That Hothead Studios would revisit the well and create a sequel to this year’s humourous and enjoyable DeathSpank is hardly a surprising revelation. The fact that another helping of poop jokes, frivolous lampooning and grandstanding histrionics has come so soon, however, and the biggest question is not whether our hero can find these fabled lost Thongs of Virtue, but if the lumbering champion didn’t deserve even the briefest of tea breaks after his last adventure.
DeathSpank was a solid RPG-lite gambol, infused with sublime writing and well-crafted, if admittedly linear, game-play. The game’s titular character also possessed the remarkable ability of coming across like an old friend; an affable dolt we’d gladly buy a pint for before sitting back and listening, cautiously, to his tales of likely apocryphal bravado. Of course, it could be argued that, as a character, DeathSpank borrows much from the likes of The Tick and other asinine misguided heroes and that Hothead have merely tweaked a well-used mould. No matter, we liked him, and his quest for the Artefact was something we wholeheartedly invested in, questionable wardrobe and cheesy one-liners to boot.
In Thongs of Virture, DeathSpank, reeling from the first game’s closing epiphany (we won’t give it away here) must continue on his quest to find the eponymous Thongs of Virtue, talismans of power much akin to Sauron’s similar collection of trinkets scattered across Middle Earth. It’s a fairly robust collection, with a ragtag bunch of despots each having one in their possession. Such a simple plot device sets up the structure of the game, with logical and punctuated boss battles dividing the action into varied and fitting scenarios. This break from DeathSpank’s solitary fantasy setting offered in the first outing is a diverse welcome, and while the game suffers from a lack of ingenuity in the game-play department since the first DeathSpank, the eclectic locales – including a robot factory replete with lasers, the Old West and a World War II setting – are colourful, detailed and brimming with personality.
Thankfully, and despite having an extended incubation period of only a few months over its precursor, the game’s designers have managed to correct one of the first game’s minor failings – the dependency on fetch quests to add longevity – with tasks more puzzle-based and less “go, find, and bring back” than before. It adds to the game’s dynamic and, as a whole, the overall experience is better balanced than its inaugural offering. Thongs of Virtue also maximises the tools at its disposal to a larger extent than DeathSpank 1, infusing as much variety as possible when it comes to completing quests. Merging items feature once again, while coming up with ingenious ways to surmount challenges and adversaries is more in tune with the Monkey Island method than what was found in the previous game.
In terms of the series’ characteristic humour, Ron Gilbert’s direction and Sean Howard’s dialogue shines throughout the quests, with zings and anachronistic references making every conversation between our hero and the myriad of offbeat inhabitants of his world an enjoyable exchange. Any game that has a secondary character called Steve who was raised by ninjas and rides around on a unicorn should be applauded. In addition, how many games let you fight a super-fat, malevolent Santa Claus?
So, it’s arguably better than the series’ debut, but, and this is unfortunate, due to how similar it is to the first game, and despite the improvements mentioned above, DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue doesn’t live up to its own potential. But how could it? The game literally uses the same engine, the same animations, even the same music in parts that featured the first time out. This is less a follow-up than a second-serving of the same, admittedly enjoyable, elements found before. It feels like you’ve eaten this particular great meal already, and recently, that it would have been nicer to maybe indulge in something a tad different, though from the same accomplished chef.
Of course, there are no defined or consecrated rules for creating a sequel. There’s also the old adage how following any successful property, be it a film, a book or a game, is fraught with unfair public demands. People want more of the same, but also something different. But not too different; no, it needs to still be like the first experience. But not exactly like the first, because then it would just feel like a rehash.
It’s a precarious balancing act and one Hothead practically side-stepped by revealing that both Thongs of Virtue and the first DeathSpank were developed simultaneously. Such a Back To The Future/Matrix-esque model was undoubtedly a time and money-saving exercise, but it has led to the fact that, despite the new locations, weapons, characters and quests, DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue feels so close to the first game that the novelty that came before is not repeated here; simply because this could not be classified new by any stretch of the imagination.
- The writing is stellar, possibly even funnier than the first game.
- Bigger than the first, even more hours of poop references to enjoy.
- Puzzles are stronger, the reliance on fetch quests often replaced with clever game-play challenges.
- Almost a carbon copy of the first game. Very little in the way of updates or expansion.
- Some quests are recycled verbatim from before.
- Co-op still not what it could be as the secondary character is purely there as an incidental side-kick.
Like that fifth scoop of ice-cream ordered, delicious in its own right but diminished after having already waded through four other similar flavours, DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue’s biggest flaw is, remarkably, the fact that its timing is against it. Whether trying to ride a wave of goodwill on the back of positive reviews or simply wishing to maximise brand potential, Hothead have done the opposite. Rather than relishing in more DeathSpank, Thongs of Virtue is so similar to the first game that it feels retrogressive to some degree. It might sound like kvetching – after all, the game is still very enjoyable – but its lack of innovation over part one and the close proximity between releases leaves a weird deja-vu tang in the player’s mouth. This is gaming Groundhog Day, but Bill Murray has barely learned a new song in the interim.
Perhaps Hothead skipped that economics lesson on the concepts of supply and demand. We weren’t really demanding a new DeathSpank, and this sophomore helping, though enjoyable in its own right, would have been better served if it had appeared six months from now with a smattering of extra enhancements when fans of the first title would be more than eager to revisit the dullard’s inane ramblings. There’s still good fun here, and it’s exceptional value for money, but perhaps hold off until the lustre of the first game has faded a smidgen, when this retread will likely appear a little less than what it is: merely a very good – if perhaps unrequested – retake.