Version tested: PlayStation 3
Although it's Ron Gilbert's adventure game legacy that you see in the dialogue trees and the fetch quests, and the tiniest, most primitive shard of Diablo's design shines through in the looting, I like to think that the secret influence on DeathSpank has always been Sergio Aragones.
The Spanish cartoonist has a real legacy at places like Mad Magazine, where he's helped to forge a rich bloodline of brave and idiotic heroes. Like DeathSpank, they have long, bendy legs and barrel bodies, and their faces are contorted with moronic concentration. Like DeathSpank, they spend a lot of time getting things wrong in the name of doing things right.
Mad Magazine's snarky strain of anarchy flows right through the DeathSpank games, in fact, whether the hero's collecting magical underpants or piecing together a dangerously hot Taco to placate a stubborn villager. In The Baconing, the latest instalment, he's burning the fabled Thongs of Virtue one by one in order to defeat a dangerous AntiSpank he accidentally brought to life.
Towards the end of the adventure, our foolish hero takes a trip through heaven and hell only to discover that they're drawn, with lovely comic clarity, as two competing retirement homes. The first's a balmy, if snobbish, country club where Vulcan fixes you some new golfing irons and Zeus hobbles about on a Zimmer frame built from lightning bolts; the second's a dismal trailer trash affair where brutish scarlet-skinned devils rush around clad in orderlies' whites. Aragones and co. would be proud.
It's witty stuff, and the script can't wait to shoot off on strange tangents, but the game's mechanics remain far more traditional. The DeathSpank adventures are achingly conservative action RPGs at heart, and even when the storyline and setting change -The Baconing ditches straight fantasy for a sci-fi feel that involves parodies of everything from Tron to the Jetsons - there's a growing sense of the same-old-same-old creeping in.
That's not such bad news, of course, because DeathSpank always offers tenaciously acceptable content. In The Baconing, the loot still comes thick and fast, combat remains plentiful - although it's still lacking in a genuine sense of connection between weapon and baddie, allowing it to slip into mindless button-bashing when the crowds start to swarm in - and if you set your inventory to automatically equip the best gear, you'll see DeathSpank move through some neat armour sets on his adventure. Gundam models feature early on, and there are also gangster threads, rotting submariner clobber, and the robes and sandals of Greek gods to enjoy towards the end.
Despite the nice themes, though, the game can be strangely uninventive. Levelling up sees you picking between the driest of imaginable perks - do you want to reflect more damage, run faster, or power-up a co-op partner, for example? - while weapons may resemble everything from chainsaws to ice picks, but they quickly fall into melee and ranged categories that they, in truth, bring little flair to.
Justice attacks, which are charge-up specials that can unleash huge blows, are a little more dramatic than they used to be, since you can now call in dragon-based air strikes or drill through the ground under your foes. But for the most part you're hacking and slashing with weak visual feedback and little tactile sense that you're growing more powerful as you do so.
Quests, meanwhile, remain the game's true glowing weak spot - and Hothead once again attacks it aggressively for massive damage. There are plenty of signs that the developer's aware of how tedious its endless fetch chains have become and to be fair, there's been a decent attempt at dressing them up in appealing fiction this time around. But whether you're investigating a metahuman murder or trying to become a made man in the Leprechaun Mafia, things still boil down to backtracking between locations, killing, collecting, or killing and collecting.
I suspect that DeathSpank aspires to the heights of the Paper Mario games, where each chapter sees you cast in a breezy new role, pro wrestler one minute, train-bound Sherlock Holmes the next. In reality, though, Hothead's still trapped within the grind. The joy of discovering a new area (The Baconing has pop-up riffs on everything from Vegas to Disneyland's Tomorrowland, the latter complete with a tumorous Mickey Mouse stand-in who just wants to be put out of his misery) is too regularly offset by the unspooling timetables of busywork adventuring that can become so predictable that even the NPCs joke about it.
There have been some nice upgrades elsewhere in The Baconing, mainly in terms of combat. The block move, which could be slightly unforgiving in its mastery, has evolved into a charge-up shield bash which really helps you to create some space for yourself when the battle gets frantic, while enemies are a touch more tactical now, with ranged fighters more likely to stand back and take cover as the melee crowd rushes you. Crossbows can be charged up for super-attacks, which can be devastating if you've got the time to pull them off, and if you fancy local co-op there's now a new character to pick from. His name's Bob from Marketing, and he's your traditional laser-eyed shark. Co-op itself, however, remains a bit of a drop-in, drop-out afterthought.
Nothing sums up the split personality that the DeathSpank games are developing quite as well as The Baconing's finale. I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that Hothead's latest screeches to a halt with a drab and uninventive boss battle followed by a genuinely hilarious pitch for the inevitable sequel. Here, in the space of three minutes, you see the entirety of the problem: great comic-strip writing wrapped around so-so mechanics.
The result, as ever, is a fiercely likeable time-waster. But with console download services delivering increasingly brilliant games these days, DeathSpank has yet to make the transition from an entertaining diversion to something that's truly essential.
6 / 10