PAX 2007: Dead Head Fred hands-on

PAX 2007 was a veritable maelstrom of partying, gaming, schmoozing, pavement pounding, murder scene investigating, and sexual assault. The Destructoid crew represented at PAX in full force by booking the crooks that have been cooking the books, high fiving, swapping saliva, and inevitably, sharing blood test results.

Considering all this, it’s amazing that I found the time to devote an entire hour to a single game. I had several enjoyable play experiences at PAX, but only one title compelled me to return to its booth each day of the conference, hungry to get a comprehensive review. The game was D3 Publishers third-person action-adventure horror title, Dead Head Fred. In this brand spanking new IP for the PSP (finally, another one), you play a headless private investigator that wreaks cephalic carnage on the undead, ganking zombie heads to place atop your own shoulders, and earning super powers along the way.

It kind of rules.

If you lean your ear close to the door, you can often hear the mainstream gaming press bemoan the industry’s lack of original titles. Cries of stagnation and dilution of the creative pool abound, but oftentimes when a truly unique game does appear, the bigger sites wouldn’t notice if it bit them on the face. We’re fond of face bites here at Destructoid though, so when a game is kind enough to extend the courtesy, a little mutual gnawing session is called for.

When Nick dropped the news about this game a couple of months ago, Dead Head Fred caught my eye simply because it was a zombie game. Sadly, that’s all that’s usually required for me to lumber leeringly forward with outstretched arms toward a controller, muttering “brains” under my breath. Thankfully, this game more than rewarded my baser instincts with an experience rich in dark humor, satisfying beat ’em up action, and inventive puzzle solving. Think Psychonauts mixed with Splatterhouse, and you’ll understand why I instantly flipped the settings to kill on my hype-phazer.

You start the game controlling Fred Neuman, featuring voice acting by John C. McGinley (Dr. Cox from Scrubs). Most of the game’s humor is delivered through frequent cut scenes in between sections of each mission. Trust me when I say you won’t mind them. They’re delightfully crude, intelligent, and atmospheric, and they go a long way toward setting this game apart from the pack. Fred is a private investigator who was decapitated while sleuthing after a local mob boss. After Fred drops dead, a complete freak of a mad scientist resurrects him. Seriously, the guy looked like the nightmare love child reared by Mortal Kombat‘s Baraka and the Professor from Futurama. This guy’s no Gene Wilder in the brains department either, because he somehow forgot to send Igor to dig you up a new head.

Fred sets out on a quest to avenge his own death against the mob boss, battling through hordes of zombies caused by a leak in a nearby nuclear power plant. The action starts off in fairly standard beat em up mode, where you can achieve combos by pressing buttons in different timed patterns. The combat system is satisfying and responsive, much better than the recently heralded The Warriors. But here’s where the fun comes in.

Once you’ve got a zombie pummeled, you can grab him in a choke hold and tear his head off, filling the PSP’s screen with ribbons of blood. When you acquire a zombie’s head you are allowed to swap it out for your own at any point during the game and use whatever innate super powers rattle around in its festering mass.

More than just a macabre Mega Man, Fred can use his new powers for tasks other than killing baddies. They are also implemented in clever puzzle solving scenarios that are incorporated seamlessly into the action. For example, at one point I found Fred stuck in a living room engulfed in flames. Zombies approached from all sides ready to devour me. I ripped off a rotting Corpse head from a nearby monster, stuck it on my head, ran over to a nearby fish tank and slurped down gallons of slimy water until Fred’s face swelled to the bursting point. I was then able to spray out water bursts through my zombie teeth in order to douse out the flames and escape the room. There’s only one word to describe the kind of joy gaming moments like this elicit: incredibly awesome. Okay, that’s two words. They got a freebie.

The multiple heads are easily accessible through an onscreen HUD reminiscent of Ratchet and Clank’s weapon inventory. If you need to switch to the Toxic head to spew acid vomit in the middle of a hectic battle, you can do this with a quick tap of the shoulder button and flick of the analog stick. This was a crucial inclusion for a game that mostly relies on fast paced action, and it’s nice to know we won’t be halting the game to bring up a boner killing full-screen menu every 10 seconds.

Did I mention this game looks beautiful as well? Well, as beautiful as bloody zombie brains get, anyway. The visuals easily line up with the best the PSP has to offer, only slightly edged out in the handheld world by what God Of War: Chains of Olympus brings to the table. The environments I walked through employed a rather drab color palette, but they fit perfectly with the games mock horror/noir theme. Once the battles start, the screen fills with fluid character animation, lighting effects and gorgeous burstlets of blood.

Dead Head Fred
was released in stores a few hours ago. I may be proven wrong when D3Publisher sends the final build of the game to Destructoid, but my money’s on this one being a winner.