There’s a reason why gaming’s comedy sub-genre is regarded as a dangerous and untapped vein, a test most developers would just rather not take. In a medium where narrative is routinely a secondary (and sometimes tertiary) afterthought, choosing to willingly infuse your title with a healthy dose of the funnies is tantamount to turning up drunk for a blind date. In other words: you’re intentionally making things hard for yourself from the offset. Hothead’s DeathSpank – its very title instantly and proudly declaring a sincere case of irreverence and toilet humour – would therefore look to have its job cut out for it. Luckily, it also has one of gaming’s stalwart witty writers, Ron Gilbert, at its sturdy helm; the humour and delivery from arguably Gilbert’s most beloved series, Monkey Island, evident throughout this quirky tale of demon poop, needy orphans and disproportionately wise-cracking heroes.
Succinctly, DeathSpank is a comical and colourful Diablo clone, with liberal dashes of its own hack’n’slash button-bashing and role-playing lite flavours peppered throughout. The nonsensical plot (DeathSpank wants to get his hands on an infamous trinket known as The Artifact for reasons probably best known to DeathSpank) suitably sets up its titular self-declared champion as he traverses a fantastical world inhabited by a typical cast of destitute folk requiring assistance and adversaries in dire need of vanquishing. For make no mistake about it, DeathSpank is unashamedly a quest-grind, the incessant and often repetitive find-and-retrieve structure clearly the backbone of the game’s core mechanic. However, what elevates DeathSpank above other games that solely rely on such taxing repetitiveness is its resplendent presentation of both world and character design, the near-perfect delivery of its signature comedy aspects and the fact that, niggling gripes aside, it wholeheartedly delivers in the fun department.
Combat is handled by mapping numerous weapons DeathSpank can both purchase and acquire through defeating enemies to each of the controller’s face-buttons with ranged attacks covered through the use of our hero’s trusty crossbow, an infinitely replenishing tool for keeping the likes of inquisitive Greems at bay. There’s staple RPG logic at play here. An axe imbued with fire magic will obviously do little to deter a demonic imp, for instance, while its icy equivalent will obviously fare much better at dispensing the fiery critters. There’s also armour, helmets, amulets, boots, charms and a whole host of ancillary bric-a-brac to assist DeathSpank on his ever-increasing roster of quests, sub-quests and other distractions. It’s overkill to a degree, especially considering the game can be completed without much more than indifferent attention paid to your bustling character and inventory screens. Eons can be spent customising DeathSpank with various weapons and defensive configurations, but as long as you assign corndogs and nachos to the appropriate directional buttons for health issues and have a couple of decent weapons at hand, there’s not much that will stymie your progress toward the end-goal. The game even tells you when you’re using an ineffective weapon against a foe, a handy “Inert” message popping up signalling the need to switch tactic.
It’s as if the creators have intentionally constructed a game that is both instantly accessible and friendly for a more casual crowd while also engrafting a clockwork of statistics driven complexity just beneath the veneer; a convoluted puzzle you can experience at your own discretion or alternatively choose to put little weight in. You don’t have to wrestle with the endless permutations found in the veritable smörgåsbord of armaments and doohickeys, a reality that suggests Hothead have produced a well-wrought game if perhaps an unnecessarily intricate one.
The co-op mode presented is a transient distraction, Sparkles the Wizard, DeathSpank’s spell-throwing buddy, doing his best to break a model that was admittedly already creaking. It’s amusing enough, and younger gamers will probably revel in the chance to tackle opponents in such a collaborative manner. But for the rest of us, what little challenge was presented as a lone protagonist is dispelled entirely when it becomes obvious Sparkles can pretty much conflagrate everything in a fifty metre radius on command.
Boss battles do up the ante but there’s little by way of penance for dying. Using one of the many outhouses as spawning points (yes, more toilet humour), DeathSpank goes once more unto the breach to tackle what are essentially oversized and appropriately stouter versions of the world’s bountiful collection of denizens.
The control system is also a tad burdensome for the job at hand – especially taking into account how the map and inventory screens have been mapped to L1 and R1 respectively. By moving these to Select and Start, the shoulders could have been opened up to allow combos or some other special attack malarky (like when DeathSpank’s Justice Meter powers up before unleashing a powerful flash of vengeance upon nearby evildoers). Regrettably, there’s no jump feature and what’s presented as attack-chaining will be deemed quite simplistic by most. There is a lock-on feature presented, though it’s completely superfluous to requirements. Much akin to the shield blocking technique that is both tricky to employ and equally redundant, there just seems to be a lot going on that often comes across as either over-complicated or under-developed. The ability to enhance your shield duration, speed of movement and resistance to certain elements through leveling up is possible for instance, though it’s often difficult to actually perceive the real benefit.
Despite these qualms, combat is far from a disaster. It’s got its oddities, but for the most part sauntering around the world laying smack upon an eclectic menagerie of creatures, ghosts and poisonous plants is an enjoyable romp. The quests themselves are a motley rabble of find, fetch and ‘figure out’ challenges; one such early request to simply kill “stoopid chickens.” There’s also a trophy for killing a set number of these moronic birds, such is the tone of the gameplay on offer. The irony that you can dispense of idiot game by unleashing your own vicious fowl upon the unwary poultry as one of many hilarious special attacks is also not lost, such tomfoolery regularly permeating the other quests available.
For the most part the puzzles will unlikely incur much head-scratching, with only some of the more intricate of tasks – like when it’s necessary to combine objects in order to unlock certain new items for instance – demanding assistance. For these occurrences a clue system is on hand to help. Fortune cookies, scattered about the land like seeds of knowledge, can be picked up and used on any troublesome chore proving too difficult to decipher. It’s a useful system, though probably one that will likely only be infrequently used by the more perceptive of gamer.