Hearing that a game has a name like ‘DeathSpank’ conjures up all sorts of worrying expectations in the head of a reviewer. As I opened the envelope containing the debug code with trembling fingers, a mass of questions swirled in my head. Was this some sort of hack ‘n slash through an S&M leather club using whips, riding crops and Lord knows what else? Would it involve fatally punishing naughty children with a school ruler? Would I need to seek professional help or take a shower afterwards?
Well, no, as it turns out; DeathSpank is the name of a horned-helmet-wearing dullard with an idiotic grin permanently plastered to his shovel-shaped face. He also happens to be the titular hero in a new sword and sorcery adventure from Ron Gilbert, the man behind titles filled with goofy humour such as Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island. So DeathSpank isn’t risqué, shocking or even slightly edgy. DeathSpank is just really really stupid.
But make no mistake, while DeathSpank’s visuals and sense of humour put it firmly in the whacky juvenilia camp, Hothead Games’s new downloadable IP is a compelling and immensely fun game. DeathSpank is a loot-based hack n’ slash RPG set to a comedy jazz score with stunning cartoon visuals. It also boasts enough toilet humour gags to sink Roy Chubby Brown. Imagine a day-glow version of Diablo written by the Marx Brothers and you’ll start to get the picture.
The game’s story is hardly worth mentioning, but here it is anyway; DeathSpank is on an Epic Quest to find… The Artefact! That’s it. Oh, there’s some nonsense about his arch-enemy Lord Von Prong who wants to kill DeathSpank and take his purple thong, but did you really need to know that? No, you didn’t. Much of the main story – which at time is revealed in lovely, if brief, animated sequences – is simply a backdrop for the action. For the most part, players will be blissfully unaware of it as they smash barrels, fire chickens at monsters and trundle around the game’s gorgeous environment meeting characters and taking on quests.
Humour informs every part of DeathSpank. The animation is suitably cartoon-like, the world’s monsters are zany – the bestiary includes sabre-toothed donkeys, vicious chickens and cow/kangaroo creatures call Kangamoos – and the quests themselves raise a wry smile. This is probably the first game I’ve ever played which required me to knock the living excrement out of demons – literally, with a weapon called a Demon Poop Hammer. As a character DeathSpank is reminiscent of The Tick, the titular hero of Ben Edlund’s superb comic book series about an inept crime-fighter.
Like The Tick, DeathSpank equal parts kick-ass hero and noble simpleton and he’s also completely impervious to sarcasm and irony. In fact, the character even shares the same vocal timbre as Townsend Coleman, who voiced The Tick from the animated series. The game’s humour isn’t particularly high-brow. Rather, its appeal is very similar to a comedian reeling off groan-worthy one-liners. Eventually, the sheer number of jokes starts to penetrate and the audience begins to smile. Then a joke that’s sheer gold gets dropped into the mix and things become laugh-out-loud hilarious.
The look and feel of DeathSpank allows the player to gloss over some of the game’s shortcomings – most notably the combat and the (kill or) fetch-quest core gameplay. While DeathSpank contains some of the most outlandish weapons and armour to appear in any game (Log Sword, anyone?), the actual gameplay lends itself mostly to repetitive button-bashing. Players can have up to four weapons (ranged, melee or both) mapped to the four face buttons and healing potions and other items are mapped to the D-pad. By using different weapons and stringing together their attacks, players fill up DeathSpank’s Justice meter which, once filled, allows him to execute a bigger attack using one of the weapons the player selected. This can be useful with some enemies who have the tendency to attack in swarms. However, the Justice meter fills very quickly and while players have a wide variety of weapons on offer, the ease with which they can defeat most foes by hammering the face buttons doesn’t really inspire them to mix things up much.
Hardcore RPG fans may also balk at the fact that DeathSpank isn’t exactly what you’d call deep. While some quests contain humorous aspects to them, most of them can be boiled down to “fetch this” or “kill that” requests from NPCs. There’s the odd puzzle thrown in to break things up, but these aren’t too challenging (with one or two exceptions). The game’s RPG elements are also pretty shallow. A lot of weapons and armour are made obsolete as the player progresses through the game and the levelling up system is very lightweight.
The local drop-in/drop-out co-op mode also leaves a lot to be desired. Players joining the game have to play as a wizard called Sparkles, who has only four spells – one of which is relegated to healing DeathSpank. With Sparkles, the player is completely dependent on whoever is controlling the game’s titular hero – they can’t interact with other characters or pick up loot or use any items they find in the environment. To be frank, the experience of playing with Sparkles will likely make the player feel more like a third-wheel than an actual participant in the action.
These gripes aside, however, there’s a palpable sense of fun one gets from watching DeathSpank plough through a horde of enemies or try to hold a sage-like conversation with a cow. The excellent voice acting, stunning visuals and engaging sense of humour also ensure that DeathSpank’s quest for The Artefact never quite become a boring grind. Furthermore the game is huge; the expansive maps are brimming with missions and side-quests for the player to dive into and at 10 hours plus to complete the whole thing, it’s also great value for money. DeathSpank is a brash, funny and enjoyable package, and while it may not appeal to gamers whose tastes run exclusively towards the high-brow (or, snobs as we’d call them), for our money it’s the most fun you can have with a chicken-firing hand-cannon.