. In order to build a successful game, however, you need more than that; the gameplay has to be there, to provide the player a reason to move from joke to joke, and some of that impetus is clearly lacking in Death Jr.: Root of Evil.
Have you ever played a platforming game? Sure you have. Then guess what? You've pretty much played Death Jr. Get ready to bounce from here to there, collect items, and navigate a number of levels. There's not much more to it than that, other than the aforementioned humor ... which, unfortunately, is somewhat lacking in quantity.
Death Jr.: Root of Evil opens well. As either DJ, his friend Pandora, or both, if you're into boring a friend with co-op, you're dropped into the middle of a biology trip, and you're tasked with finding a cocoon. Your snarky friends, the conjoined twins Smith and Weston, provide assistance and tutorials via voiceover, and their helpful tips will help you navigate the first level, Morning Woods. Mostly, you jump a lot, from this ledge to that one, up and down again, by pressing A. There's no more mention of the cocoon you're supposed to be hunting, not for a long time, so instead, it's clearly time to wander around the woods and let odd yellow lights flow into you. Are they supposed to? Is that bad, or good, or indifferent? Who knows! Not you, that's for sure -- not until later in the level, at least.
And therein lies problem one. The tutorial is a bit on the thin side, despite there being a lot of tips. The issue is that too many things are left out, ostensibly due to the game not wanting to overwhelm the player all at once. A noble goal, to be sure, but there are too many unanswered questions in levels one and two, enough to drive a player to pick up the manual, only to find that it is also lacking in answers. (The little golden energy-things are good, by the way; collect a thousand of them, and pick up your first new ability -- a task that isn't as daunting as it sounds.)
But not to worry! None of those questions are a big deal, but simply oddities, so let's focus on the gameplay. For the most part, Death Jr. seems to control really well, and features an intuitive scheme that's well-mapped to the Wii remote and nunchuk. Maneuver with the nunchuk's analog stick, jump with the A button, melee with B, center the camera with C, target with Z, and the B button sudden controls your distance weapon. Some additional abilities are available, as well, and with them comes another problem. Faced with a ledge that's too high for a simple jump? Press A and then B to extend your jump and scramble onto a higher ledge. Sometimes, anyway. Shouldn't the same action at the same place always have the same result? Not in Death Jr.! Prepare to fight your way onto those ledges by repeating that jump several times.
That unresponsive move plays into another of the game's problems -- there's no clear way to navigate, and often, not-ledges look the same as ledges. It's far too easy to spend your time leaping and struggling at a ledge that really isn't. If the super jump always worked, this wouldn't be an issue; you'd try once or twice, and then give it up as not-a-ledge. But since your super jump is a crapshoot, it's too easy to spend long minutes leaping ineffectually at something, only to finally realize it isn't a way up. Just ignore the fact that it looks like every actual ledge. That means nothing! Nothing!
Other than that, however, the basic controls aren't a problem. As you gain abilities, you expand, making more use of the Wii remote and some motion controls, and they're all pretty smooth, for all the good it does you. Combat is something of a mess, with multiple strikes magically carrying you across the screen. The camera can be a bit of an issue here, too; unless you're constantly turning in the middle of a multiple-enemy fight, it can be impossible to tell where any given strike is coming from. Sometimes it's impossible anyway. Good thing the combat never gets too difficult and the heals never too far apart.
So what's left? A mediocre platformer from the PSP that's been polished, stuffed with new content, and sold at twice its original handheld price -- that's right, and almost two years later, too -- with great characters and a sense of humor that never quits. Death Jr. is firmly okay, with some extra fun in the co-op mode, but never great ... not even close.
Controls: Mostly smooth, but some problems. Combat is repetitive and boring, and it ain't helped by the repetitive enemies.
Visuals: Death Jr. actually looks pretty good -- the levels are attractively designed and the game has more ambiance than the authentic Italian restaurant down the street. On closer examination, however, the game could use a lot more difference; the little touches for a level are repeated throughout -- the same decor, over and over -- and you're limited to a few enemy types per level. See one violent piggy and you've seen 'em all.
Sound: The voiceovers are probably the best part of the game!
Story: As thin as things that are super-thin, but the characters make up for it. What were you looking for anyway, a novel? (Though we'd love a cartoon series based on these guys!)
Difficulty: Never a challenge. Even the "medium range" weapons can take the eye out of a zombie teddy bear from across the screen.
Final Verdict: 6.5/10 - the great characters, dialogue, and few cutscenes really do make up for the extreme mediocrity here, and hey -- if you and a friend like platforming, the co-op is a nice touch, but it's hardly a standout for all of that.
Wii Fanboy Review: Death Jr.: Root of Evil
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