DeathSpank is a downloadable hack-n-slash RPG available for $15 on the PlayStation Network. In terms of play length, it is a mere snack treat compared to the hearty victuals provided by the previous games for which I’ve lurched up to the Cave of Assessment. However, we can still pose the critical question: is it a canapé or a cheez-it?
DeathSpank’s lead designer, Ron Gilbert, has already earned his ticket into the Gaming Hall of Fame by being the lead designer of the first two Monkey Island adventure games, which themselves have recently been repackaged into HD Special Editions and made available for download after scientists detected high levels of Nostalgium in them.
Monkey Island games were known for their sense of humour, and if you couldn’t tell from the title, DeathSpank also seeks to bring the lulz. However, comedy in games is a tricky thing. Many games that proclaim themselves to be funny are crap to play, and usually not that funny to boot.*
With DeathSpank you can see that every effort has been made to cram in the gags. It starts with the art style, which is cartoony and in the vein of a pop-up book of twisted fairy tales. The gameworld is surprisingly big and there is a decent variety of landscape and beasties between various areas, from the psychedelic vibes of the candy cane forest, to the spookier haunted wood and demonic mines. This is a world where Unicorns are belligerent and fearsome.
The story is also deliberately silly, with DeathSpank being on sent on a quest to recover an artefact known as … The Artefact and to defeat the antagonist, Lord Prong. Further dollops of amusement are served up through dialogue and the descriptions of loot items.
Overall, I reckon the humour was pitched a little low for my tastes. The prevalence of poo gags and thong references gave me the feeling that I would have enjoyed it more if I were 13 years old. However, there are so many gags packed into the game that I got some yuks, and some of them will probably land with you.
Underneath the comedy, this is a hack n slash RPG, Diablo-style, so 90% of your game time will be spent wandering around pressing buttons to smite beasties, score loot and level up. The combat system contains some attempts to prevent the arrival of Lord Button of Mash. DeathSpank can wield 4 weapons at once, each with an attack that can be mapped to a face button. Mr Spank also has a Justice Meter that unlocks special attacks when it’s full. The Justice Meter fills up quicker when you score hits with a combination of weapons rather than repeatedly using one (ie your best) weapon. The special attacks are damage-dealing room-clearers and become crucial in the mid-to-late game. However, the timing for chaining these combos is imprecise and you can often end up just mashing two buttons instead of one, so before you know it the Lord has bivvied in your lounge room and is raiding your wallet for scutage.
There is a block system but beasties’ attack animations were generally not detailed enough to know when to time your blocks, especially when facing a swarm o’beasties, which happens muchly. As such, blocking is as vestigial as racing stripes. It’s too easy just to bash your way through and spam healing items.
Levelling up is pretty simple – there are no classes or skill trees, only DeathSpank, and as he levels up he gets more health, deals more damage and can use better items. There’s little replay value here as you can’t play through again with a different character.
DeathSpank satirises clichés of RPG quest design in the sense that it uses them but acknowledges that it is doing so. This kind of thing has been done before in the console version of Bard’s Tale and, in another genre, Matt Hazard. In those games the protagonist was snarky and cynical about the clichés, which wore thin faster than Christian Bale’s patience for directors of photography. By contrast, DeathSpank is cheesily enthusiastic about his role as quest-receiver. However, like spraying a homeless person with deoderant, the illusion of freshness is all too brief before the aroma dissipates and you realise the same crusty being lurks underneath.
The questing is varied up somewhat through the inclusion of puzzles. Some quests require use of inventory items, which can be combined with each other or items in the environment. The puzzles were pretty easy; once again, probably pitched to those pesky 13 year olds. But if you give the game a break for a few days, you may forget where stuff is. For these moments, there are fortune cookies, which can be found around the place and spent on hints for a quest of your choice. I liked the hint system, but given that it’s there to back you up, they could have made the puzzles trickier.
Overall, DeathSpank represents value for money in that it has high production values and a lengthy campaign for a downloadable game. It could occupy you for 8 hours or so if you want to finish everything. Whether it does occupy you will depend a lot on whether you dig the jokes, because the combat and quest structure become noticeably repetitive from early on in the game.
*eg: Leisure Suit Larry: Box Office Bust, Destroy All Humans 2, need I go on?