Long read: Who is qualified to make a world?

In search of the magic of maps.

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Smack my witch up.

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.

The first 15 minutes of DeathSpank.

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.

Stat-fans can switch on floating damage scores. Numberphobes can keep them invisible.

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.