Dead Head Fred is an ambitiously large action adventure game that puts you in the role of a private investigator who has fallen on a bit of bad luck. Specifically, you've crossed the wrong bad guy and he's cut off your head. But of course, that isn't the end of the story. You're given a batch of new heads to use, each with their own unique abilities. Wackiness ensues in a long adventure that is undercut by unintuitive level design and poor combat.
The main gameplay mechanic involves head swapping. You'll start out with a brain in a jar that you can wear on your neck, but you'll also get a tiki head, a corpse head, a mannequin dummy head, and a handful of others. Each has its own unique abilities, so you'll find yourself swapping them around quite often using an easy radial menu. For example, the dummy head isn't used for combat, but wearing it lets you talk to humans, who are comforted by your smiling visage. By contrast, the corpse head lets you suck up loads of liquid and spew it out like a cannon, which comes in handy if you need to put out a fire.
The heads also figure into the combat, where certain enemies use attacks that can be countered if you're wearing the right head. But most enemies don't seem to bust out their big attacks very often. Instead, they gang up on you and quickly chip away at your health while you try to pound them long enough to stun them. After being stunned, you can rip off an enemy's head with the triangle button. If things get too heavy, each head has special attacks that can sometimes clear a path for you by hitting multiple enemies, but you can't use the special attacks frequently enough to depend on them. This all adds up to a real hassle that leaves you dead over and over again because you don't have a ton of health. Also, your basic attacks aren't good enough to quickly stun anything, leaving you wide open to attacks from behind while you swing away on even the most basic enemies.
The game is large, with a lot of different areas and things to do. The game's areas are usually cordoned off with doors or other long passageways, giving the game time to load up the next area. During that time, it sticks you with a door-opening cutscene, then a load screen, then, finally, the next section of the game. No one individual load is particularly long, but there are so many spots where it stops to load that it really has an impact on the pacing of the game. As you make your way through, you'll encounter shops and folks that could use your help. Shops let you get rid of the junk you tend to find on the corpses of your enemies, while the people you meet give you side quests. You can also play pool, pinball, or even engage in a cockfighting minigame.
But the bulk of the game focuses on the weak combat and simple navigation of areas, which is harder than it sounds because it's often tough to tell where you're supposed to go. The game's camera is slow to move, which can often obscure key details, such as a hole you can enter while wearing the shrunken head that shrinks you down to mouse size. One shrunken area puts you in a saw mill, where you'll need to climb a spiderweb and make a blind jump over a ledge. Then, once the camera gets around to rotating, you'll see a set of gears up to which you can jump. The game has a bit of manual camera control, but you can only use it when you stop moving and hold down the block button, so it's not especially helpful.
Most of Dead Head Fred looks really good for a PSP game. There's a variety of combat animations, while the different heads and some suits you get along the way give your character a series of different looks. At the same time, the game sort of feels like a shrunken console game because objects that would be a snap to pick out on your TV can get a little lost on the small screen. The bulk of the audio consists of some scattershot music and some nice voice performances. The script, though, could have been better. It comes off like the game was written then someone came in and sprinkled every other line with needless expletives. Not that we're saying there's anything wrong with swearing, but most of it comes off as a lazy attempt to make the game feel edgy.
It's a shame that so many different parts of Dead Head Fred come up short because underneath all of the mess is a really neat game with plenty of variety and a decent sense of style. But you'll have to look past a lot of issues, big and small, to actually enjoy it. Only patient souls need apply.