Okay, here’s the premise for Dead Head Fred: You’re dead, you have no head, and your name is Fred. Clever, ain’t it?
Well, to be fair, we’d have to expand a little bit. I would also be a little skeptical about a title on the PSP that wasn’t a PS2 port or a tired iteration of a franchise, personally. But, that’s the thing about original titles: Originality. And Dead Head Fred by Vicious Cycle is about as original as they get. Part exploration, part puzzler, part platformer, part brawler, and one of the most charming games on the PSP to date.
Oh, and the main character, Fred Neuman? Voiced by John C. Freakin’ McGinley, who you may better know as television’s other lovably cynical medical practitioner, Dr. Cox of Scrubs fame, which, by its own merit, should compel you to go out and buy this game. But! On to the review.
So, story. The game takes place in the town of Hope Falls, a down-on-its-luck residential community that has gone to hell ever since a certain Mr. Ulysses Pitt, mob boss and “Nukular Power” entrepreneur, installed a power plant and turned the town into his own playground of opulence and crime. You are – or were – Fred Neuman, a private dick who was bent on removing Pitt from power, until you ended up paying for trying to take on a mob boss with a long hit list and a short temper. After you’ve been whacked, your head cut off as a trophy and your body dumped into radioactive sludge, you find yourself suddenly sentient thanks to the meddling of Doctor Steiner, a disgruntled Pitt employee and mad scientist, who has rather unceremoniously decked you out with a jar for a head. This, however, grants you the power to switch heads on the fly, but also results in a bad case of amnesia.
So you set out to right some wrongs and recover your past, and, hey, why not recover your thinker while you’re at it? While the impetus for your quest seems fairly generic (rid the world of the baddie, rescue the girl, remember your past), it eschews (or completely flips) plenty of potentially mind-numbing plot twists, often in hilarious ways. Keep in mind that Fred, in more ways than one, is a dick. He really doesn’t care for mercy, consequence, or convention, and that’ll be made painfully apparent by the game’s end (and, hey, the ending ain’t exactly cookie-cutter either).
That being said, the game, much like the protagonist, has a bit of an identity crisis. The key gameplay element is that Fred, after encountering and decapitating new enemies, can bring the heads to the local creepy graveyard attendant/Head Shop franchise owner Sam Spade, who will retrofit the noggin to fit the titular hero, and allow Fred to use the head in a variety of ways. The more heads you accumulate, the more you’ll be able to do. Certain heads serve better in combat than others (more on that in a moment), and all have special abilities that allow you progress through the game. For instance, the Skull head allows you to scale meaty growths on walls, the Mutant head resists radiation, and the Zombie/Corpse head allows you to fill your head with all manners of liquids and gases (useful if you want to suck up some air to float to a far-off ledge, siphon gas, or get water to put out a fire). The bad news is that this can potentially lead to a lot of backtracking when it comes to exploration if you want to do EVERYTHING the game has to offer (once you have new heads, you’ll realize you’ve passed some areas in which they can be implemented), but the good news is that, besides being refreshing, switching heads around and observing their effects (you even change your behavior, like adopting a shambling lurch when equipped with the zombie head) is actually pretty damn fun, and works great as a gameplay element. It also allows the game to throw every manner of genre at you, since some heads are more apt for combat, while some are multi-purpose and work well for puzzles, and, for the most part, both are pulled off surprisingly well.
The game has you doing a lot in any given area. Some areas are more puzzle-oriented, usually involving novel use of your diverse array of craniums to get the job done, such as, say, using the shrunken head to reduce your size so you can get into crawlspaces and hit switches, and these are generally well executed (none of that old school Resident Evil-style ‘Find the Rooster Key’ hide n’ seek crap), albeit sometimes a bit frustrating. Some are real brainteasers, while others are just a matter of knowing where to jump to and what heads to equip. If you do want fetch quests, though, there are also a myriad of separate quests that you can get from civilians in addition to storyline objectives, which usually reward you with spare cash and junk items which, while usually comedic in their descriptions, are really good for not much besides selling for a little scratch.
Therein lies the exploration part of the game. Some areas of Hope Falls are purely residential, so, once you acquire the Dummy head (complete with comically overdone gestures) so people don’t freak out at the sight of you, you can wander about town accepting quests from civilians and exploring new areas (you can also just equip any other head and go around attacking civilians for fun). However, practically all of the quests are “Bring me this item”/”Kill this monster”/”Collect these parts”, and quite a few of them require backtracking. However, they’re not really necessary. There are only a few times in the game when you’ll need to spend cash, and there are plenty of other ways to get it if need be, such as minigames like fishing, pool, and mutant rooster cockfighting (okay, maybe THAT one is new), but you can usually get more than enough simply by fighting and killing enemies, then selling the stuff they drop or picking up their wallets.
And that would lead us to combat. Dead Head Fred’s combat definitely won’t be reminding you of Ratchet and Clank, where you can take on ten enemies at once with no problem. Rather, the brawler aspect of DHF is a lot more focused. Facing three enemies at once can sometimes be enough to kill you if you don’t know what you’re doing. You’ll rely heavily on blocking when faced with group combat, and effective timing of attacks is key. Again, the head-switching comes into play, as different heads are effective against different enemies. Each head will grant you a certain power and style of combat. For instance, the Jar head is good against bone thugs and stone idols, and allows you to go into “stealth mode” for a time to sneak around enemies, gain sneak attacks, and recover health. The corpse head allows you incapacitate certain enemies with a noxious breath, the Skeleton head allows you to fire projectiles, and the mutant head allows you to vomit on your opponents (hey, if you’re looking for Shakespeare, go play Valkyrie Profile or something). It’s an interesting game of rock-paper-scissors when fighting mixed groups of enemies, and keeps combat interesting by allowing you to upgrade your heads with new powers from time to time with the acquisition of ‘Gold Worms’. You simply need to work an opponent down until you have the ability to perform a finishing move, which decapitates the enemy and rewards you with their head, or wait for them to use a “rage attack” and reverse it with the triangle button while wearing the right head, which is a simple game of mashing the square button until you can hit triangle for the finisher (on another note, the reversal move with the Scarecrow head is totally badass). These grant you “Rage Points”, so if you’re in a bind during combat, you can unleash a rage attack that will either hit one or all enemies for loads of damage, usually enough to kill them in one go. It’s not as frantic as any Jak & Daxter imitation, but certainly has its own rewards. And don’t worry about the bosses – Each one requires a strategy independent from combat to defeat, always involving finding a way to manipulate the environment against them, so you’ll never have the old convention of upgrading an enemy character, giving him a name, and calling him a boss.
Load times, though, are sometimes a pain in the rear. Not the length – every section loads in less than ten seconds – but the sheer frequency of the loads are frustrating, mostly during exploration sections, where you’ll be moving through plenty of small buildings, streets, and rooms, each with their own individual load time. Combat and puzzle sections are bearable, as you’ll spend a fair amount of time fighting and/or thinking, but moving through exploration areas or accepting fetch quests quickly becomes a nuisance. Sewer portals are available in plenty of locations to assist transportation to far-off areas, so having to trudge across the entire game’s landscape to backtrack is unnecessary, but larger or continuous loads within cities would have been very much appreciated.
Alas, not all is well in DHF. While the controls are responsive enough, the lack of a second analog stick is, again, a blow to the controls. The game is shot from ground level; while you can always zoom in to first person mode to look around, it’s a lot more difficult to maneuver the camera during combat or platform segments, the former because the camera can only be manipulated while blocking (assigned to the R button), and the latter because adjusting it vertically in midair is an impossibility. During combat, when facing two or more people, enemies may often hide out just outside the camera’s field of vision (which is especially annoying if they’re using projectile attacks), and you’ll have to stop your attacks and block just to shift it, which can leave you open to attacks (chip damage applies). Using the R button to control the camera as opposed to offering alternate fields of vision during combat or platforming segments may have been a little short-sighted on the developer’s part (though certain sections, such as the Shrunken Head areas, do offer alternate angles from time to time), but the inconvenience is minimal thanks to a dearth of more vertically-inclined platforming areas. A second analog stick would’ve made everything much better, and while I can’t fault anyone but Sony for this oft-maligned design oversight, there were surely alternatives to the fixed-level camera. But, all in all, it doesn’t have too much of an impact on the game’s fun factor.
On a similar note, while executing combos, the X button, normally reserved for jumping, becomes an attack button. So, if you’re in the middle of a brawl and want to jump, you need to stop your combo, or you’ll simply keep attacking while trying to jump. Or you might end up inadvertently jumping when trying to start a combo and absentmindedly hitting X. Or you may end up jumping instead of fighting when your first attack simply isn’t registered. I mean, these scenarios don’t happen often, but they happen. It’s just a little bit disconcerting. It feels kind of like they were trying to pack a bit too much into the lil’ tyke.
Past these problems, though, controlling Fred is a breeze. The game even helps compensate in battle with a kind of auto-lock for attacks (but not enough to turn it into a button-masher), to make sure you don’t waste valuable rage points or other resources. It would seem that aside from a few glaring problems, most control issues were taken into account. It could’ve been better, though, without the fixed combat-and-platforming camera scheme.
Oh, my, the graphics. Now, the charm lies not within the quality of the graphics, nicely rendered as they are, but the style. It has a freaky-comedy-bizarro vibe going for it, kind of like some bastard child of Tim Burton and World of Warcraft, and it’s a perfect graphical counterpart to the dark humor Dead Head Fred prides itself upon. The atmosphere is perfect in any given area, as are the characters, and it covers quite a lot of ground, from 1920’s Chicago-style city areas, to tacky tropical-themed clubs, to nuclear sludge-ridden swamps. The animations are also surprisingly expressive. The cutscenes have the kind of character animation and fluidity I would come to expect of games like Ratchet and Clank, and seeing that kind of attention to interaction was a pleasant surprise. The graphics aren’t jaw-dropping, Monster Hunter good, but considering the scale of both games, the style-over-horsepower angle works in DHF’s favor.
Invest in a good set of headphones, because you won’t want to miss a second of dialogue in Dead Head Fred. Since the appeal of the game lies in the dark humor, Vicious Cycle went the extra mile to make DHF’s dialogue witty, entertaining, and funny as hell. This is an M-rated game, though, so the dialogue isn’t necessarily appropriate for the young’uns, but that makes it all the funnier. And, again, John C. F. McGinley!!! In all seriousness, he does a fantastic job with the humor and delivery, and the free-flowing nature of the script (and rampant, often unconventional witticisms) compliments the visual and presentational style of the game flawlessly. Let’s just say that one member of a message board which I frequent reported dropping his PSP while playing the game because he was laughing too hard at a particular phrase.
And wait until you see the Post Office scene. Oh, man.
Oh, and the soundtrack is decent, too, if not repetitive at times.
So, what else can I say about Dead Head Fred that isn’t immediately apparent from the advertising? Charming visuals, entertaining gameplay, clever puzzles, originality out the wazoo (if I’m correct with my anatomical reference to the human wazoo), and wickedly funny dialogue. There are camera/control difficulties at times, but they really won’t hinder your game experience all that much. I clocked roughly 15-20 hours in my run-through of DHF, and I recommend it wholeheartedly if you’re looking for a good single-player original IP on the PSP, especially at the $30 price point.
… And hearing Dr. Cox dropping the F-Bomb is worth the purchase price alone.
Ratings (scale of 1 to 5):
The graphics won’t blow you away, but the style is what counts here.
Great quality, and uproariously funny dialogue. The soundtrack isn’t all that memorable, but that’s hardly a knock against DHF.
The gameplay is very entertaining, but hampered by a few camera problems and short, but far too frequent load times.
There’s practically no replay value in Dead Head Fred, but the game is admittedly very fun, and good in both short bursts and lengthy game sessions.