Somebody up there must really like Death Jr., though it's anyone's guess as to why that might be. As Konami and developer Backbone's attempt to create a platformer franchise for the PlayStation Portable with a morbid mascot hero (he's the son of the Grim Reaper, you see), Death Jr. has been anything but a success up to this point, with only two thoroughly unremarkable adventures to its name. Now the Death Jr. series has made its way to the DS, and most DS owners are likely to wish it had stayed on Sony's handheld system after playing though the mess that is the Science Fair of Doom. This new Death Jr. adventure includes the bulk of the flaws found in its predecessors, and adds a few critical new ones to the mix. The result is a platformer that veers wildly between dull and angering, but never toward fun.
If you're unfamiliar with the previous exploits of the son of Death, all you really need to know is that Death Jr. is an awkward, skeletal child that goes to school just like any kid--except that because he is a supernatural being, he goes to school with a bunch of other creepy creatures, like his ghostly white crush Pandora, the shy, unassuming, frequently bloody Stigmartha, the brainiac conjoined twins Smith and Wesson, and the snarky, quadriplegic foreign exchange student who lives in a jar, Seep. In this latest tale, Death Jr. and his buddies are off to the school science fair. Each of their projects is appropriately weird, and Smith and Wesson's combo project--a rabbit with demon parts stitched to it, and a miniature nuclear power plant--combines to open a portal to some fashion of a demonic realm. Everything goes haywire, the school gets transformed into a demon-realm iteration of itself, friends get kidnapped, monsters show up, and it's once again up to Death Jr. to save the day.
The premise sounds like perfect platformer fodder, but it doesn't hold up, mainly because the game is totally devoid of personality. As neat as all the characters in this creepy kids' tale sound on paper, they never come across in the actual game. The dialogue is bereft of humor, and the characters just play the boilerplate cartoon kid roles to the hilt. All the weird gimmicks for each character are just that: gimmicks. And Death Jr. (or DJ, as he's referred to often in the game) has zero personality to speak of. This same personality problem has plagued the previous Death Jr. games, but it's even more apparent here due to the lack of voice acting and the aimless plot. It's a charmless kill-all-the-monsters romp that won't hold your attention for long--especially once you dive into the gameplay.
Whereas earlier Death Jr. games featured fully 3D worlds to hop and swing around, Science Fair of Doom changes things up, retaining the 3D models and environments, but often relegating movement through the world to pure side-scrolling. Things open up in certain areas where you need to fight bad guys, but generally you're running to the right, and in some cases, the left, though the left is typically run toward only when you're forced to backtrack through a level, which happens a little too often for the game's own good. Granted, there aren't a ton of worlds to play through, but each individual world tends to be overly long and forces you to slog through a lot of the same scenery again and again.
That might be more tolerable if the activities you had to participate in while you move through the world were actually fun, but no such luck here. Mechanically, this is a pretty basic platformer. DJ uses a scythe as his primary weapon, and has a few basic attacks that go along with it. Combat has a bit more depth to it than the average game of this type, as you're offered some combos that upgrade over time, as well as a few additional weapons, like guns and C4 hamsters. Still, combat doesn't require much effort, and, in fact, most of the combo moves can be altogether ignored. You'll need the weapons for enemies that occupy particularly treacherous areas, or to bypass certain level obstacles, but otherwise you'll just hammer on the A button or tap on an enemy via the stylus and touch screen repeatedly and bang your way through the enemies with relatively little effort.
What requires far more effort, patience, and a slightly masochistic side to tolerate is the game's platforming elements. DJ has most of the typical platforming abilities (jumping, double-jumping, hovering, and the like), and, appropriately, the level designs require lots and lots of carefully timed jumping. The problem? The controls aren't built for careful anything. To begin with, moving DJ is an imprecise process. A simple tap of the D pad left or right jerks him forward a good distance, so if you're trying to navigate a short platform, you're more likely to miss. It also makes controlling the distances of DJ's jumps that much more infuriating a process. The actual act of jumping works fine, except for any situation where you need to hook onto a ledge. DJ can use his scythe to grab onto a nearby ledge if you can't jump quite high enough to just land on it, but this mechanic is wildly inconsistent. There's no predictability about when DJ will or won't hook on, meaning you may screw up a lot of jumps just because the game can't decide which way it wants to go.
Making things more infuriating is that you'll sometimes find yourself losing chunks of progress because of this and other little quirks in the game design. Lengthy jumping sequences can sometimes see you plummeting to the ground just because you didn't hook onto a ledge, or because some enemy you killed lands on top of you when he dies and thus pushes you off the ledge. Sometimes you even have to go back a little ways to find an enemy to kill to progress. Enemies drop souls when they die, and these souls can be kept with you as you play. You have to keep several with you at once, as sometimes you'll find slingshot targets that have to be hit to progress. They're color coded to the same colors that the souls use, and you have to have a soul of the right color to make the target go. If you happen to run into one and don't have the correct color, you've got to go back and find an enemy to kill, and hope they drop the right soul. Though you can carry up to three souls at a time, this backtracking still happens far, far too often.
If you can suffer your way through the whole game, there are some multiplayer modes available once you're finished. One is just a bad breakout clone that has you moving a paddle back and forth and launching C4 hamsters at various graveyard set pieces. The other is a combat-oriented mode that has up to four players blasting away at one another in either standard or team-based modes. Neither mode is very good, but if nothing else, they're more entertaining than the main game. Actually, that's just kind of sad.
Science Fair of Doom does have one thing going for it in its graphics engine. Though the art style is as bland as bread and water, the core graphics look decent. All the 2D/3D hybrid stuff is neat looking, and the game runs fairly well. Animation is relatively smooth, as well. But again, the art just isn't up to snuff. All the environments are loosely modeled to be demonic versions of typical public school rooms and areas, but that theme rarely translates well. Audio is also unmemorable. The soundtrack is mindless, the sound effects are tinny, and there's no voice work at all, not even an occasional voice-over for good measure.
Death Jr. and the Science Fair of Doom had a modicum of potential to be an enjoyable platformer, but it repeatedly squanders that potential with lazy, uninspired design choices and off-kilter mechanics. It's basically playable, but why would you want to when the DS offers plenty of other, better choices in this genre?