Let's face it, sometimes gamers take themselves and their hobby a little too seriously. It's a nice change, then, when a game like DeathSpank comes along to remind us that we can have some laughs and fill our monthly hack-and-slash quota at the same time. At around $15 on XBLA, DeathSpank is a funny, silly, lightweight game and is perfect summer fare. Is it enough just to be the comedic life of the party? That's the question.
Ron Gilbert, one of the delightfully twisted brains behind the classic Monkey Island franchise, is the creator of DeathSpank and indeed, the off-kilter humor, bizarre non sequiturs, broken fourth wall moments, and pop culture references abound once again. The jokes range from low-brow scatology to high-brow jabs at WoW and Diablo; but perhaps the greatest strength of DeathSpank is its willingness to abandon continuity for a few frames of funny at just about every turn.
Of course, there is the requisite sword-and-sorcery story, which concerns the self-important hero DeathSpank's quest to obtain “The Artifact.” Completely keeping with the hoary traditions of action-RPGs, there is a main quest usually set aside at times for secondary quests (listed in DeathSpank's journal as “Unimportant Things I Have to Do”); a few brain-teasing puzzles; and all the loot, spells, power-ups, weapons, and armor you'd expect. If you've played Diablo, Titan Quest, Torchlight, or any other action-RPG, you know exactly how all of this goes down.
The gameplay gears grinding and turning underneath DeathSpank are nothing new (save for a few minor tweaks and twists), but it wisely deflates the chest-beating Conan wannabes' and typical RPGer's absurd obsession with stats, armor, spells, and super weapons. As a satiric, irreverent, Python-esque take on the whole hack-and-slash genre, DeathSpank is deftly abled to send you on quests like searching out a blacklight poster, upon the request of a talking tree, or bashing enemies with a “Magic Poop Hammer”.
Interface and controls are logical, mappable, and pretty well streamlined; though, despite of all the ranged weapons, combos, and special power-ups, the vast majority of time is spent in the rinse and repeat cycle of melee, run away, heal, and fight again. Health drains pretty quickly and (failing the use of a potion) takes some time and food to regenerate. Death is painless but for the loss of gold. Unfortunately, enemies respawn along with you, and you'll come back alive without anything in the Health bar.
Visually, DeathSpank is a color-saturated, cartoon-style combination of 2D and 3D environments and characters, aesthetically somewhere between Plants vs. Zombies and Torchlight. It's all done with a lot of flair and variety but it takes awhile to adjust to the amount of visual clutter in nearly every frame. The landscapes—ranging from moody swamps to candy-colored forests to creepy dungeons—are populated with an impressively large roster of creatures, critters, and goofy NPCs. You can explore the flora and fauna solo, or with a buddy (in a limited role) via local co-op play.
Not surprisingly, DeathSpank features some sharp, funny, dialogue and excellent, spot-on voice acting that's appropriately way over-the-top in delivery. This is one of the few games you'll play where each of the dialogue choices is worth a listen. Not unlike the introduction to Brutal Legend or Monkey Island, the jokes and references to other games (and just about everything else) come thick and fast. Not every joke's a side-splitter, but the Amuse-o-Meter stays pretty constantly pegged throughout the game's 8-10 hours. The music is likewise all over the stylistic map: cartoonish here, ersatz heroic there, and generally unobtrusive.
What we've got with DeathSpank is really a pretty sweet deal: a lot of triple-A game for a budget price. It's not the world's deepest, most profound experience—truth be told, it's a pretty shallow pool in which to splash around—but it does the RPG-thing well, and does the funny even better. Like those summer cineplex comedies that get you out of the sweltering heat for a few laugh-filled hours, DeathSpank delivers the goods.
Fire hydrants or videogames? Which is you pick to beat the summer heat? Have a better solution? Saunter on over to Twitter and let us know @Gamers_Hell