Version tested: Xbox 360
There's a lot of crap in DeathSpank.
I've counted three separate faecal inventory items, two other items that cause enemies to pinch off swirled, comedy loaves and innumerable references to bodily excretions.
It's perhaps a bit more base than people might expect, coming from Ron Gilbert. Monkey Island was irreverent, and often less than conceptual in its humour, but it never really resorted to full-on toilet antics. Conversely, DeathSpank revels in the smuttiness of its approach, and it's this which seems likely to divide its potential audience.
That's not to say it isn't amusing - I found a few chuckles during the expansive script that accompanies the 15 or so hours of the busy quest-log - but I can't help feel I'm not really part of DeathSpank's target audience. (Although bear in mind that I'm also the sort of grumpy misanthrope who only laughed twice during Hot Tub Time Machine.)
It's partly the difficult balance of pastiche. If whatever you're sending up isn't observed extremely acutely, and your mockery doesn't differ significantly enough from the lampooned material, then the result is often just as hackneyed and predictable as what you're trying to parody.
Such is the case with DeathSpank, which takes the pomp and earnestness of the Western RPG as its rather easy target, throws in a few words like 'thunderstomp', items such as 'chicken-lips' and the odd sabre-toothed donkey - then slips instantly back into repetitive fetch-quests and button bashing combat, losing any satirical edge by aping its subject too closely.
Where DeathSpank does diverge from tradition, and very successfully at that, is in its art style. Part colourful cardboard cutout, part Ren and Stimpy nightmare, DeathSpank's Bosch-fairytale scenery scrolls over the horizon in a most pleasing manner. Most of the staple fantasy environments are here, from castles to swamps to fiery mines, but generally presented with enough of an acerbic edge to lend them individuality. Short animated sequences punctuate important story points too - their bright, angular puppetry marred only by their brevity.
Monster design is a similarly fresh take on old favourites, with chunky, papercraft skeletons and lumpen plasticine demons. Pretty and inventive, these brightly coloured fiends clash gaily with the patchwork foliage and ramshackle architecture to create a pleasantly disharmonious melange. Each themed area of the large world map features a particular breed of beastie, usually in two different flavours. Generally they'll be mobbing you in numbers, with occasional mixed ranged and melee groups needing a bit more crowd-management nous.
It's the combat which is the greatest disappointment. DeathSpank has four weapons to hand at any one time, each mapped to a face button, with healing items and oddities like the chicken cannon or black hole bomb getting a space on the d-pad. There's some subtlety to the systems on offer, with potions to buff defence, speed or critical rate, area-of-effect attacks to get you out of trouble and elemental missiles for your infinite ammo crossbow, but they quickly fall into disuse in favour of a toe-to-toe melee mash.
Each hit builds DeathSpank's justice meter, which is unleashed once full with a unique special attack from one of the weapon classes. These powerful attacks can be reserved for tricky encounters by using only vanilla weapons once charged, but it's all too easy to use them accidentally by using the far more powerful weaponry once too often in the thick of combat.
The gauge charges quickly enough for this to be only a minor annoyance, but it would have been nice to see an extra button combo requirement to use its powers. The attacks themselves are useful, and picking up rare runes allows the player to combine two in-hand weapons in a single devastating justice attack - a spinning-fire-slash of flamey-doom, for example.
Blocking is another seemingly underused mechanic, made difficult by the lack of obvious animation tells in many enemies' attacks. Using several different weapons one after the other will also build a combo counter, maxing out at seven with a powerful knockback attack, but it's a difficult thing to pull off, and not rewarding enough when you do.
There's a distinct lack of penalty to death, the cash dropped on extinction easily gathered up once you respawn at one of the nearby 'outhouses', or by dropping extraneous kit into the handy 'item grinder' which turns anything into gold - neatly sidestepping the need to schlep back and forth between shops when your inventory fills up.
While it's possible to carefully plan an attack, using blocking and inventory items to nuance your approach in response to your foes, the constant nature of the hacking and the effectiveness of straight-up attack spamming means any impetus to do so quickly fades.
There are also very few puzzles in the game. It's not really Diablo crossed with anything, really, just Diablo lite. Even the website says, "Mind numbing yet completely fair adventure game puzzles!" but in truth these amount to the odd combination of inventory items or the picking of the right conversation tree.
There are a couple of moments that force the player to use their brain, but they fall so few and far between that your thinking muscles are likely to have atrophied. Should they do so, a handy hint system is in place, fuelled by the fortune cookies found lying around the landscape.
Like nearly any game in the genre, repetition is the key gripe. DeathSpank is clearly designed to be a fairly lightweight approach to hackandslash, fit for short bursts rather than long sessions, but a lack of depth to levelling, armour or weapon customisation makes a grind out of much of the action. Playful environments and enemies can only do so much to distract from the single mechanic on offer.
Quest types are split broadly into the two classic categories of kill and fetch, often artificially extended by forcing you to traipse back to the quest-giver in between the quick jaunts to pick up items from the local area rather than giving you a long list and letting you get on with it. There are plenty of side quests to tackle at your own pace outside of the lengthy storyline, but killing 'X number of Y to gather their Zs' is still just as familiar when you're chasing chicken-lizards as orcs. To rub salt into the wound, the items and equipment rewards for quest completion are often obsolete by the time you get them anyway, surpassed by pieces found in the field.
Local co-op should be a welcome addition, but when a second player jumps in as Sparkles the Wizard the structure breaks down considerably. Sparkles is limited to four unswappable spells, including a healing effort, but you're not challenged enough to warrant his assistance. Instead, as Sparkles spams his continuous fire attack in a turning circle, pretty much any threat is destroyed before it gets close enough to damage anyone.
It's not all doom and gloom. The inherent compulsiveness of these games means that it's easy to lose a couple of hours to DeathSpank at a time, the lack of concentration demanded by the gameplay working in its favour. Pacing is also good, with at least one appropriately levelled area to explore at any time, and usually more than one option - a feat made easier with the addition of a fast travel system.
It really is very pretty, too - a unique combination of patchwork prettiness and Grimm gross. And it's a big game, both in terms of its area and completion time, although there's little prospect of a replay once you reach the sequel and/or DLC-baiting conclusion.
When the curtain falls DeathSpank feels like something of a disappointment, but there's undoubtedly a market for the end product. If you like your loot-'em-ups, and you're looking for something humorous and a bit different, this is clearly the game for you. Just don't expect it to sparkle in the way which many, myself included, hoped that it would.
6 / 10