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Don't Fear the Reaper

Game review: Death Jr.

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Death we fear.

Death Jr., maybe not so much.

I mean, look at that face, or at least that cute little baby skull of his. And the precious, teensy scythe he carries. This mini-Death, or "DJ," as friends and family call him, isn't so much scary as he is cuddly and perhaps a bit macabre. His diminutive size is a perfect fit for the tiny worlds of the PSP.

Which is a good thing because Sony has been promising big thrills for the portable system which, up until now, have all looked a little small once you got the games up close to your face.

DJ, on the other hand, starts out small and grows on you. By combining toy-like simplicity and charm with bigger-than-life characters and metaphors, DJ seems like, well, a Tim Burton film. Nightmare Before Christmas, anyone?

Seriously, look at DJ's pal Stigmartha -- the girl with holes in her hands that bleed when she's nervous -- and tell me that Burton is not this game's godfather, illegitmate or not. Smith and Weston -- the co-joined mad scientists? Meat Land, the beef-flavored theme park? This game isn't just influenced by Burton; it's a veritable homage.

Still, if you're going to ape someone's oeuvre, it might as well be a kooky genius who tends to make interesting, if hollow, films. And what Death Jr. shows is that a style which can get stretched to translucent meaninglessness on the big screen goes down with a concentrated wallop on a screen the size of a couple of matchbooks.

Resting on the playful darkness, wry graveyard humor and freak-show social commentary, DJ adds a pretty standard selection of action-adventure-game elements. When school chum Pandora tries to open a magic box, we can pretty much anticipate what comes next: evil unleashed, friends trapped in distinctive worlds and the scattering of valuable objects that we must collect.

The levels feature the kind of visual variety that makes exploring amusing -- like finding catacombs hidden under a drab suburban landscape and accessed beneath a BBQ grill. And the music pushes along the happy-go-lucky weirdness the game strives so hard to achieve.

The only real trouble comes from the title's ample hacking and bloodletting. Of course, it's hard to argue the violence issue when the protagonist is Death's little boy and the bad guys are quite literally demons. This problem isn't narrative at all; it's purely biomechanical.

The action in the game gets quite intense, and while button-mashing has never fallen out of fashion for the true gamer, trying to keep up the necessary rhythm of mayhem for this title turns your hands into arthritic crustacean claws. In no time at all, DJ ends up with yet another colleague -- you as Lobster Boy.

Not that it matters much. DJ is still one of the best games yet for the PSP -- a platform still trying to reach its potential. And as far as the lovable DJ himself, clearly his creators have big plans. You can already pick up plush DJ dolls and toys. The inevitability of Death, in this case, is that we will see more of him in the future.

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