Death Jr. has always been just shy of reaching his potential. As one of the first games to debut for the PSP system, Death Jr.'s endearing character design and art style looked promising. Unfortunately, frustrating controls and a pesky camera system made the pint-sized son of the Grim Reaper fall short of expectations. The game's sequel improved on some of its predecessor's shortcomings by offering better camera control and weapon combat. Death Jr.: Root of Evil for the Wii is a port of the PSP sequel, and it, too, improves the formula. The new game suffers from a few poor design choices but it's still an able, entertaining platformer.
The game opens as Death Jr. and his ragtag bunch of classmates are hunting for cocoons in the forest. In their search for a biology project, they inadvertently unleash Furi, a maniacal villain who bears a striking resemblance to the Hulk. While Furi escapes and goes after DJ's dad, DJ and his gal pal, Pandora, set off to correct their mistake. It's an amusing premise that makes for some funny moments, but the storyline is rarely in focus. Expository cutscenes are few and far between, and most of the underdeveloped plot is revealed through in-game conversations with friends. DJ and his pals have a great sense of humor, and their observations of the world around them are always amusing, but great characters like Stigmartha (a girl who bleeds from her hands when she gets nervous) and Dead Guppy are underused.
Although you'll have a scythe or whip for melee combat, ranged attacks are available through the array of firearms at your disposal. DJ's creative weaponry showcases the game's twisted humor. Whether it's a flaming-toilet-paper launcher or a hamster with C4 strapped to its back, the selection is sure to give you a chuckle. Hidden throughout each of the 19 levels are spare parts that you can use to upgrade weapons, as well as orbs to collect and trade in for new melee attacks. The game sticks fairly close to the traditional action platforming conventions, so there's plenty of swinging from ropes, clearing rooms of enemies to unlock doors, and collecting various doodads. Though not particularly inventive, Root of Evil's time-tested formula is still fun.
You can play as either Death Jr. or Pandora, whose move sets are almost identical. Cooperative play is also available through a split-screen mode, but you'll need a separate save file to play with a buddy. The multiplayer mode is really no different than playing by yourself because the story and gameplay are identical. The only advantage of playing with a friend is having an ally to help mow down the hordes of enemies that the game throws at you.
The PSP version of Root of Evil was plagued with poor controls and a terrible camera system that resulted in far too many cheap deaths from offscreen attacks or misjudged leaps. On the Wii, the control scheme has been significantly improved by implementing subtle yet effective motion sensitivity. Flicking the Wii Remote adds some occasional (and much-needed) variety to the melee combat, but the real value of motion control is in ranged attacks. Holding the Z trigger engages sidestep mode, in which aiming and camera control are relegated to the movement of the Wii Remote. The screen automatically scrolls depending on where you aim, and you're still free to move your character with the analog stick to avoid being attacked. Outside of sidestep mode, the camera can be centered using the C button or rotated with the plus and minus buttons. Although you'll still fall victim to the occasional offscreen enemy fire, frustration is much more limited.
Style has always been a selling point for the series. Environments are filled with personality, and enemy designs are varied and imaginative. Whether you're tackling homicidal teddy bears in the cemetery for dead toys or doing battle with Louie the Llama in his World of Waffles amusement park, the bright colors and unique style help to set a playful tone. Unfortunately, graphics that were a technical marvel on the PSP two years ago are not nearly as impressive on the Wii. Jagged edges and occasional screen tearing mar an otherwise pleasant presentation. The soundtrack is an appropriate blend of spooky and whimsical tunes, and the voice acting is on par with most cartoons. The sound effects are generally appropriate and not intrusive, but weapon fire and annoying grunts from DJ or Pandora sometimes drown out the music.
Despite some remaining issues, such as cheap deaths and unrelenting swarms of enemies that spawn out of nowhere, Backbone has significantly improved upon the PSP version of Root of Evil. The Wii game is a competent platformer that won't blow you away with innovative mechanics, but it's still entertaining while it lasts. Fans of traditional platforming and unique art styles would do well to give the game a try. Death Jr. has yet to fully realize his potential, but he's finally on the right track in Root of Evil.