Talk about having a great year, D3 is one of those companies that seemed to pop up out of nowhere and has released several of the most entertaining games of the year. Not only is Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords one of the best games of the year, but PQ2: Practical Quotient 2 is a fantastic puzzle game and even their guilty pleasures (in this case Earth Defense Force 2017) proved to be one of the most enjoyable action games of recent memory. After so many must-own titles I wondered how they could top themselves. And then I started playing Dead Head Fred, one of the finest 3D adventure games currently available on the Sony PSP.
Dead Head Fred is a comedy adventure that feels like a cross between a Tim Burton movie and those film noirs from the 1940s and 50s. It tells the story of a recent deceased private investigator named Fred (sarcastically voiced by John C. McGinley, best known as the evil Dr. Cox from TV's Scrubs) who wakes up in a run-down laboratory manned by a crazy scientist. At first Fred is just grateful to be alive, but it doesn't take long before our hero realizes that his head has been replaced by a large glass jar filled with liquids and his floating brain.
As you might imagine this troubles Fred, especially since it all is happening so suddenly. Like any good mystery, Fred doesn't fully remember what happened to him before his untimely death and would really like to figure it all out. But before he has that opportunity to start putting the pieces together the mad scientist is kidnapped by a couple of rough looking characters and it's your job to save him while also trying to bring some normality to your life. Unfortunately that is easier said than done.
Dead Head Fred's adventure takes place in and around Hope Falls, a quiet community full of eccentric people with a lot of secrets to tell. The biggest problem (as far as I can tell) is that Hope Falls has suffered from the radiation that is leaking out of the local power plant; this plague has led to rampant mutations and a zombie infestation.
It won't take long before you realize that Dead Head Fred is about more than just helping some old scientist and resolving your mysterious death. At first the scope seems small, but as you start to meet new people and journey through the fully realized world you'll begin to appreciate just how large and deep this adventure is. Then again, given how long this game has been in development it should surprise just about nobody that Dead Head Fred is a lengthy game full of enemies to kill and cases to solve.
The gimmick behind Dead Head Fred is that our hero can swap out different heads whenever he feels like it. Usually this is done to solve puzzles and make your way through the world, but you'll find that some heads are better for fighting and other heads will help you blend in with the normal human population (and yes, I use the word "normal" loosely). For example, if you need search underwater but you don't want to drown you should equip the big stone head that will not only allow you to breathe underwater (or not breathe, as the case may be), but it will also sink your body to the bottom of the water so that you don't have to worry about swimming about. Another head you can use is the Tiki head, which will allow you to do a funny Tiki dance in front of marked locations and get transported from one secret area to another. Other heads include a skeleton head (which gives you large claws and lets you shoot bones at your foes), a mannequin head (which allows you to blend in with the humans), a zombie head (which you can fill up with gasoline or helium) and a shrunken head (which shrinks you down to a teeny tiny undead character). In total there are eight different heads, each with their own special abilities and uses.
As you can imagine most of the puzzles in the game revolve around you using the heads, so it's important for you to understand what each of these eight heads can do to get you farther. Dead Head Fred's world is not one linear path, you'll have to do your fair share of backtracking in order to find everything and ultimately beat the game. With every new heads you earn you will unlock areas you normally could not access in earlier levels, so it's important to go back and check out older levels to make sure you didn't miss anything along the way. While it's easy to complain about the concept of backtracking, you are often pushing yourself into brand new areas that are both interesting and exciting.
One thing that isn't exciting is the combat system. Even though this is a straight forward adventure game full of mystery and intrigue, there's also a ton of fighting. Unfortunately this is the one thing that Dead Head Fred doesn't get right. It's not that the combat is so bad that you'll loathe getting into fights, but it's definitely chaotic enough to make you wish somebody would have done something about it before the game shipped to retailers. Part of the problem is the camera, which gets in the way more than it helps when it comes to the fist fights. But the larger problem comes in the button layout. How it works is this, you have a standard attack button that you can use to start a combo, from there you're supposed to push the "X" button to perform a follow-up attack. The problem with this set-up is that the "X" button also doubles for the jump button, so from time to time you'll accidentally jump into an even bigger battle when all you're trying to do is land a combo. Another issue is the aggressiveness of the enemy opponents, it's common to get hit numerous times because you weren't able to block fast enough. If you take the enemies on one-on-one you will stand a good chance of winning the fight, but often the game will throw three or more enemies at you at once ... and at that point you might as well retreat or give up.
The good news is that the different heads will make combat a bit easier, but no matter what head you have equipped you're still at the mercy of an awkward fighting system. While I complain about how disjointed and tedious the combat is, it's worth reiterating that this one problem does not bring the rest of the game down. The fact that I can wholeheartedly recommend this adventure game even with this one glaring problem is a testament to how good the final product is. Dead Head Fred is an excellent game, even if the combat does suck.
The reason this game resonates so much is because of how deep the actual game is. It's not just that the main quest will take you all over the place (including the backwoods, the middle of downtown, a nuclear power plant to, a run-down creepy area called Zombie Town, a Tiki-filled Casino, etc.), but how much other stuff there is to do along the way. At times it seems that just about everybody you run into has a different quest for you, so actually solving every single mission in the game could take you dozens of hours. If that wasn't enough, you can also waste some time playing pool and pinball.
What holds all this together is a hilarious script and memorable characters. Pretty much everybody in the game is a crazy character that fits in perfectly in a game that is about a guy who is resurrected without a head. These characters are complimented by strong voice talent that brings the whole thing to life. While some of the dialog is cheesy, it never feels unnatural or forced ... which is not something you can say about a lot of games. Better still, the game is genuinely funny. There's just something about the predicament that these characters find themselves in that leads to comedy gold, and we're clearly dealing with witty writers that know how to bring the whole thing to life.
Along with the fantastic audio, the graphics are also quite strong. The character models are large and full of detail. While one could complain that some of the movements are a bit stiff, this minor gripe is never that big of a deal. Even better than the characters are the backgrounds, which will not disappoint. Every part of the world has a unique look to it and the atmosphere is also creepy (but not so creepy that it takes away from the over-the-top feel of the game). All it takes is one look at this game and you can see where all the time went, the world is simply gorgeous.
Dead Head Fred is a fantastic adventure game full of memorable characters and ingenious puzzles. If you're the type of person who likes to do and see everything then you'll be at this game for weeks. And even if you don't care about all of the extra content the developers stuffed into this $30 PSP game you'll still find an interesting story full of twists and turns. While the game does stumble a little bit when it comes to the combat system, Dead Head Fred more than makes up for it with a solid presentation and a real sense of humor. If you're looking for a 3D adventure game that will keep you entertained for dozens of hours, then you can't go wrong with Dead Head Fred for the PSP.
D3 is just surprising us left and right this year. Dead Head Fred is a solid adventure game full of great voice acting, an intriguing mystery and a world you won't want to leave. Don't let this video game gem pass you by as you rush toward all of the high profile games coming out this holiday season!