Almost a thriller.
Dead Head Fred has given me schizophrenia. There are a lot of different things to say about it – so many, in fact, that's it's hard to know where to start and where to end. As a piece of writing and storytelling, Dead Head Fred is head and shoulders above just about everything else on the PSP. But when you let the excitement from the well-crafted dialog and voice-acting simmer down, and examine the gameplay with the cold hard eyes of reason, it turns into a much drabber picture. The game is constructed – all puns intended – with one too many heads.
The premise of Dead Head Fred is sufficiently unique to garner its own praise. You play as an undead gumshoe in a dystopian 50's-styled world who switches heads that give him distinct powers. Though this isn’t new from a gameplay perspective, as a metaphor for gameplay, it's hilarious and original. The player runs around switching heads to solve puzzles and fight battles – ingenious.
Visually, the game's a treat. Its screenshots look pretty good for a PSP game, but you have to see the game in motion to appreciate them. The animation quality is excellent, and there are a lot of great touches. For one, Fred moves differently with different heads on. Wear the stone head and suddenly Fred has beefier arms and stomps around, shaking the screen. Wear the zombie head and Fred moves erratically, bouncing from side to side and twitching oddly. Put on the shrunken head and Fred jumps around when idle. Wearing a new head can also effect how quick your punches are.
Cleverly crafted, the writing is full of snappy comebacks, entertaining lines, amusing characters, and bizarre situations. They weave together a highly enjoyable tale not quite like any other. The closest thing I can think of is Grim Fandango, which differs dramatically in theme and style. As a recently deceased detective, Fred is working to uncover the dirty business behind the local crime lord and business entrepreneur, his death, and the interesting changes happening around the city since the construction of a nuclear power plant, such as mutant worms and the walking dead. So Fred's investigating himself, uh, twice.
When you strip away the shock value of how Fred manifests different powers, Dead Head Fred ultimately plays like a very unforgiving Zelda game. You use various powers you pick up on your journey to solve a variety of puzzles, all while building towards a final confrontation with evil. Dead Head Fred even sports strange, distracting mini-games whose rewards give various upgrades to your powers and tools.
The strongest distinction between Zelda and Dead Head Fred is polish and severity. Over the years, Nintendo has made Zelda games into near painless experiences for both new and old to the series. Dead Head Fred does not have that luxury of experience and ultimately plays like the reanimated corpse of a Zelda game – jerkier and peculiar.
Despite being dead, Fred is curiously vulnerable to a lot of things. He apparently needs oxygen so desperately that a four-second dip in the water kills him. No joke. Fred also can't swim. Sure, the stone head lets Fred survive without oxygen, but the 'avoid the water' puzzles in the game, of which there are many, feel much more artificial and painful than they need to be.
Likewise, combat is painful. The essential breakdown is like your typical 3D action/adventure game fare. Beyond simple combo hits and power hits, Fred can perform head-specific special attacks, block, and 'rage' moves which dish out one-hit kills. There are also head-based counters, which prove to be much more awkward than just dodging incoming hits. On top of that, our jar-head friend has a glass jaw – both literally and figuratively – so he'll go down surprisingly fast if you're not careful. When you swirl all this together, you get a combat system that sounds great on paper, but really doesn't handle especially well. It does suitably enough for you to play the game and manage, certainly, but fights – especially boss fights – are much more tedious and annoying than they should be.
Another severe hit to the gameplay is how awkward some of the platformer level design turns out. There are some areas where it's extremely unclear what you're supposed to do or where you're supposed to go. A lot of time ends up being wasted this way, and a lot of deaths will occur simply because it's hard to spot where to jump. The frustrating camera plays a lot into this, and unfortunately, the addition of a first-person view mode is not enough. I stumbled my way through several areas more through the luck of trial and error than through any reason, logic, or keen observation.
Despite the hundreds of deaths due to awkward combat controls and blind-guessing my way through badly framed platforming the snappy lines Fred had at the death screen kept me going. Fred makes his disgust at your lack of gaming competence very clear, and it's oddly entertaining to be insulted just after you missed the jump for the umpteenth time. Or perhaps I'm just a masochist. Well, actually, I do play Dungeons and Dragons.
There are some very good reasons to play Dead Head Fred, but a lot of them aren't the moment to moment gameplay until surprisingly late in the game. It's hard to give this game glowing praise because of the various control and level design flaws, but the hilarious writing and snappy animations deserve some real praise. Ultimately, Dead Head Fred is worth the effort to play and a worthwhile game to pick up. Perhaps if there had been fewer heads involved, the game would lurch that much less.