|Platform:||Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network|
It's tough to be a game with a legacy. When I heard that Deathspank was the brainchild of Ron Gilbert, one of the legendary designers of the point-and-click adventure game world, I was both excited and scared. Hothead Games' only previous release, Penny Arcade Adventures, wasn't bad, but the "sophomore slump" could have meant frightening things for Deathspank. However, when I spoke with them a few weeks before release about what they were delivering and how they'd approached the game, my spirits were lifted immensely. They clearly cared a lot about what they were doing and were releasing a product they felt proud of. And when I finally got to play it, I knew that they had reason to be proud.
The quest for The MacGuffin... er, Artifact.
This game is named after its star, the hero warrior Deathspank, who spends his days trying to do good for everyone around him. As the game begins, he is nearing the end of a quest to retrieve "The Artifact," because someone asked him to. There's never any mention of why The Artifact is important or what it does, but that is fine by Deathspank. You see, he's a mighty helpful guy, as long as you're the one who asked him for help. He seems to immediately trust the motivation of everyone he deals with, which leads to a number of fun, but clearly "evil" sidequests throughout the game. And that's really what the main story seems to be there for: to drive you to the places where you can find more sidequests. All of the sidequests are optional, but their rewards in both fun and experience points make them very worth completing.
And, thank goodness, they're funny too. If you've played the Monkey Island games, you'll know that Ron Gilbert is known for his games containing a lot of humor, and Deathspank doesn't disappoint. The dialogue is well written, and although there's a certain amount of self-referential humor and a few pop culture references, it never falls into the pit of "trying too hard." I went into the experience having seen many references to the game's scatological jokes, but I didn't feel like it went too far with them; and I'm not a fan of gross-out humor. I'll mention this again in a bit, but I played through most of the game with my wife, Amy, who felt the same way. The importance of this will be obvious to anyone who lives with a significant other.
Undowntroddening the downtrodden
Hothead describes Deathspank as an action RPG/adventure game, and that's fair. It could also be described as one of the few hack & slash games that actually makes a point of having a plot and characters (and I mean that as a compliment). There are some puzzles that don't involve hitting or fetching, and they're mostly good and not brain-bustingly difficult to solve. If you do get in trouble, the game includes a hint system whereby you can get a few increasingly pointed clues for each quest by opening one of a limited number of fortune cookies. I used them to solve a few quests ("just to check it out for my review," of course), but still ended the game with at least 20 cookies to my name. The feeling that you're playing an RPG is very strong, even though the character development is relatively light: there's no skill tree, but each time you level up, you'll get to choose one of three semi-randomly selected "hero cards," each of which upgrades one of six attributes like melee damage, ranged damage, and money dropped by enemies.
As you fight your way toward The Artifact, you'll try out quite a few weapons and pieces of armor, although this game isn't as loot-heavy as many action RPGs. In fact, the most-dropped items in my playthrough were easily money and food, followed by potions and spells. These include healing potions as well as temporary buff potions and spells, from speed potions to make you move more quickly to Black Hole Orbs to suck your enemies into a tiny singularity and crush them. Healing potions heal you instantly, but your most common form of HP regeneration will be eating food. Deathspank's clearly not on a diet – you'll be eating things like fried chicken, pizza, burgers, shakes, and "Midnight Mushrooms," all of which heal you a certain amount over the course of 8 seconds, as long as you don't take any action other than running around while you eat.
If you have a second controller and someone to use it, you can play local co-op, and your companion will play the part of Deathspank's faithful companion, Sparkles the Wizard. The two characters share an inventory and a health bar, which keeps things simple and moving quickly. Sparkles never says anything, can't open chests, and gets dragged along wherever Deathspank moves to, but he can pick up loot, attack enemies, and use four spells. He has a magic missile-style attack and a flamethrower attack, as well as a healing spell and a self-cloning spell (the clones can even make clones of themselves, although they all die after a period of time). Sparkles' stats are never displayed, but his spells get stronger over time, and Deathspank's armor simply adds health to the party meter, so although Sparkles can't equip anything, he does benefit from whatever his buddy is wearing. I played solo and with Amy (who has plenty of experience in console action RPGs, and yes, I'm a lucky guy), and both ways are fun. If you play co-op, you'll kill enemies more quickly and spend less time running and eating, so I'd recommend it, although some players may find that playing as Sparkles leaves them feeling like a "backseat gamer."
Discworld, is that you?
Deathspank's world must be shaped like a hamburger bun, as the land curves sharply away to the top of the screen, but much less so to the right and left. The terrain is 3D, as are the characters and enemies who inhabit it, but things like trees and buildings are 2D, and stick out of the ground as though they were Hollywood facades. Most areas are highly colorful, and those that aren't are obviously drab and grey on purpose. It's a great look, and I was reminded (in a good way) of Psychonauts. During dialogue, the lines being said are displayed in the middle of the screen next to a static drawing of the person talking. I might have preferred lip syncing, but that's really a nitpick, and I can't fault Hothead for going the direction they did given the size of their development team. The only visual complaint I can really give is that when you get swarmed by enemies, the screen can get a bit cluttered, especially if you're playing co-op, but dying is essentially consequence-free, and Deathspank hits really hard, so it doesn't generally stay cluttered for long.
I wanted to make special note of the characters and environments, all of which are designed really well. The game features some RPG standards like orcs, but it also includes Chizards (a cross between a chicken and a lizard), Bearalopes, and a number of other disturbingly funny foes. The difference between the city dump, the demonic mines, and the unicorn meadow are all striking, and if there's a bit of an environmentalist message to the way they look, it's still fair to say that you're not beaten over the head by it.
If only Deathspank met Captain Hammer and The Tick...
Every line in Deathspank is spoken and I can't think of a bad performance in the bunch. Deathspank's voice actor is said to have provided a crucial spark of "Yes! That's Deathspank!" to the team, and I couldn't agree more. He sounds every bit the over-the-top cheesy action hero that he is, whether he's agreeing to save a group of orphans or to kill off the annoying swamp donkeys who a rich land developer assures Deathspank "hate golf and everything it stands for." Deathspank's music is also nicely done, and I liked the fact that although there's combat music, it doesn't kick in every time you engage a lone enemy. Instead, it only sounds like you're in a fight if you're really in a fight.
Controls. Every game needs them, so you might as well do a good job.
Deathspank's controls are both simple and customizable, a touch that's easy to appreciate. The left thumbstick moves you around, and the d-pad and face buttons are all yours to set how you want. If you want weapons in all 8 slots, go for it. If you want one weapon, four potions, and three spells, that's fine too. I went with one potion, two spells, and some food on the d-pad, and two main weapons, a special weapon, and a crossbow on the face buttons. Using different weapons in a short period of time adds multipliers to your damage, and many enemies are resistant to one kind of damage or another, so having a variety of options instantly available is very useful. Changing the controls is easily done from the inventory screen, and if you don't want to waste time comparing armor, you can set the game to auto-equip the best armor from there as well.
There are a few fixed controls, but they're logical as well. One trigger opens your map, another opens your inventory, and the select button opens your quest log. From within the inventory or quest log, you can use the triggers to switch to a few standard menu screens that don't really require their own button, like the quest items inventory. Sparkles' attacks are all in fixed positions on the face buttons, and I loved the fact that pulling the right trigger teleports him to Deathspank's side. It's great whether he got trapped on the wrong side of a fence or you decided to wander separately around the screen grabbing loot.
Sadly, I do have two small gripes in terms of controls. The game seems a bit overly-finicky about where you stand if you want to interact with objects like chests, which will add up to maybe a minute of fiddling for the right spot over the course of your gameplay. It's not a major issue, just a little annoying. Also, when firing a ranged weapon, the game seems to prioritize targeting of things like barrels over the enemies who are running your way to kill you. Again, not a game-breaker, but I liked the crossbows quite a bit, so this did cause me trouble from time to time.
Thongs a lot!
Take an idea from someone who's designed multiple amazing games, add in a team who makes games they'd want to play and loves what they do, avoid the red tape of the retail distribution process, and what do you get? A great game like Deathspank, which provides a $60 experience for just $15. No game is entirely flawless, and Deathspank is no exception, but its few issues are very minor, and should in no way hold you back from getting in on this fun experience. If you like action RPGs and things that are funny, buy this game. You'll be glad you did.