Developer: Hothead Games / Publisher: Electronic Arts / ESRB: Teen (Blood, Cartoon Violence, Crude Humor, Mild Language, Mild Sexual Themes) / Played on: PS3 / Price: $15.00
DeathSpank is the creative offspring of video game designer Ron Gilbert and Penny Arcade Adventures developer Hothead Games. Gamers best know Gilbert for designing classic, witty LucasArts adventure titles like Maniac Mansion and The Secret of Monkey Island. Given this, the Internet community has collectively embraced the “Monkey Island meets Diablo” comparison when discussing DeathSpank, which recently debuted on Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. Does Ron Gilbert’s latest endeavor prove itself worthy of this lofty comparison or simply fall on its “Log Sword”?
As it turns out, this comparison is apt. DeathSpank mixes the third-person, action RPG gameplay of Diablo with the brand of humor made famous by the Monkey Island series to create a unique amalgamation. You control the eponymous DeathSpank, a valiant, yet dimwitted hero whose life mission is to recover the enigmatic Artifact from the realm’s evildoers. To do so he must traverse a plethora of exotic locations ranging from gooey swamps to the demonic underworld and interact with a colorful array of quirky townsfolk and malevolent beasts.
The game can be quite difficult. Simply running into a horde of evil monks is an easy way to send DeathSpank to an early demise. Blocking is crucial, as is your ability to strategically choose your weapons for a given situation. Yet once you enter combat, the game’s hack-and-slash roots become apparent. You can employ a few spells, but the majority of the time you will brazenly bash or stab to death whatever hellspawn crosses your path. Needless to say this involves a great deal of button smashing. This repetitive gameplay is not for everyone and RPG fans seeking more depth to their combat would be advised to get their jollies elsewhere.
DeathSpank’s quests similarly lack variety. They typically involve some variation of collecting items (demons’ horns, missing orphans, etc.) and defeating a specific enemy. Granted, many of these quests are quite amusing. In one, DeathSpank must literally beat the poop out of demons using the aptly named Demon Poop Hammer. Nevertheless, I would have welcomed a greater diversity in missions.
A second player can join the fray to aid DeathSpank (i.e., you). In this cooperative mode the second player controls Sparkles the Wizard, who has the ability to heal DeathSpank and blast enemies with projectiles. This feature feels like an afterthought. Sparkles possesses nowhere near the same level of combat usefulness as DeathSpank. For one, you cannot upgrade his weaponry. Second, Sparkles shares a health bar with DeathSpank. This means that an inexperienced player (e.g., your little brother) can easily get you killed if he wades into a nest of goblins. Even more unfortunate is that the game supports only local multiplayer. It would be incredibly fun to play DeathSpank online with multiple players, as with Castle Crashers. Alas, however, this is not to be.
The game’s excellent brand of humor makes up for some of the gameplay’s shortcomings. Small touches like the ability to warp around the map via a series of outhouses, or amusingly named items (such as the Demon Poop Hammer and Log Sword) harken back to the Monkey Island series. Likewise the conversations between DeathSpank and NPCs, guided by you through extensive dialogue trees, are especially amusing. Much of this is due to the unexpected turns these conversations take. I particularly enjoyed the twisted humor of one occasion in which a boss called the Nanny Demon begs DeathSpank for death because it hates its job. The demon’s only request is to “make it look good” because it doesn’t “want the other demons to know.”
The game takes place in a lush, colorful world with settings ranging from grassy hills to the aforementioned demonic underworld. The backgrounds are purposely designed to look like a 2D children’s book and the cut scenes are reminiscent of the visual style of Samurai Jack. The characters are exaggerated for comedic effect; DeathSpank himself is almost all head and torso with small, scrawny arms and legs. The animation is fluid and striking. I particularly liked the top-notch lighting and particle effects that are ever-present in battle. Small touches, such as when DeathSpank adjusts his codpiece after exiting an outhouse, further add to the game’s comedic atmosphere. All in all, DeathSpank features an excellent, stylish visual presentation that is full of panache. It’s arguably the most visually polished downloadable game since Shadow Complex.
The music is pitch-perfect and fits the game’s wacky atmosphere. The voice acting is also universally good. DeathSpank himself, portrayed by frequent voiceover artist Michael Dobson, fittingly uses the stereotypical comic book hero’s tone (think an exaggerated Buzz Lightyear) to great effect. The game showcases much of this voice acting through the previously mentioned dialogue trees between DeathSpank and the townsfolk/enemies. Simply put, the humor of these segments would not work without the voice actors’ excellent delivery.
None of the controller’s buttons go to waste in DeathSpank. You can map a weapon to each of the controller’s four face buttons and likewise four items (health potions, etc.) to the directional pad. This allows you to quickly and efficiently switch between weapons while slaying hordes of evildoers.
DeathSpank effectively emulates the hack-and-slash gameplay of its forebears while bringing some much-needed humor to the largely stoic world of RPGs. In fact, one could argue that DeathSpank serves as a parody of the RPG genre as a whole. The game is far from perfect, for the quests often devolve into item hunts and the lack of online multiplayer decreases the replay value. Yet DeathSpank, with its roughly 10 hours of gameplay, is still well worth the $15 price of admission on either Xbox Live or PlayStation Network.