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Death, Jr. and the Science Fair of Doom

For: DS

More a wimper than a big, bad bang

Product: Death, Jr. and the Science Fair of Doom | Developer: Backbone Entertainment | Publisher: Konami | Format: DS | Genre: Action, Adventure | Players: 1-4 | Networking: wireless (adhoc) | Version: US
Death, Jr. and the Science Fair of Doom DS, thumbnail 1
Although any self-respecting goth would probably disagree, having the Grim Reaper as your dad wouldn't be anything like as good as it would first appear to be. He might be Death incarnate, but just like any other father, his fashion sense would be useless (cupboards full of black capes), he's a workaholic, and you definitely wouldn't want to seem him trying to strut any moves on the dancefloor.

The concept seems as if it should be cool though, especially when twisted to the perspective of being the Man in Black's slightly shy and nervous teenaged progeny.

That's presumably why another Death, Jr. handheld game has been released. The Science Fair of Doom, the first Death, Jr. outing on the DS, sees 'DJ' wimping out of the annual school competition. He's not a jock or a nerd, so lazily tries to pass off his dad's scythe for the second year in a row.

Smith and Weston, a pair of conjoined twins, are more precocious, however. One brings a rabbit grafted with demon plasma, while the other a portable nuclear power station. The result of their accidental combination is a huge mutated evil rabbit, who steals Death's scythe and turns the school into a demon-ridden alternative reality, transforming DJ's friend Pandora into a ghost in the process.

Cue the start of one overly ambitious action-platformer.

The issues that bedevil the Science Fair of Doom quickly become apparent. The game is split between 2D side-scrolling within 3D levels (what's known as 2.5D) and full 3D environments designed for exploration or boss fights. But the controls for each activity aren't quite right.

In the 2.5D sections, your movement set is all about platforming – double jumps, scythe hovers, and the ability to hook onto ledges and jump higher. Yet the moves aren't precise enough for the situations you'll find yourself in, and no one in this day-and-age enjoys regular falling death restarts.

The levels themselves are both linear and confusing. Even after following the arrows provided, you might reach the end and be told to go back for a puzzle you've missed.

Similarly, with combat. Enemies are attacked using the A button (or tapping with the stylus) – hammering repeatedly triggers scythe combos – while finishing moves can be created in conjunction with the four directions on the D-pad. You'll very rarely need to use these though, as the game tends to degenerate into simple button mashing.

But perhaps the biggest missed opportunity is Pandora. As a ghost, she operates in a spectral plane, and so can be used to trigger buttons and machinery that's out of the reach of Death, Jr. She does this using the souls of his defeated enemies. So after DJ has chopped up the original owners with his scythe (other weapons such as guns and exploding hamsters also become available) you toggle to switch realities and take control of Pandora and collect the souls.

However, Pandora can only carry three souls at a time, and even more annoyingly, the souls are coloured coded so you have to have the correctly coloured souls to unlock specific coloured switches. (This typically involves flicking the souls at targets with the stylus – something that takes quite a while to get the hang of.)

In turn, this mechanic means enemies must continuously regenerate after you've killed them, because the game designers don't want you to get stuck in a level without any souls. Pandora can only remain a ghost for a couple of seconds before she's sucked back to DJ, too. It's all very frustrating.

The result is complicated and confusing. It's a real shame, because the Science Fair of Doom is a classic case of good ideas let down by less than perfect implementation.

The concept of Death, Jr and his weird friends – something that as well as games has spawned a couple of graphic novels – works satisfactorily, as does the overall theme of a transformed demonic school. The art design and graphics are good, too, and nice touches include the ability to blow into the DS' microphone to uncover any hiding classmates. Find them, and they'll give you the key to their lockers, which contain rewards like extra health and mini-games, such as a Breakout clone. There are also a couple of deathmatch-based wi-fi multiplayer games for up to four players.

But in much the same way as seems to have occurred in the PSP games, Death, Jr. and the Science Fair of Doom just doesn't hang together in anything like a coherent manner. By now he might have been a gaming hero, but Death. Jr, still has some growing up to do.
Death, Jr. and the Science Fair of Doom
Reviewer photo
Kath Brice | 11 June 2007
There's plenty of ambition on show but Death, Jr. and the Science Fair of Doom is too complicated and patchy to be much fun
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