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PSP  header logo

Dead Head Fred

For: PSP

Head and shoulders above the rest

Product: Dead Head Fred | Developer: Vicious Cycle Software | Publisher: D3Publisher of America | Format: PSP | Genre: Action, Fighting | Players: 1 | Version: US
Dead Head Fred PSP, thumbnail 1
Move on, faithful followers of Jerry Garcia – Dead Head Fred won't supply the high-flying musical trip you're craving. Alternatively, it does offer a nearly-psychedelic romp through an amazingly unique world.

Dead Head Fred opens with our titular hero laid out on an examination table, conversing with a creepy doctor about his unnatural state of being. Fred, it seems, has been reanimated after a grisly beheading by the local mob boss of Hope Falls. Without access to his real head, the good doctor has provided Fred with a brain-in-a-jar replacement and a promise to recover the much sought-after personal affect.

Getting Fred's head back isn't a cakewalk, however, since the man who ordered our hero's premature demise has it locked away in a trophy room. Naturally, it's your job to guide Fred from the basement laboratory to the Don's domain, combating zombie townsfolk and mutated creatures along the way.

Defeating the numerous enemies that you run into demands deft button-pressing and smart head-swapping. Yes, as in swapping heads. In the course of his adventure, Fred comes into possession of nine different (and upgradeable) heads, each offering a specific set of abilities. You start the game with Fred's standard jar head and unlock new tops by completing mandatory missions. The jar head is best suited for combat, although other heads can provide different attacks, such as the bone head that fires projectile teeth.

Basic attacks are leveled with a press of the Square button, with follow-up hits executed via X. As such, most of your time battling enemies boils down to a button-mashing see-saw of Square and X. In addition to being awfully shallow, this set-up becomes problematic since the X button also serves to make Fred jump. Incorrectly time a follow-up attack and instead of hitting an enemy, you'll jump at it – hardly an effective combat solution. It's an unnecessary flaw that could have easily been avoided by dedicating one button for jumping and another for attacks.

There is more to combat than dispatching foes with a series of standard attacks, although it ends up being more work than it's worth. Fred can instigate a finishing move in certain situations with a tap of the Triangle button. Meanwhile, special rage attacks – which require earning points by killing enemies – are as interesting as they are infrequent. And whereas switching heads gives you access to different attack styles, we found it usually much easier to stick with the jar head for fighting.

So the bad news is that the combat system is mediocre. The good news, however, is that it's effortlessly overshadowed by superb level design.

That's because while combat doesn't necessitate switching heads, overcoming the various puzzles and platform challenges peppering the gameworld demands it. Normally, this brand of heavy-handed puzzle-solving would stifle the experience, but in Dead Head Fred it works beautifully. For instance, one clever puzzle has you break a lamp at a patio cafe and then suck up combustible gas from a broken pipe using Fred's corpse head. Using this inhaled gas, you create flame breath by exhaling on the fire from the lamp. This fire can then be used to burn bushes blocking access to a ladder and, consequently, a secret area.

Puzzles, such as the one above, provide the momentum to keep playing. Entertaining, challenging, and fresh, they're part of some of the most accomplished game design we've seen from a PSP title to date.

Yet, the best thing going for Dead Head Fred has to be its morbid charm. Akin to an interactive Tim Burton film, it's an experience brimming with deliciously dark humour, over-the-top gore, and the kind of edgy nature rarely found in a handheld game. An immense amount of effort clearly went into crafting this unique world and deranged denizens – it's hard not to love a suburb renamed Zombietown or the sushi-slinging lunch cart vendor Suk Kwan.

True, graphically the game won't blow your head off but it is undeniably stylish. Drab introductory stages aren't nearly as notable as the cityscapes in later segments, though taken as a whole the visuals are inarguably solid. Considerably more impressive is the voice acting, which contributes massively to the overall rich presentation by featuring an excellent cast, able to bring dimension to the kooky characters.

With so much done right in Dead Head Fred – from the wonderfully unique gameworld to the fresh, engaging puzzles, side-quests and mini-games (see 'PG Tips') – the game's sole shortcoming actually stands out that much more. No matter how you dress it up, the action simply isn't satisfying.

So it should serve as some indication of the strength of its other elements to emerge from Dead Head Fred having realised that the rest of the game is an absolute joy and more than able to counter this deficiency. Because all you'll remember from playing it is the hugely enjoyable, entertaining and memorable experience it delivers.
Dead Head Fred
Reviewer photo
Tracy Erickson | 3 September 2007
Even if the combat mechanics aren't alive and kicking, with its inventive puzzles and unique sense of style the body of Dead Head Fred offers an experience PSP owners shouldn't miss
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