While the hugely popular 360 hit The Darkness recently made a success of combining the ruthless cool of the Mafia and the gruesome terror of otherworldly creatures with a particularly grave tone, Dead Head Fred manages to bring those two same worlds together with a chaotic sense of silliness, and surprisingly, it's just as sharp.
In this stylish deadpan comedy adventure game, you assume the role of the titular Fred - a private eye reeled into a sordid and hilarious world of experimental science, undead creatures, pale-skinned Mafioso, and loose cranial attachments. By combining the kooky eccentricity of The Addams Family, the dry tongue of Monkey Island, and a healthy sense of how to poke fun at the cornerstones of conventional cool, developer Vicious Cycle has created an irresistible world that defies the heavily stereotyped games typical of the PSP.
The plot sees Fred restored to life by an intensely maniacal but well meaning scientist after the sleuth is murdered for getting too near to the truth in the pursuit of the solution to one of his cases. Upon returning to life with only his eyeballs and brain in a jar of bubbling liquid where he would expect to find his head, Fred sets out to exact revenge on the thief of his most precious of appendages, and finish the job he started before his untimely termination. In doing so, he becomes embroiled in a twisted plot that sees the reluctantly heroic gumshoe detective tackle Ulysses Pitt, a community figurehead in the sleepy town of Hope Falls who is actually a morbid mob boss obsessed in equal parts with collecting crania and ignoring the stringent safety guidelines that apply to his leaky nuclear power station.
As you might expect, this surreal, tongue-in-cheek adventure is played out in the familiar territory of the third person action game, but thankfully it does everything it can to avoid the bland and banal, and succeeds in almost every regard. While a wealth of perfectly playable mini games and side quests can be used to boost your funds and arsenal of weaponry, it is the main game that deserves the most attention. As you explore and talk with an increasingly peculiar array of characters, you gain possession of several different heads, from that of a mannequin to a grim and soulless skull.
Fortunately for Fred, he can switch between these heads at a whim, and with each possessing an array of specific abilities and talents, you'll soon learn to jump between different neck toppers as if they were gadgets and guns in the latest military FPS. While some, like the humble mannequin head that lets you converse with Hope Falls residents without scaring them witless, have rather basic functional uses, most provide an array of more aggressive techniques to let you overcome puzzles and obstacles. Some for example let you stroll effortlessly through fire, or suck poisonous substances into huge cheek pouches, before spraying forth your deadly mouthful.
The heads also turn you into different brawling characters. Some give you a light footed athleticism that allows you to make quick strikes and slashes, while those that endow you with more powerful blasts tend to slow you down to a plodding, lolloping pace. Some conflicting controls and a rather sporadically reliable camera hamper the fighting in the game a little, but on the whole the control scheme and game system are thoroughly workable.
The platforming elements, which are also occasionally negatively affected by the camera, are actually nicely solid for a game that doesn't choose ledge leaping as its focal point. Though the sections that do concern you with negotiating gaps and platforms are fairly scarce, they are always designed with cunning and an understanding of previous benchmarks and staples of the genre.
While the gameplay is excellent, it is the style and presentation of Dead Head Fred that steals the show. Whereas the preview builds we saw were a little lacking on the graphical side, now that game ranks alongside the best seen on Sony's slim handheld. As well as sumptuous backgrounds and hugely detailed characters, the animation is full of life and personality. Swapping each head has a huge effect on Fred's movement, and every element of animation across the game is given the same level of minute care and attention.
Somehow the game captures the stark, colourless cool of film noir and combines it with the technicoloured luminescence of more typical playful cartoon worlds. The scenery and the characters drip with excess style, and the whole package is wrapped up with hilarious voice acting and an atmospheric score. John C. McGinley, star of cult slice of comedy celluloid Office Space, and more famously Dr. Cox in Scrubs voices Fred, giving him irresistible deadpan charm, and NPCs are underpinned by a similar level of acting ability.
Strangely, Dead Head Fred has been rather under-hyped, but it deserves all the attention of a sure fire hit. It may lack the heritage and media presence of its rivals and genre-mates, but that has never been the mark of a bad game. If you fancy something a little different, punctuated by brilliant scripting and fantastic characters, look no further that this substantial chunk of action-comedy greatness.