In The Afterlife...
Still, part of me hopes that the game's unapologetic script, fantastic voice acting and hilarious bent with characters that are both clichéd yet wonderfully written will actually be enough to sell the game. If it ends up the sleeper hit of the PSP library this year, I couldn't be happier.
Mostly it's just because the game is smart. It's smart and damned funny, a fact that's owed as much to the voice work by Scrubs' John C. McGinley voicing the headless brain-in-a-vat leading man Fred as it is the writing that guided his lines. Even little touches like all the descriptions for the random items that you end up selling or trading for cash and upgrades (they boost your heads' powers, y'see) all have a kind of humor not normally seen outside of a Tim Schafer game, and it's welcome indeed.
Still, not all is rosy in Hope Falls. I don't just mean the fact that Fred was killed and beheaded by the mobster-cum-businessman that rules the city and single-handedly ruined it by building a Nukular power plant, I mean the game's heavy focus on relatively weak combat and some odd design choices in the buttons hurt the flow of the game. For starters, the PSP's shoulder buttons (which govern switching heads and items with L and blocking, countering, the ultra-powerful Rage Attacks and moving the camera with R) are a little finicky at times, leading to free hits and accidental mis-swaps of heads. The idea to use the X button for both jumping and combat was a little ill conceived -- if only because it means you can't easily escape being surrounded by enemies, which is fairly common.
There's also the issue of the camera needing a lot of babysitting. For the most part it will generally look where you need it to, but having to constantly stop and re-adjust it to make one of the game's many, many platforming jumps can be a little tedious. Still, it's less disappointing and more distracting than anything else, and given the game's breadth of puzzles and environments (there are eight all told, with plenty of sub-levels) and the way the game has you almost constantly switching between the eight heads Fred eventually pulls down and plops on keeps everything interesting and nicely varied.
In fact, there are almost as many side quests and mini-games as there are reasons to plug through the main storyline. Fetch quests for some characters (optional, mind), and everything from pool to pinball to mutant cock fighting/raising/leveling up (yes, really) are on hand to mix things up should you feel like you're slipping into a rut. Really, the only area where the game suffers is in the combat, and that's just because it tends to degenerate into a bunch of button mashing with the end result being a wake of ripped-off heads. At least in combat different heads are good against different enemies, so there's certainly a little strategy to the game.
I mentioned in our last preview that I was a little unsure about the framerate in the game and some missing handholding. Fortunately, this is one of those instances where the usual "there's still time to fix things up in the next few weeks" comment actually held true (and now you know why we use 'em). Dead Head Fred is, for all the gloomy environments, actually a pretty nice looking game. The framerate is locked in, the animations are wonderfully varied and the cutscene direction is great, giving all the characters as much personality in their movements as their voices.
Those voices, too, are universally good. Some are better than others, but not one of the performances in the game really fell short, which is damned impressive. It also means that only the sound effects and music are left to bring the audio down, and here they do a modest job of propping things up. The music is understandably somber, even a little creepy and certainly creeping, but it can get a bit repetitious. The sound effects, too, are just a little flat, but they sound much better with headphones than they do coming from the PSPs speakers (which probably isn't surprising, but I had to at least mention it).
What it all adds up to is a game that pushes the macabre as much as it does the dark humor of the game, and though it means tons of eerily green glowing streets and plenty of mottled browns and blacks (the textures of which were improved a bit since our last preview look), it all gels nicely with the character designs and the overall tone of the game. Dead Head Fred really is a unique offering, and for the most part it works very well on the PSP. Sure, there are some control issues, but the variety in tasks, the constant humor and great writing keep the game from sinking into mediocrity.
Definitely check it out, and if you do like, be sure to spread the word. We'll be doing our part too...