It’s always unfortunate when a game shows a massive amount of promise and ultimately falls short, but in the case of Derrick the Deathfin it’s almost criminal. The game is stunningly beautiful and the amount of care that Different Tuna’s invested into development is evident from the start, but unfortunately the rest of the package doesn’t quite deliver.
Derrick the Deathfin is, according to the studio, “the world’s first underwater papercraft video game,” and you certainly won’t hear any argument from us on that point. You play as the titular Derrick, a young shark whose parents are killed by one of the many atrocities humans have built that are polluting the ocean. Your quest for vengeance sends you to 32 levels spread out over four continents with plenty of things to collect and animals to munch on along the way.
Derrick is definitely one of the more stunning PS3 games in a visual sense; the papercraft style comes across as a blend of LittleBigPlanet and an episode of South Park. Everything in the world bursts with personality due to little touches like Derrick’s trademark indifferent glare, the doofy expressions on the faces of octopi, and the little poofs of construction paper left behind as things are eaten. The backgrounds of the levels fit the theme of each continent as well, providing plenty of variety as far as level design goes. It's an incredible style from top to bottom; we'd like to see Derrick get his own cartoon so we can continue to feast our eyes on more of his stylish world.
The overarching problem is that Derrick the Deathfin isn’t terribly fun to play. The main bulk of the stages involve finding the way to a goal point, with several optional challenges – eating a certain amount of creatures, collecting all the gems in the level, and jumping through giant flaming tires – there to make things interesting along the way. The thing holding it back is Derrick’s hunger meter, which requires a near constant consumption of aquatic life or collection of gems. If the meter hits zero, you’re sent back to the start with nothing to show for it.
Derrick’s levels are meant to be traversed several times – you shouldn’t plan on achieving every goal in one go – and that’s a fine choice to make in game design, as long as it’s rewarding. Unfortunately, so many levels are labyrinths that will require several trips just to reach the goal for the first time, inciting frustration rather than a desire to keep going. Nothing is more exasperating than collecting all the gems in a stage only to come across a long stretch with nothing to eat and losing all of your progress.
This is compounded by the jumping mechanics as well. Derrick is able to leap out of the water, a necessary skill to jump through the flaming tires required to unlock the next continent. While Derrick handles pretty well underwater, the tires require a lot of precision and are very unforgiving. Expect to die often if a tire doesn’t have a food source near it, because after a couple of attempts you’ve essentially robbed yourself of the chance to finish the level.
On a base level, the game is a lot like NiGHTS into Dreams, in that both titles have you making the most of a very short trip through a stage. The big difference between the two, and what makes NiGHTS fun and Derrick frustrating, is that if you screw up, NiGHTS gives you a failing rank on the level but still lets you move on. Derrick forces you to keep replaying until you get it right, with the amount of frustration it instils completely undoing the goodwill and positive feelings that the graphics and setting provide.
There are two other level types that are actually pretty fun, but don’t appear nearly as often as they should. The first are time trial levels that require you to navigate an obstacle course in a set amount of time with the chance to earn gold, silver or bronze medals if target times are hit. As these levels aren’t mazes and only rely on things like tricky jumps or moving obstacles to slow you down, multiple attempts are actually pretty satisfying, because you’re learning something with every try.
The best levels are the ones that have no time limit and give you a puzzle that must be completed to destroy the human’s factories. You’ll be doing things like jumping out of the water to knock a mine off of a structure, then push that mine under an oil drill to blow it up, resulting in a charming papercraft explosion. Being able to take your time and explore to find out what the game wants you to do is far more engaging and rewarding than anything else, but these levels are disappointingly few and far between.
If the game had focused on the other two level types it would have been exponentially more fun. Racing and puzzle solving are far more engaging than fighting an oppressive timer, but the entire experience is dragged down because of it.
Derrick the Deathfin is a real heartbreaker. It’s agonisingly obvious that Different Tuna tried really hard to make something special, and as a player you’re rooting for them – but the base gameplay just isn’t good enough to keep you hooked. If the graphics grab you, then the price is low enough to make this a worthwhile gamble, just don’t dive in with any unrealistic expectations.