- CLR [rating:3.5]
Release Date: July 14th, 2010
Platform: Playstation Network (version reviewed), Xbox Live Arcade
Developer: Hothead Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Designer: Ron Gilbert
Genre: Action Role-Playing Game
Ron Gilbert’s Newest Game is Silly, Pointless and a ‘Must Buy’
A scant week after Monkey Island 2: Special Edition pointed-and-clicked its way back into our hearts after almost 20 years, designer Ron Gilbert shows up on our doorstep bearing new gifts. This week it’s DeathSpank, an extremely likable but rather insubstantial Action RPG in the vein of Champions of Norrath and Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance but with one key difference: DeathSpank has a wicked sense of humor. What other videogame about magical thong underwear, Dickensian medieval orphans in desperate need of cell phones and the collection of unicorn poop would dare pretend to be “based on a true story”?
You play as DeathSpank, a cartoonishly heroic hero of the land who has spent his career righting wrongs, completing sidequests and most importantly searching for “The Artifact,” an item of such immense power that DeathSpank (voiced by Michael Dobson, earning his paycheck with a hilarious performance) can only pronounce it with emphasis on all but the puniest syllable: “THE ART-i-FACT!” The story picks up near the end of DeathSpank’s epic journey as he finds himself on familiar scavenger hunts to appease those standing in the way of his goals. In order to acquire “The Artifact,” for example, he’ll have to collect magical ingredients for a witch. Gilbert’s sense of humor shines through in even the most monotonous quests, as when DeathSpank’s quest for Red Demon Horns yields only white ones, forcing him to find a way to dye his collection red in order to complete the sidequest on a technicality.
DeathSpank’s lack of enthusiasm for sidequests is the game’s biggest running joke, aside from his “Dudley Do-Right” speech patterns and general tendency towards being stupid. As with many games of this ilk, the supporting cast of DeathSpank has a ridiculous propensity to ask a mass murderer with a heart of gold (alloy) to perform menial tasks outside of his skill set. DeathSpank accepts these quests much in the same way a personal assistant would pick up their boss’s dry-cleaning: with grim acceptance, and only because it’s in the job description. Many of these slave drivers get what they deserve for hiring a man who solves all of his problems with egregious violence. When asked to retrieve a missing brother, DeathSpank manages only to return with a significant portion, but it’s his head, and that’s the most important part, right? Right?
DeathSpank doesn’t have much to say aside from poking fun at the conventions of the genre, so it would be a stretch to call it great satire. But like great satire it works both as an amusing commentary and as the subject of that commentary. Even ignoring the jokes, DeathSpank is a delightful videogame. The environments are memorable and distinctive, even as they ape familiar territory from other, arguably grander games. The terrain is constantly arched as if the world the characters inhabit is cylinder-shaped, which allows new locations and enemies to always be revealed over the next ridge as opposed to somewhere just off in the distance, conveniently eliminating pesky draw-in issues. The result is an increased sense of anticipation for new conflicts, particularly when new opponents are introduced towering over the next hill, evoking a sense of “Oh crap” every single time.
Combat is largely intuitive and adjusts well to your hero as he levels up. New enemies are always properly calibrated to challenge DeathSpank when he first encounters them, and then die quickly and satisfactorily when DeathSpank runs into them again after improving his combat skills. This results in enemies who are introduced as insurmountable bosses but eventually fill the role of mere nuisances later on. DeathSpank’s foes are nicely varied, from the only vaguely-creative “Orques” to amusing gag villains, like giants called “Pips” and their only slightly less gigantic offspring “Pip Squeaks.”
Supporting characters are simple creatures whom DeathSpank usually refers to by their obvious design qualities, commenting on a professor’s obviously professorial qualities and a generic passerby as being… well, generic-looking. As with the Monkey Island franchises which brought Gilbert to prominence in the first place, every interaction of the game utilizes a dialogue tree with many bemusing options impeccably performed by DeathSpank’s cast of talented voice-over actors.
DeathSpank gets caught in some of the same traps as its Action RPG brethren and tries to use humor to play it off, but some of these issues still sting. One of the old Monkey Island issues rears its ugly head when players find themselves knowing exactly what to do but uncertain of the exact means by which DeathSpank wants them to do it. Towards the end of the game DeathSpank is charged with feeding unicorns a certain turnip that will cause them to poop, and then collecting that poop for use in fertilizer. (If you think about it, it’s kind of a silly sort of game.) Unfortunately it’s unicorn mating season and stepping off the path will cause them to stampede DeathSpank and kill him very, very quickly. Setting the special turnip down in the most logical location – where you found it, already half-eaten – does nothing, and will probably just get DeathSpank killed. Setting it down a short distance down the road will do the job nicely, even though there’s no indication whatsoever that DeathSpank might fare any better after a short jog.
Other niggling problems include an inventory filled with items that DeathSpank will either never use (some potions offer “Resistance to Nature,” which is almost never a problem), or seem so powerful that the “But What If I Need It Later?” kinds of players might find themselves thoroughly overstocked by the time the end of the game arrives. The fact that this is even a possibility speaks volumes towards how useful these items really are. It might be fun to throw a “Supermassive Black Hole” into a fight and watch as your enemies are sucked into a vortex never to be seen again, but it never seems necessary unless you find yourself face to face with enemies way above DeathSpank’s current paygrade, which rarely happens given how well the game is structured. When it does, though, you’ll inevitably find yourself doing the same tedious experience grinding every RPG falls victim to now and again. Other quibbles include special attacks that charge up automatically but must always be used immediately, even when you don’t need them, so DeathSpank might end up wasting a powerful boss-killing power move on a single severed eyeball floating in the middle of the road that’s barely shooting him dirty looks. Leveling up DeathSpank’s speed also turns into a minor issue later in the game as even the mighty Playstation 3 visibly chugs along as it struggles to keep up with the eponymous hero.
DeathSpank is an incredible bargain on Xbox Live Arcade or the Playstation Network, providing a campaign experience at least as long as the last Call of Duty installment, and if you like this genre you’ll probably consider it as much if not more fun. But there’s nothing to it, really. You’ll enjoy yourself, you’ll become immersed in the world, and you’ll laugh out loud, but it doesn’t get you anywhere. It seems like there was little on Gilbert’s mind other than entertaining himself and others, and that’s fine. Any game with a location filled with killer leprechauns that’s called a “Leprecolony” is deserving of praise, but clever jokes are not synonymous with greatness. DeathSpank comes highly recommended, and may end up being one of the best games of the year, but it falls just short of “Instant Classic” status. Maybe in the awkwardly-established sequel.