Rare is the game centering around humor. I don’t mean the “oh the main female lead has such humongous breasts that bounce all around I wish I had such ginormous titties but I don’t because I am a loli” type of humor that’s so prevalent in games nowadays, but rather the satirical, tongue-in-cheek humor that pokes fun at the tropes and cliches of gaming that we have all come to accept. Hothead games, responsible for the Penny Arcade Adventure games (before the series’ tragic and undignified demise), is at the helm of Deathspank: Thongs of Virtue, a game whose very essence is based on such humor. The second entry in as many months (!?), it almost seems as if the release itself is a commentary on how the game industry is so fond of milking its franchises dry. Maybe I’m over-analyzing things, but if this is truly the commentary Deathspank: Thongs of Virtue hopes to make, I daresay it went a bit too far.
Meet Deathspank, a powerful “hero” with violent tendencies whose general incompetence and lack of mental capacity draw more comparisons with The Tick than Batman; I half expected Deathspank to shout “KEEN!” OR “SPOON!” at any given moment. The story begins with the titular hero stuck in a prison, spending his days carving potatoes. Of course, such a profession is intensely un-hero-like, so Deathspank leads the inmates in a massive breakout, which succeeds… kind of. Directly afterward Deathspank is given the task to collect six holy thongs of virtue that have corrupted their wearers.
Being a tongue-in-cheek look at game design and story progression, Deathspank is rife with in-jokes and nods to other games. Scenarios such as being given a pirate’s ship for the flimsiest of reasons, having to decipher the Japanese comments of a judge to win a cook off contest, and dialogue trees that end up going nowhere significant have the potential to be hilarious… “potential” being the operative word. Most of the jokes in Deathspank fall flat, and the most I could muster for the best jokes was a lukewarm smirk as the game designers winked at and nudged me from beyond my TV. Having never played the first Deathspank game, I have no frame of reference for the humor of the series, but the jokes in this game fell short of the mark, rarely having the desired effect. Being a game that lives and dies by its humor, this is already a major blow. It’s also incredibly puzzling, as Hothead games delivered some honestly gut busting scenes in Penny Arcade Adventures.
As far as dangling carrot storylines go, Deathspank does little to hide the fact that the main story is basically a collectathon-type game. The problem here is that Deathspank bases all of its gameplay around hated tropes and clichés in an attempt to mock them. Commentary is well and good, but every single one of Deathspank’s missions and quests involves collecting X amount of Y items, or killing unique enemy Z and bringing its head/pinky/thigh bone back to the quest giver. The entire main storyline is basically one long and tedious fetch quest. There’s a reason these clichés are hated, and it’s because using them is poor game design. Having such an annoying game progression structure gets in the way of enjoying the game, satire be damned. If the jokes were spot-on, it’s likely that the narrative wouldn’t be so obviously obnoxious, but the lack of effective humor only makes the flaws inherent in the storyline that much more noticeable.
It’s a shame, too, because the actual gameplay is fun and engaging, if a bit shallow and tedious. The player assigns weapons and battle items (such as potions that increase critical hit rate) to each of the four face buttons, and healing items to the four directions on the d-pad. The left analog stick is used for movement, while the R2 button is used to guard. When the player has attacked enough enemies, a bar at the bottom of the screen (dubbed The Justice Meter) fills up and allows use of powerful special abilities for unique weapons. While the tomahawk will allow Deathspank to spin around in a WHIRLWIND OF JUSTICE, the jackhammer cracks the ground open to hit enemies for massive damage – it’s just a shame there’s no giant crab enemy. Using different weapons in succession increases the combo counter, which in turn not only strengthens weapon damage, but also increases the rate at which the Justice Meter fills. Later on in the game the player can gain access to runes that allow the combination of two weapons in order to execute devastating special attacks. Weapons and armor can also have different elemental attributes which can affect the outcome of battles, though this aspect is rather straightforward. Using fire attacks on ice enemies is something a brain-dead baboon with botulism could probably figure out. Any extra or useless items can be turned into currency instantly in the inventory screen.
To be sure, combat is enjoyable, but it lacks the necessary depth to hook the player. Although the game throws weapons and items at the player like cheap candy corn on Halloween, most won’t find a compelling reason to experiment with the system, instead relying on a specific collection of weapons to get them through the day, upgrading them when appropriate. Player death is punished with a temporary loss of funds and a respawn at a nearby outhouse. Due to the way the game is structured, many fights involve the player “Zerging” the enemy and hoping his or her resources outlast the enemy’s health bar.
The game’s aesthetics don’t especially stand out, but they get the job done. The graphics are a bizarre amalgam of 2D sprites and 3D models, and while the sprites are good enough, the models could have used a bit more polish. The music and sounds are not memorable in the least, but not so offensive that they grate on the nerves after prolonged play. Inoffensive but unremarkable would be the best way to describe the game’s aesthetic.
Playing on the hardest difficulty offered me 20 or so hours of fetch questing and monster killing. A second player can join in as a secondary character, but it’s mainly a gimmick and really doesn’t add much to the game outside of offering some form of co-op. Taken purely on its content-to-cost ratio, Deathspank: Thongs of Virtue is an incredible value at $15. The humor and gameplay don’t always hit the right notes, but they are well done enough to keep the player amused for the entirety of the game. It’s by no means a bad game, or even a mediocre game. Its presentation and gameplay are all quite enjoyable and well above average. Unfortunately, the truth remains that because of its lack of remarkable or memorable gameplay and aesthetics, combined with mostly lukewarm humor, there are many more games that players will spend $15 on before even considering Deathspank.