Dead Head Fred PSP Review

As the government wiggles ever nearer to launching another generation of fission reactors, it’s worth reflecting on the near mystical significance which still clings to nuclear energy over half a century after its ‘unveiling’ at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The infamous three-bladed radiation symbol and mushroom cloud are icons as potent in pop culture as the crucifix and Marilyn Monroe, and have acquired the own fevered little congregation of creative devotees: filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and James Cameron, writers like Phillip K. Dick, and latterly the makers of videogames like the peerless Fallout series.

Dead Head Fred burrows into this enduring fascination and gene-splices it with Tales of the Crypt to create its own, novel breed of ghoulish noir. Fred is your average private dick, getting the lowdown on a controversial new power plant at the rotting burg of Hope Falls, only to be decapitated by local big cheese Ulysses Pitt. Fortunately for Fred, Pitt’s pet crackpot Doc Steiner takes pity on his decomposing hide and squirrels it away to his lab, where he reanimates Fred with the aid of a power drill and a jar of formaldehyde. Rather than dusting for prints, calling in favours and putting two and two together, Fred figures the best way to recover his head is to bust somebody else’s (that and a little platform hopping, anyway) and so begins another ten-to-fifteen-hour bout of stylish but well-worn action adventure shenanigans.

Rather than pick skills from some menu, Fred can swap his pickling jar for any misplaced domes he comes across in his quest and benefit from their properties. There are nine of these heads for the reaping and it’s here that the game is at its most imaginative. The Shrunken Head, predictably enough, shrinks Fred to the size of a matchbox, while the Corpse Head gives him foe-debilitating bad breath and lets him suck up and spit out huge quantities of fluid, be it water, oil or blood. The Bone Head comes with claws and a toothy ranged attack. And the Dummy Head lets Fred talk to those still among the living without causing them to throw up. Hey, a guy’s gotta be able to hang with the liddle people, don’t he?

Each of these heads comes with a grotesquely plausible parcel of animations. Don the Stone Head and Fred will stamp and swing his arms like a gorilla, while the Corpse Head gives him a hunched, shambolic gait. Enemy and NPC rosters display a high level of finish and are delightfully eccentric, running the gamut from hooded executioners and headless horsemen to skeletal mobsters and a busty voodoo priestess. Without a doubt, the character models are Dead Head Fred‘s silver bullets in the chamber.

It’s just a shame, given such a diversity of interaction options, that the adventuring is so thoroughly… unadventurous. Where a more ambitious developer might have painted broad vistas stocked with intricate, multi-dimensioned obstacles, Vicious has settled for well signposted, corridor levels and environmental puzzles which rarely require you to do more than pick the right head and whack a button. Spot a mousehole? Shrunken Head it is then. Conspicuously fragmented section of wall? Equip Stone Head and smash, check. It ticks enough boxes to keep you engaged but never overflows with inventiveness, and the platforming elements are marred by the poorly angled camera.

You’ll get the most out of your heads during combat, but despite all the different move sets duking it out is not one of the game’s strong points. You can throw punches with square and modify the ensuing combos with X to dish out knock-back attacks like a shoulder barge. Once your enemies have been stunned, smackdowns can be very messily administered with the triangle button. Holding right trigger lets you block, and right trigger plus a face button unleashes one of two head-specific unblockable Rage attacks. Your enemies will frequently wind up Rage attacks of their own, and you can counter these by hitting triangle whilst wearing an appropriate head, cue one of those QTE mash-the-button-to-fill-the-bar sequences which, hopefully, will be identified as a crime against decency once the BBFC gets shot of Manhunt 2.

It’s solid but hardly inspiring stuff and the implementation isn’t quite up to the job. The camera is even more lifeless than Fred himself and, together with your inability to lock on or strafe, makes it hard to tackle more than one opponent at once. Be prepared to get mobbed. The good Doc must have got a few wires crossed when he put Fred’s nervous system back together because X serves as both combo modifier and jump button. Mis-time your attacks and it’ll revert to the latter function, sending you bouncing backwards and forwards like Labour’s environmental policy. Oish. Dat’s gotta hoit.

The story isn’t hugely compelling either. While not unworthy of the odd chuckle (e.g. the Igor character complaining about surplus minutes on his phone contract), the script as a whole puts the emphasis firmly on the ‘ass’ in ‘wiseass’, with lots of gratuitously sweary bits, obvious puns and laboured punch lines. It’s certainly far from the worst you’ll play through, and the professional voice-acting is a boon, but it doesn’t match up to the likes of Ratchet and Clank.

One aspect which certainly can’t be faulted is the meatiness of the package. In addition to a brace of optional fetch quests, the game serves up fishing, pool, pinball and (bizarrely) cock-fighting minigames. Everything just about passes muster on the technical front, too. Loading times can be a drag, but texture detail is respectable and the frame rate is on the money. The soundtrack is a sultry medley of saxophones and acoustics.

Dead Head Fred puts me in mind of the PS2 gothfest Primal: big on atmosphere and promise, short on real ideas. When they stepped up to the chopping board, Vicious evidently had a grand ole’ winter gumbo of an action game in mind, but despite their largesse with the ingredients and laudable attention to detail, the resulting dish is neither as exotic nor as nutritious as it might have been.