Dead Head Fred for the PSP is a wild video game experience that raises the bar for PSP gaming entertainment. The title serves a unique blend of old school 1930's mob movies mixed with creepy environments usually attributed to Tim Burton. The game features killer graphics (no pun intended), and showcase the preeminent voice of sarcasm: John C. MicGinley (known as Dr. Cox on "Scrubs") as the sarcastic voice of Fred.
The story begins with Ulysses S. Pitt built the dangerous Pitt Nukular Plant outside of Hope Falls. The Nukular Plant has been leaking toxic sludge and radiation into Hope Falls cutting of sections of the city and turning some of its citizens into zombies. The Nukular Plant is only part of the plan that Pitt has to take over Hope Falls from the remaining mob competition held by Vinni Rossini. Fred Neuman (you) are a private detective and boyfriend to Vinni's daughter Jeanne Rossini. When Vinni is found dead, Fred takes on the case. The opening sequence of the game has Fred gaining consciousness in the lab of the mad scientist Dr. Steiner. After the ordered decapitation by Pitt, Fred finds himself reanimated by Dr. Steiner with his essential brain matter and eyes floating around in an upside-down mason jar. Dr. Steiner has given Fred abilities to compensate for his unpalatable appearance including the capacity to change heads on the fly and to turn invisible for short periods of time. With Pitt looking to mount Fred's real head on his wall as a trophy, it's up to Fred and his mason jarred remains to take Pitt down.
The gameplay in Dead Head Fred is based on a limited free reign action adventure platform (think Grand Theft Auto but with more city boundaries). The main storyline revolves around getting closer to Pitt by beating bosses and finding new heads. There are plenty of side missions available to you through a variety of characters to make money or to obtain Gold Worms (required for head upgrades). Items or money can also be made by defeating enemies. Fighting enemies is done with a mixture of the X and Square buttons while blocking with the R shoulder button. Fred can counter certain attacks from an enemy by pressing the Triangle button but only if the proper counter head for that particular enemy is equipped. Fred can kill an enemy by either beating them up to the point he can rip their head off, by countering their attacks, or by a Rage Attack. Rage Attacks use Rage Points and can be directed at one enemy with full intensity or multiple enemies with less intensity. Rage Points are replenished by defeating bosses or killing enemies the long way (beating them up to the point you rip their head off). The items left behind after you kill an enemy are available to collect, sell, or trade for money or other items. Money can be used to purchase various life enhancing or defensive elixirs and among other items. Enemies respawn whenever you re-enter a map area of the game so it isn't too hard to build up your inventory in a hurry.
Another gameplay aspect of Dead Head Fred are the Dirty Pool, Pinball, Cockfighting (as in chickens, not Ron Jeremy), and Fishing mini-games you can play. The mini-games aren't interesting enough to be games in their own right but are fun in short intervals as a break from normal gameplay. Some of the games allow you to wager the money you've earned which can be fun (or frustrating) or to collect items. My favorite was easily the fishing game.
Some heads Fred acquires are purely functional (like the mannequin head Fred uses to talk to people without freaking them out) and others are used to traverse environmental obstacles and fight enemies. You start off with the Jar-Head (allows you to become invisible and build your life force back up faster), Corpse Head (allows to inflate your head with gases and liquids to either spray or levitate), and the Stone Idol Head (lets you breathe underwater). Later on you collect the Shrunken Head (allows you to get into tight spaces), the Bone Head (crawl up special walls), the Dummy Head (talk to people without freaking them out), Tiki Head (travel quickly), the Scarecrow Head (fire-proofing), and the finally the Mutant Head (makes you radiation proof). Each head also has its own list of enemies its best at fighting with the ability to perform a counter-attack.
The graphics in Dead Head Fred are simply amazing. The environments are detailed from texture to color. The world itself is creative and has a Nightmare Before Christmas meets Dick Tracy feel to it. The movie sequences are outstanding in their clarity and detail, specifically the facial mechanics of the avatars. Some of the textures in the game have that glossy polished look which really add to the presentation. During gameplay the screen shows your life, which head you have equipped, the number of Rage Points, and the quantity of a specific head specialty in the top left corner. When you hold down the left shoulder button the head layout shows up on the bottom left and which elixir you have equipped on the bottom right.
The sound effects are clear and effective adding to the quality of the game. The voice work is the best I've seen to date with professional actors (in particular John C. MicGinley of "Scrubs" fame). The various character voices are unique and on par with what I would expect from a feature movie. The music has an acid-jazz quality to it and although it lacks variety, the repetition wasn't annoying. It's challenging to find music that can be repeated endlessly that doesn't get on your nerves, so kudos to the sound team.
Dead Head Fred may be a great game but sometimes it's hard to know exactly what you're supposed to do or where you're supposed to go. Many times when you enter a new area the screen pans around showing you elements of the room that you need to explore which is really helpful but sometimes (especially when using the Shrunken Head) it wasn't so clear. Whenever I was in doubt I'd take advantage of the auto checkpoint saves and just jump off and kill myself in various directions until I found which way to go. I was also disappointed there wasn't a multiplayer component to the game. Even if head to head fighting wasn't offered it would have been nice to play someone at a game of pool or upload your pinball scores onto a scoreboard.
Overall I really enjoyed playing Dead Head Fred. I'm usually a fan and purveyor of uncensored coarse language-laced sarcasm but honestly the novelty of the one-liners wore off pretty quickly. The real enjoyment of playing this game came from wanting to explore the detailed and often mysterious world and to get to a new cut-scene and be introduced to another unique character. Dead Head Fred is a blast that pushes my expectations of the PSP even higher. Has Dead Head Fred pushed the graphical limit of the PSP? Right now I'm thinking it's pretty close but only time will tell.