18 May 2012

DeathSpank PC review

DeathSpank is the brainchild of Monkey Island creator Ron Gilbert. This game is a mix of Diablo style hack ‘n slash gameplay and the witty and utterly silly deadpan humor of games such as  Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle and Sam & Max hit the road. This is the goofiest spoof of role playing game stereotypes and hack ‘n slash adventure that I’ve had the pleasure of playing. I’m pretty much overwhelmed with positive impressions.

First of all, the title character DeathSpank is a weird hero with a wonderful voiceover that keeps using the word “heroic” and “justice” to describe pretty much any activity and task he undertakes.  I just could not restrain myself from grinning at the puns and silliness of the interactions with NPC’s in this game and the constant ridiculous seriousness of DeathSpank when he undertakes “heroic” quests such as gathering chicken lips or beating the poop out of demon imps (literarily).

Every character in this game has a fully voiced over dialogue, and with the important characters DeathSpank is given a dialogue options akin to most point and click adventures made by LucasArts back in the days. Most of the dialogue is just pure fun and does not lead anywhere, it can be DeathSpank ranting on and on about how dangerous and heroic his road has been.

The main story is wonderfully told with a voice over by a woman sounding a bit like Cate Blanchett in Lord of  the Rings which just adds to the silliness when everything revolves around some artifact called “the Artifact” which DeathSpank is looking for. The cut scenes add to the overall charm of this game by looking like the Power Puff Girls or similar animated series on Cartoon Network (with equally goofy looking and sounding villains). The humor of the story told between the chapters is really great, it’s hard not to laugh or at the very least smile at the “heroic” journey of DeadthSpank.

The game also has a very unique look for several reasons. One is that you kind of “walk over the horizon” if that makes any sense. The world is curved and kind of rolls towards you as you move forward. The graphics and art direction of the environments resembles a popup book with completely flat 2D buildings and it looks both funny and good.

DeathSpank himself, NPC’s and monsters are all simplistic 3D models that aren’t looking spectacular but the intent is clearly to make them blend in with the environments and background more than trying to make them pop with polished character models. Nevertheless the style and look of the character models has a nice touch. Players will be familiar with most of the monsters as they are clearly based upon  enemies from all over the gaming industry, but everything is goofed up. I saw “slime” from the Baldurs Gate games, floating eyes from Castlevania II Simon’s Quest, ants from Fallout as well as classic foes such as ridiculous looking goblins, ghosts, ghouls and trolls. The silliness also reaches new heights as some of the most difficult enemies in the game are “monsters” like unicorns and some kind of deer/bear hybrids. There is a lot of variety here and enemies of specific types all hang around different areas of the world. In the “demon mines” or “demon caves” you will find – demons and imps of various kinds. Goblins hang around the lakeside and spiders and other weird creatures in the woods while the enchanted forest is home to pissed off unicorns.

Despite this being a silly game the difficulty is actually pretty steep and you can’t just run into the thick of it at any level or else you will be killed by enemies. I just find it hilarious that his game is more challenging at “Normal” difficulty than Diablo III (and the killed enemies don’t disappear in this game). The combat is quite simple, hack and slash with either of your mouse buttons. DeathSpank is a dual wielding killing machine and you can alternate hitting the enemy with either of your weapons depending on which mouse button you click. If you alternate between your attacks DeathSpank pulls off a simple combo at the end of the chain, and will also generate “Justice” energy which is unleashed as a special and devastating attack every now and again. DeathSpank has a secondary ranged combat ability ( a crossbow) but the bulk of the fighting is done up close and personal. Beside trying to alternate attacks and inflict increasing amounts of damage on the enemy DeathSpank will soon also be forced to use his “shield block” ability. You will take huge amounts of damage if you let enemy attacks slip through and they will bombard you with punches if you allow yourself to be swarmed. Thus DeathSpank is surprisingly challenging and more often than not requires you to lure small groups of enemies away and handle them in isolated encounters where you can make the most of your attacks and shield.

DeathSpank also includes a surprising amount of loot, gear, potions and trinkets which really makes the game be a true hack ‘n slash adventure. The various pieces of armor slots in your inventory provide additional health points while certain items also provide protection against various sources of damage such as fire or poison. The only difference is that all equipment and loot in DeathSpank has this tongue in cheek humor and does not try to hide the fact that your pieces of gear only have glorified names while being regular pieces of armor. The weapons are extremely over the top, “LogSword”, hammers made out of boots, or just a mace shaped like an outstretched arm with a clenched fist.

There is also a lot of stats and stuff covered in the same deadpan humor which pokes fun of serious games and their weird  bookkeeping of your exploits ( “footsteps taken” , “undead re-deaded” etc).

When you level up you pick a “Playing card” with a new bonus to your character, such as moving faster, dealing more ranged damage, being able to wear armor of higher levels than your player level and so on. The inventory has a very clever feature called “item grinder” where you can quickly grind down items in your inventory which you don’t need and transform it into money so that you won’t have to bother selling junk to vendors. This grinder also includes a safety that prevents you from grinding down an item that is superior to one you are currently wielding – so that you won’t destroy anything of real value by accident by mistake. There are other design choices that make the gameplay avoid the overfilled inventory problem of games such as Diablo, your inventory can be checked to auto equip the best armor and there are drop boxes which you can find in various locations. These boxes are all one and the same and you can drop an item in one box and pick up the same item from another box. There are also dumpsters where you will find your lost gear and loot from time to time.

The main quest of finding “the Artifact” goes through a lot of side quests given to DeathSpank by NPC’s. The quests in this game range from simple “kill and fetch” to quests featuring minor puzzles that require the right item. The world is quite big and is unlocked piece by piece as the story progresses – you can always go back to old areas unrestricted. To avoid walking around for hours the game includes magic “outhouses” which save your progress if you walk past them and also allow you to teleport between outhouses that you have discovered in your travels. The game features  “auto save”  only, and saves every now and again – mostly when you pass an outhouse. This is probably the only thing that can be a bit frustrating since you cannot save / load like in most games. If you die you lose a bit of money and respawn at the nearest outhouse – and have to walk back to the place where you were killed (where you can pick up a fraction of your lost money).

The story is nothing spectacular, but it is a lot of fun and told in a hilarious way. The voice acting is great, the music is also surprisingly good – you can sense a touch of “Diablo” in it as well. The game is short, I finished it in 6 hours, but then it is also quite cheap  at 10 Euro on STEAM. It also prepares for a sequel during the last couple of seconds -  and there are 2 sequels from what I’ve read but I have not tried out either of them. The only real flaw with this game I think is the low re-play value, there isn't really any point to play it again after you've finished it as it is very linnear and does not include any choices or different endings. And while I have played linnear games like the Monkey Island series several times I can't say that DeathSpank plays in the same league - it is after all a completely different game. Sure the humor is very "Ron Gilbert", but it is first and foremost a hack n slash game and in the end has to be judged on those merits.

Still I found DeathSpank to be a rather unique PC game experience, that surprises with challenging gameplay, creative tweaks to inventory and item handling and offers silly deadpan humor at its best.


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