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.
As frightening as the notion of the grim reaper conceiving a child is, Death Jr. is a great idea for a platformer hero.
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.