Talk about losing your head. In Dead Head Fred, a newly announced third-person action adventure game from D3Publisher of America and developer Vicious Cycle, you literally wake up without your head. Of course, they don't exactly sell new heads at the local Wal-Mart, so instead you have to steal the heads of your enemies and use them as your own. It's a morbid concept that's presented with a heavy dose of dark, sarcastic humor. We recently played through an early demo of the first level in the game, and it looks like it's shaping up to be a unique adventure for the PlayStation Portable.
The titular hero of the game is Fred, a private investigator in the town of Hope Falls. There's bad business afoot in town, though, because a ruthless mob boss by the name of Pitt has moved in and bought up all the businesses in town, using them as fronts for an array of illegal activity. To power his empire, Pitt built a nuclear power plant, but he cut corners and all kinds of toxic waste began to poison the town. Eventually, all sorts of crazy mutants and zombies infested the place, turning the once quaint slice of Americana into a nightmarish landscape of death and destruction.
You take control of Fred, and it's your job to stop Pitt and save Hope Falls. But things aren't quite that easy. For one, Fred was recently resurrected after being decapitated, and he can't find his head. Also, since his head holds his brain, which holds his memory, Fred can't remember anything about his past. For the time being, he uses a brain in a jar in place of a head, and sets out to get revenge on the one person in town who could be responsible for his current predicament. It's your basic story of revenge with a morbid sense of humor and an abundance of campy horror themes thrown in for good measure.
The game is a third-person action adventure title that revolves around the mechanic of collecting and using a wide array of different heads. As Fred, you can literally rip the head off of any enemy you see and then use it in place of your own. For each head that you use, you get unique abilities. There are nine heads in the game, and because each head influences everything from the way you move to the way you're able to interact with the environment, it's almost like being able to switch between nine separate characters on the fly. The levels are designed to take advantage of the unique attributes of each head, and there are plenty of puzzles in the game that require specific abilities to solve.
To rip the head off of an enemy, you simply press triangle to grab the enemy, and then a series of three button icons appears on the bottom of the screen. If you press the buttons in the right order, you'll rip off the enemy's head. You can then assign a different head to each of the four face buttons on the PSP. While playing, you can switch heads by holding the L button and pressing the face button that corresponds with the head you want to use.
The first level in the game required the use of four of the nine different heads in the game. The stone-idol head is a heavy head that you can use as a clubbing implement or battering ram. This head makes you move slower, but since you're heavier, you can do things such as sink to the bottom of a lake. At one point, there were a bunch of disembodied arms pushing at us as we walked along an edge. With any head other than the stone head, we were quickly pushed off. But, thanks to the added weight of the stone head, we were able to move across the gap with ease. We also had to use the stone head to solve a few puzzles. In one area, a torrent of water stopped our progression up a ramp, but by using the stone head to smash a few nearby valves and release the water pressure, we were able to open up the path.
The default head is the jar head, which is just a glass container with some green fluid and a brain in it. This head is useful because you can move around fairly quickly and nimbly, and it regenerates your health while using it. There is no permanent heads-up display on the screen, but Fred has a backpack with a light that changes colors depending on how much health you have left.
We played around with a corpse head as well, which isn't nearly as gross as it sounds. The corpse head is covered in rotting flesh that is apparently very pliant and stretchy. In one area, we had to suck up some air and float over an obstacle and then suck up some water and use it to douse a fire. You can also suck up gasoline and turn your head into a makeshift flamethrower. You get a special attack when you use the corpse head that lets you belch out nasty death breath known as "hellitosis," which damages your enemies.
The final head that we used was the shrunken head. As you can imagine, the primary function of this head is to make you small. It's not especially effective for combat, but it can be helpful when you need to squeeze through a small opening or walk on a narrow platform. We used this head to skate across a wire between two buildings.
We didn't get to see it, but according to the developer, there will be a scarecrow head in the game, which will let you summon crows that can then be used as projectiles. Also, you can light the scarecrow's straw head on fire and then throw flaming crows. The rest of the heads are still a mystery, but in addition to the nine heads, there will apparently be nonpermanent heads as well, which you can collect from enemies and use for a short duration before they are expended.
All of the heads in the game are upgradeable. Since Fred is a corpse, he uses worms to regain health. However, worms are also used as a form of currency in the game, and you can use them to purchase new abilities for each of your heads. One possible upgrade for the corpse head is the ability to suck up gas and use your head as a makeshift flamethrower.
In the demo that we played, there was an even mix of platforming, meleeing, and puzzle solving. The combat consists of button mashing and head ripping, but you can throw in some special moves to take advantage of particular weaknesses certain enemies may have. Also, you can use the heads in conjunction to pull off combos. For example, you can let out a belch with the corpse head, and then quickly switch to the stone idol head to pound the ground and fan the fumes toward distant enemies.
In addition to the platforming, meleeing, and puzzle solving, there are several minigames to keep you occupied in Dead Head Fred. There is a fishing minigame in which you can catch various fish to sell to the local sushi chef in exchange for worms. There's also a music minigame that you can discover at Consensual Sax, a local jazz club. If that isn't seedy enough to satisfy your tastes, you can bet on cock fights as well.
All of the levels in the game are arranged around a central hub, so you can play the levels in any order that you want. But, since the heads are unlocked gradually, it seems that you will have to play through certain areas before you'll be able to access others. Acquiring new heads gives you incentive to replay levels that you've already completed to explore new areas and discover new secrets. According to the developer, there will be bosses to contend with in the game, although there won't necessarily be one boss for each level. One of the early concepts we saw of a boss character was Lefty, the right-hand man of Pitt. Lefty is missing his right leg but has an interesting crutch made out of a tommy gun, which he can quickly level at enemies if he needs to let some lead fly.
Dead Head Fred has a dark sort of retro-futuristic style that's equal parts Stubbs the Zombie and Beetlejuice. The level that we played was large and full of interactive objects. You can knock down telephone poles, set off car alarms, climb fences, smash water pipes, suck water out of fire hydrants, and more. There's plenty of gore in the game, too, as it's expected to get an M rating. You'll see a fountain of blood when you decapitate an enemy, but for the most part, the violence is portrayed in a satirical light, like an Itchy & Scratchy cartoon. For the most part, the behind-the-back camera gives you a pretty good view of all the action on screen, and as you move, it automatically adjusts to keep your perspective oriented in the right direction. You can use the D pad to manually adjust the camera, but during our time with the game, it was only necessary to do so a couple of times.
Based on what we've seen so far of Dead Head Fred, it's shaping up to be a unique and offbeat action adventure game for the PSP. We're interested to see how the dark sense of humor and the interesting head-swapping mechanic will develop as the game progresses. It's currently scheduled for a January 2007 release, so be sure to check back for more information on Fred's many heads before then.