You'd think that a game starring the plucky young son of the grim reaper himself would make for a creatively macabre affair. Such a character would warrant a dark, Tim Burton-esque universe, perhaps some off-kilter but subtly funny gameplay mechanics, or even just a mere modicum of personality. Sadly, Konami and Backbone's Death Jr. has just about none of these things. Death Jr. starts off showing a measure of promise but quickly degenerates into a frustrating and dull hybrid of a third-person shooter and a platformer that manages to do neither concept well. What's especially unfortunate is that you'll find sprinklings of a great game concept all throughout Death Jr.'s relatively short storyline. It just never successfully delivers.
In the weird world of Death Jr., DJ (as the pint-size bringer-of-all-things-death is affectionately referred to) gets up every morning and goes to school, just like any other kid. Of course, his classmates also happen to be characters of equally twisted upbringing, such as the stigmata-sporting chick Stigmartha; DJ's gothic kewpie doll of a love interest, Pandora; and Dead Guppy (who, wouldn't you know, just happens to be a dead guppy). As the game opens, DJ and his class are on a field trip to the local museum. The kids eventually separate from the group, heading off to explore and cause mischief. Eventually they happen upon a mysterious chest that purportedly cannot be opened. To impress Pandora, DJ cracks it open, only to unleash a horrific power that captures several of the crew, robbing them of their life force in the process. Realizing that something has to be done, DJ sets out to save his friends and put the bad guy back in the box. He'll have to do it without anybody finding out about the trouble he's caused though, as his father would kill him, apparently--and when your dad's Death, you take that threat seriously.
All this transpires over a period of about five minutes in the opening cutscene. After that, the whole thing just derails, thanks to a complete lack of attention paid. You go through the motions, getting back the pieces of your friends' life force, restoring them, and eventually fighting the last boss. There's barely a middle here, let alone an ending. What little story exposition there is isn't even voiced--all you get are some text pop-ups that don't even go to the trouble of putting the face of who's talking next to them. There's no humor to speak of, no whimsy, no wonder, nothing. It's just a blank slate of a storyline, made even more frustrating by how cool these characters are in concept.
The gameplay has only slightly more depth. Though Death Jr. appears to be a pure platformer at the outset, you'll find that much of the game is really a third-person shooter, trapped in a platformer's body. It's more comparable to something like Ratchet & Clank than a traditional platformer. DJ's main attacks include a series of guns--which he earns at the end of each level--and his trusty, oversized scythe. The scythe packs a solid punch against the many demons that populate each of the game's worlds, but after a while, you'll want to trade that thing for as many ammunition-based weapons as you can find. The middle-to-end portions of the game rely heavily on overwhelming you with powerful enemies to maintain some level of challenge, and it manages to succeed. It can be pretty tough getting through some of the later stages, especially if you don't rely heavily on DJ's guns.
DJ can shoot everything from electric bursts to hamsters with C4 strapped to them. Some of the weapons are great (and perhaps even a little on the overpowered side), whereas others are completely useless. Either way, every level in the game is littered with copious amounts of ammo for all your guns, so you'll never have to worry much about running out of ammo for your favorites. You may have to worry about trying to switch between weapons, since you have to do it via the D pad; this forces you to take your thumb off the analog stick, meaning that you can't move around at all when trying to switch guns. Even with the most powerful weapons, and some of DJ's other special attacks--such as a fairly useless defense shield and a big, sweeping special attack, courtesy of his friend Pandora--it's still easy to get overwhelmed at times by the number of enemies coming after you, not to mention how rough-and-tumble a lot of them tend to be. Bosses, on the other hand, are rarely that hard to fight, assuming you can figure out how to beat them. Undoubtedly you will, though the solutions are sometimes rather opaque--so it might take a few tries. Of course, you'll have to play through the whole level over again if you run out of continues, as the quicksave feature evidently doesn't save single-level progress (it just spits you back out into the main hub world if you have to reboot for some reason). Considering how frustrating some of the levels can be, that's really annoying.
When you're not running and gunning, you're jumping and swinging from platforms in Death Jr. The core platforming controls in the game are actually pretty tight. DJ handles OK, and some of the moves you can pull off--like a little double hop with the scythe and a scythe helicopter spin that lets you float slowly to the ground--work pretty nicely. Other moves, though, don't work intuitively. Trying to use the hook-swinging mechanic, for instance, is troubling, since you'll often inadvertently pull off a different move if you don't time the jumps exactly right. Wall jumps and the like are similarly frustrating. They might be less so, were the camera not such an archaic piece of junk. To move the camera, you have to turn DJ in the desired direction and then press the L trigger to snap it behind him. That's fine when you're just standing around doing nothing, but if you're trying to jump around timed platforms or deal with swarms of enemies, then the time you have to spend trying to position the camera becomes seriously obnoxious.
Similar to the storyline, Death Jr.'s presentation comes off as rather stilted. The graphics engine the game employs isn't half bad, providing some nicely detailed characters and environments. In fact, the models for the main characters are definitely the visual highlight here. DJ, with his tiny, somewhat awkward stature, is an inspired design. It's fun to watch him walk around as he tries to carry his gigantic scythe. Unfortunately, the enemy designs are less impressive, as are the game's levels. Every world, despite having a somewhat different theme, pretty much looks the same--which is to say, bland. The enemies aren't interesting, nor are most of the bosses. So, it seems like most of the artistic creativity went into DJ and his friends, and the rest of the game got left out in the cold. At least the frame rate is steady. There isn't much to the game's audio, beyond the scant bits of voice acting that appear in the even less frequent cutscenes, a lot of goofy but acceptable sound effects, and music that all sounds like one dull track. It's not a half-bad track, but what feels like one looping beat over an entire game is pretty tiresome.
As periodically intense and initially charming as Death Jr. can be, the whole of the game isn't engaging. The fact that there's no real storyline or charm to latch onto makes the unremarkable gameplay and presentational components that much worse--not to mention how short the whole adventure is. Hopefully, DJ and his pals can one day star in a game that gives them some personality and a captivating adventure, because Death Jr. offers them neither.