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Greetings, humble Reader. I am DeathSpank, a hero of heroes who’s come to these humble lands to obtain The Artifact, administer righteous justice and to give those in need the hero-ing of their life.
Okay, so that’s just me typing, but that’s definitely how the character would open a review. The stoic, small-minded hero, with a very peculiar run, started life in 2004 as an in-joke on Ron Gilbert’s (he of Monkey Island fame) website Grumpy Gamer. Gilbert would subsequently use the character in the following months to poke fun at the games industry, but that idea went south when he decided that, actually, he quite liked DeathSpank. And thus this, a downloadable hack and slash adventure, was born.
This knowledge alone should be more than enough to tell you DeathSpank is not an entirely serious character, though the underlying genre frameworks behind the title are keen on playing it straight. At heart it’s a mixture of Diablo and Monkey Island, and while the combination is frequently charming, unique and intriguing, the end product never quite gels together with absolute success.
Still, it’s undeniably a bit of a visual treat as DeathSpank gallivants over a rolling pop-up landscape, chopping down foes across a variety of fantasy locales including ornate monasteries, red-hot demon caves and even a candy garden that’s home to a herd of evil unicorns. And, yes, there are also pirates. The oddball landscape has a distinctive visual style, too, created by overlaying hand-drawn 2D artwork on a 3D world. Unlike in every other game ever made, it looks delightful when scenery springs up on the horizon.
The plot is equally as daft as its slack-jawed protagonist. The first couple of hours see DeathSpank arriving at the all-powerful Artifact, something his clumsy hands have been yearning to touch for his entire life. Just as he’s about to celebrate another jolly good hero-ing well done, it’s snatched from his grasp by the orc henchmen of local rapscallion Lord Von Prong. Turns out, though, that Prong wasn’t even after the Artifact to begin with: he actually had his eye on DeathSpank’s strapping purple thong. Oh, and Von Prong has also nicked a group of orphans who DeathSpank decides to rescue (by throwing them into a sack) for a large cash reward.
The story takes a couple of hours to hit its stride, though as soon as you’ve built up a suitably fancy inventory the game goes and temporarily robs you of everything and has you rummaging around on a quest to make a taco. It needs to be extra spicy, but the local taco vendor isn’t allowed to sell extra spicy tacos after a dodgy lawsuit a few years prior.
Quests are usually more entertaining in concept than execution. Part of the problem is an overreliance on the dreaded fetch quest, and while the game channels the spirit of Gilbert’s adventure heritage by adding in plenty of bits where you combine and use items from other quests to progress further, the game still depends far too heavily on trundling over an area collecting spoils from downed foes over and over again. DeathSpank might be doing it with a sense of humour, but an ironic send-up of the tedious fetch quest is still a tedious fetch quest.
As you progress, there are constant reminders of how the design hasn’t meshed together quite as well as it probably should have. Outhouses take the role of Diablo’s vital Town Portals, for instance, but denying players the ability to nip through the odd outhouse in certain areas means you’d be absolutely squandered if you ran out of healing potions and ran into a boss – which, as it just so happens, I did. A relatively minor upset, perhaps, but it left me in a foul mood as I was forced to trudge all the way to town and back again.
While the game goes out of its way to ensure you’re always taking on new and different enemies, the genre’s conceit means is that they’ll always be dispatched in roughly the same way. Hothead tries to break out of the inherent clickety-click-click cycle of the genre with blocking and chaining, with DeathSpank reminding you that not doing so is a social faux pas, and this seems like a nice touch until you come across enemies that make you depend on them to stay alive. At this point you’ll wish for the simpler times of recklessly swinging around your pointy fire axe.
As you’d expect, there’s copious amounts of loot to score and adorn yourself with, and as is always the way with RPG bounty, it can become quite addictive to hoover up as much gear as you can get your greedy hands on. It certainly helps that there’s an impressive assortment of weapons, armours and the all-important elemental modifiers to keep things sufficiently varied.
The problem is that it all feels a bit diluted, as if a single drop of Diablo and Monkey Island has been added to an entire gallon of water. It also tends to think it’s a bit funnier than it actually is, and the voice actor they’ve brought in to play DeathSpank manages to outstay his welcome before you’re even out of the first murky dungeon. Adding two-player local co-op doesn’t do much to liven things up, either.
DeathSpank’s mishmash of genres is definitely entertaining at first, but it never manages to live up to its appealing concept. It’s trying to combine the best parts of two beloved genres, but in doing so it creates a product that’s not as good as either. Each of its component parts has been produced with a keen eye and a loving touch, but the overall product is lacking. The bumbling hero might have plenty of things to see and do, but you’ll probably have had your fill long before the game comes to any sort of conclusion.