Ron Gilbert returns to put the humor back into gaming.
Deathspank, a game made by industry luminary Ron Gilbert (Maniac Mansion, Monkey Island) is not only fun, but it's fun*ny* as well.
When I first heard about Deathspank earlier this year I was intrigued but not too excited. While the premise of a "Monkey Island meets Diablo" style of Action RPG was interesting, I had been burned way too many times by legendary game designers who had tried to make a comeback by creating new intellectual properties. After Garriott's Tabula Rasa and Spector's Invisible War, I was a bit skeptical that any of these guys could re-enter the scene and make a relevant game in this extraordinarily demanding modern age of gaming.
Unlike his contemporaries, Ron Gilbert seems to actually have his best years ahead of him, since Deathspank is pure gold.
While the press seems to like using "Monkey Island meets Diablo" in order to describe Deathspank, I feel that it does the game a disservice by not truly encapsulating what you're getting when you buy it. More appropriately, the game should be called "What would happen if John Cleese and Eric Idle got into game design instead of comedy". Like Monty Python's sometimes dry and nonsensical British humor, Deathspank gives in to ludicracy of its own setting and holds nothing back as it makes fun of itself and the genre as a whole.
To say Deathspank is a funny game would be like calling China a well populated country or our sun "Kind of hot". Deathspank is, even when it probably shouldn't be, a game that absolutely refuses to take itself seriously. Much like the cult classic SNES RPG "Earthbound", Deathspank revels in its self-referential humor and shows no shame in doing so.
Some of the very best lines in the game come from the orphans that you must rescue, since it's quite obvious at the start of the quest involving them that Deathspank abhors the idea of saving kids. His replies to these orphan's pleas for help are some of the funniest moments in the game by far. Especially the part where, upon meeting an orphan named "Annie" who is tormenting her demonic captors so much they asked to be killed by Deathspank, he has to not only get her a cell phone so she can update her blog but also has to be her daddy for an entire day. The cut scene that ensues after you agree to do so is extremely corny and had me cracking up the whole time.
Deathspank is your typical muscled brainless twit of a hero who prefers to solve puzzles with sword swings rather than brain cells and can best be described as a cross between Futurama's Zap Brannigan and a developmentally disabled Conan the Barbarian. Though he claims to fight for justice, it's quite obvious he's only in it for the bloodshed and finds nothing wrong with slaughtering a flock of innocent chickens just because their old hag of a caretaker remarks that they are bothering her newly hatched fire-breathing demon babies.
Whether its getting smack talked by little girls, having 5 minute long conversations with a cow that is quietly chewing its cud, grilling a taco salesgirl on her choice of vocation or smashing demons with a poop covered hammer and collecting their waste to complete a quest, you can't really expect the game to ever take itself seriously. If you want "serious", you're looking in the wrong place. Though chances are you'll figure this out for yourself the first time you realize that not only are the fast travel portals actually outhouses, but that Deathspank, upon leaving them, rudely adjusts his cod piece before returning to your control.
While the game is funny, even without this added humor the core gameplay itself can actually more than stand on its own. At least when you consider you're playing a downloadable game.
It's nothing extravagant, but the gameplay is what you'd expect from an action RPG based loosely on Diablo gameplay mechanics. There are loot drops, heal potions, enchanted weapons, unique items, set piece armors and a small set of skills to select during each level-up sequence. It's nothing revolutionary, but for a 15 dollar downloadable game it's solid enough to not find fault with.
Gameplay is very reminiscent of Diablo, since the vast majority of your time outside of dialog boxes will be spent mashing a button until the swarm of enemies approaching you collapses and drops their loot. Though this changes a bit later in the game when you begin to creep closer to the relatively low maximum level of 20 and not only have to learn how to use your block button properly, but also alternate weapon swings to build up your justice meter multiplier (Think "Limit Break") in order to defeat some of the game's harder enemies.
You know, like sparkly Unicorns and hee-hawing swamp donkeys.
What's really innovative about Deathspank isn't the hack-n-slash, it's actually the way they melded oldschool adventure gaming alongside of all that bloody mayhem. Believe it or not, you actually have to solve some puzzles in the game. While most are fairly easy, some can be quite perplexing. Initially, I was stumped as to how I was suppose to gather water from a demon fountain so I could give a bucket full of it to a farmer who wanted to water his crops. Since I've grown so used to games automatically using items for me when I needed them, I forgot that part of the inspiration for Deathspank came from Monkey Island/Maniac Mansion. Once I woke up and realized this, I discovered that I had to go into my inventory and USE the bucket ON the fountain, much like the point and click 2D adventure games I grew up on. This was made aware to me AGAIN when later on I forgot that to make a Taco spicy (Don't ask) I had to drag and drop the spicy herb over the taco in my inventory and "COMBINE" them to complete the quest.
I know it sounds silly, but I thought that was a nice callback to old school adventure games and applauded the game for not holding my hand and automatically using the items by itself.
Though the game mechanics are rather typical of the adventure genre, a few things do stand out. The most obvious would be the graphics, which give the impression that everything is a brightly colored 2D cardboard cut out. In an age where graphics have reached a point where it's hard to tell the difference between a pre-rendered cutscene and an in-engine cinematic, it's refreshing to see people challenge game art design by going in the opposite direction of photo-realism. Deathspank's clever world design keeps the game fresh and gives each area its own unique look and feel. Like the 2D adventure games that Ron Gilbert made famous, Deathspank relies heavily on its beautiful and unique visuals to not only set the mood but to differentiate itself from other games upon which it has borrowed its gameplay from.
Another standout feature would be the voice work, which is nothing less than simply brilliant. Though you can tell a lot of the same people voiced multiple parts, it doesn't belittle the fact that the actor's deliveries are spot-on perfect. From the over estimated Irish accent of the ex-mobster Leprechaun in the enchanted forest to the smart mouthed orphans that seem to be to Deathspank what kryptonite is to Superman, the dialog is the one thing about this game that you just won't find an equal of on the XBL or PSN marketplace. It's better than most boxed retail games, if you can believe that.
Which brings me to Deathspank's best feature, the price-to-playtime ratio. For only $15 bucks, you're getting an action RPG that should last you anywhere from 15-20 hours on average. If you do every quest your first time through the game you could tack on another 5 hours provided you don't have a walkthrough or a guide to help you out. Some of the quests (Like the locked box you get from the cemetery worker) are hard to figure out and will require a bit of brainstorming before you finally crack them. If you're like me and need to "100%" everything, then expect to spend no less than 20 hours with Deathspank, not counting a trip through a 2nd time to play the hardest difficulty. Using my personal formula of one hour equals one dollar, Deathspank is one of the few titles of the DLC age that managed to surpass my expectations and felt like money well spent.
As good as Deathspank is, there are a few negative aspects that I felt kept it from being all it could have been. Most annoying among them was a lack of proper storage to keep all of my well earned loot. While the game does have a giant lost and found bin and claims that dropped items will magically find their way inside there, I could never get any of my spare loot to appear in it. I don't know if I was doing it wrong or it was a bug, but I couldn't seem to get it to work. Regardless, a proper storage chest would have been nice and in a game where loot gathering plays such a big part it's a bit painful to have to liquefy items into gold simply because you have no room in your backpack to keep them all.
Another unfortunate misstep would be that there is no way to efficiently compare new equipment to currently worn equipment. To do so, you need to move the cursor over your equipped items and look at their stats, then move the cursor over to the new item and compare them. Granted, this is how it was done in games until just about a decade ago and it may just be that I've become spoiled by the fancy user interfaces of the modern generation, but a little comparative text to quickly show whether an item is better or not would have been appreciated. While there is an option to "always wear the best items", the hardcore gamer side of me refused to turn that feature on. This basically means that part of the fault lies with me and not the game.
The last and least bothersome of the game's admittedly insignificant downsides is the fact that most quests are simple "Fetch or kill" missions. While some are outrageously clever (forcing demons to poop, planting C4 explosives on people's houses) most are merely fed-ex quests or plain old boss fights. Then again, even those are often quite hilarious, so it can be somewhat forgiven. Especially when you consider you're playing a downloadable game that was made on a relatively small budget.
When you factor in the price of the game with the amount of fun you'll have with it, I can't see anyone not enjoying Deathspank. This is doubly true for any geeks like me out there who grew up watching Monty Python and love dry British humor. Throw in addictive action RPG gameplay, some clever adventure game mechanics and a surprising amount of polish for what is basically a downloadable game and you can't find much fault with the final product. Unless you have no sense of humor or you absolutely detest action RPGs, I doubt you'll be disappointed by Ron Gilbert's Deathspank. Unlike most other game designers of his generation, it seems like he still has quite a bit of fuel left in his tank. I honestly can't wait to see what he comes up with next.