The Baconing Review2 Sep 2011  by
I’m really not sure why this particular game is called The Baconing instead of DeathSpank: The Baconing. I mean, it’s the third game starring DeathSpank, and there’s little in the way of deviation from previous titles in the series. It’s certainly true that you don’t need to have played either of the previous two games to get the most out of this, but I can’t help but think that removing the familiar part of the game’s title isn’t going to do wonders for exposure, both to long-term fans and newcomers to the series.
Still, it’s not all bad! Following on from what we’ll call (to avoid spoilers) the “canonical ending” of previous title Thongs of Virtue, The Baconing opens with DeathSpank lording it over the city of Thongtopia and lamenting that he’s just too good at his job. He’s vanquished pretty much all the evil there is. What’s left for a hero to do?
Quite a lot, apparently. Our hero’s boredom is almost immediately relieved as a giant… thing… starts rampaging through the city with an army of his old foes the Orques, now mechanically-enhanced into – get ready to groan – Cyborques.
It transpires that DeathSpank has foolishly been wearing all of the Thongs of Virtue (the past game’s macguffins) at the same time, creating an all-powerful doppelganger in the form of the AntiSpank, unkillable until such time as five of the six Thongs of Virtue are destroyed in the mythical Bacon Fires. As such, DeathSpank’s off on another heroic hike around the world to track down the Bacon Fires, destroy the Thongs of Virtue, and vanquish the AntiSpank. That’s probably the stupidest sentence I’ve ever committed to text, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I top it by the end of this review.
As with previous DeathSpank games, if you chip away to The Baconing’s crispy core you’ll find a Diablo-alike. You wander the world (either by clicking your destination, using WASD, or – if you want the best experience – with a gamepad) completing quests, hoovering up vast amounts of equipment, and killing vicious monsters. No change to the basic template, then. You’d be forgiven for thinking that there’s no change to the combat system, either, but there are a few subtle tweaks that might take long-term players by surprise.
In an attempt to add a bit more tactical nuance to the sword-swinging, crossbow-shooting battles, DeathSpank’s health has been drastically reduced. How drastically? To my eternal shame, I died in the third battle. (Not that death is more than a slap on the wrist – as ever, the Hero to the Downtrodden simply respawns at the nearest outhouse, minus a chunk of money that’s left on his corpse.)
Blocking with the shield is more important than ever, and there are a few new associated moves. DeathSpank’s shield bash – knocking foes away and stunning them briefly – can now be triggered by releasing the block button after giving it a second or two to charge up. Timing this just as a projectile attack is about to hit you will reflect it straight back at the foe, causing a fair whack of damage and giving a nice buff to the Do-Lots-Of-Damage bar (or the Justice meter, if you want to be exact).
In addition, ranged weapons have yet again gone under the knife. This time around they’ve all got infinite ammunition, and they can all unleash super-powerful attacks if you spend a couple of seconds charging them up. Early on this is restricted to either a quick flurry of bolts or a spread-shot effect, but by the end of the game a charged attack unleashes a machine gun-like hail of exploding arrows, capable of completely wiping out a group of enemies in a single attack… or killing you, if one of them gets too close when you open fire.
I’m torn as to how positive I feel about these changes. Combat was never really DeathSpank’s strong suit, but – and I may be alone in this – I kinda liked the RSI-inducing bash-fest from previous games. The combat was a moderately amusing diversion from the bits the series does really well: humour and world-building. While this is an admirable attempt at shoring up the series’ traditional weak points, the focus on slightly more complex combat somewhat detracts from the carefree nature and makes it harder to get to the really good bits.
At least the humour is utterly top notch: The Baconing is a game that most definitely brings the funny. At their best the majority of self-confessed “humorous” games manage a knowing groan, a wry smirk, a grin, or even an occasional chuckle. In contrast, The Baconing had me genuinely laughing on a number of occasions, and one exchange still had me bursting out in fits of giggles five minutes later. There are plenty of excellent lines tucked away if you exhaust the dialogue trees, and every single item has an amusing descriptive line. Top marks, writing team! (Except when it comes to the always-on subtitles, which are rife with spelling and grammatical errors. I normally give subtitles a free pass, but if they’re permanently activated then having that many errors betrays a disappointing lack of polish.)
Full marks go to the voice actors, too. Michael Dobson does a predictably superb job as our macho (but woefully thick) hero, evoking yet more memories of The Tick, and I’ve got nothing bad to say about the supporting cast. The delivery is pitch-perfect, which is of staggering importance when comedy’s on the line.
The world itself, sadly, is where things take a bit of a tumble. DeathSpank was set in a parody fantasy world, while Thongs of Virtue focused on things a bit nearer to the modern ages with pirates, various global conflicts, and the Wild West up for lampooning. The Baconing has a mix of both.
That’d be fair enough, but there’s no sense of cohesion. Where Thongs of Virtue gave you the sense of exploring a wide and varied world, The Baconing gives the impression that you’re wandering a mostly-linear series of corridors from one unconnected area to the next… which is exactly what you’re doing, and the world map makes no attempt to hide this. Worse, only two of the five main areas have any real feeling of imagination behind them: the Disneyland-gone-wrong Forest of Tomorrow – complete with mutant confectionary monsters and a genetically-engineered edible mascot – and Valhalla Heights, the retirement home of the gods. Barring one entirely optional sidequest (an arena-based series of battles) I don’t recall there ever being any reason to revisit previous areas, either.
The pacing’s awfully dodgy, too. The majority of the game is based around combat, which is again fair enough… up until the final area, which is primarily puzzle-based with a few combat interludes. There are some genuinely clever brain-teasers tucked away, too, which is why it’s such a shame they’re not spread throughout the game instead of being lumped into one place.
Then there are a few sections that feel desperately like checklist ticking: Thongs had a marvellous moment where you get hold of a pirate ship and can suddenly explore a huge swathe of ocean, so naturally The Baconing also needs a sailing section. Only much smaller and less exciting, with none of the joy or wonder. Sadly, the disappointing world is a big problem for a game like this. Again: where Thongs of Virtue had a grand world to explore, with wide-opens areas that felt linked together, The Baconing mostly has a set of disparate corridors.
In the end, The Baconing feels a little phoned-in. It’s not a bad game by any stretch; clocking in at around 10 hours it’s superb value for money and the comedy, characters, and ludicrous situations are certainly worth the price of admission by themselves. (I’m pretty sure it’s impossible to hate a game with a weapon called the Club of Emily Dickinson.) But a lingering sense of disappointment begins to sink as the hours tick by and you explore more of the world, and the game never hits the heights it really should.
Still, it’s a generally fun romp, so let’s close on a high note: the ending sets the stage for a sequel with plenty of scope for fantastic areas. If Hothead continues to work on the gameplay side of things and gets the environment back up to par, we’ll be in for something truly spectacular next time.
Maybe it’ll even have online co-op.