July 29, 2010


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Deathspank, (360/PS3)
Hothead Games, July 13 (360) & July 14 (PS3), 2010
By Glenn "The Artifact" Given production@hippopress.com

Ron Gilbert (Maniac Mansion) teams with Voodoo Vince designer Clayton Kauzlaric on Deathspank, a head-shakingly silly action-RPG about a mighty warrior and his purple thong underwear.

Hothead Games’ (Penny Arcade Adventures: On The Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness) direct-to-download cartoon romp often finds itself slapped with the “Diablo+Monkey Island” label during elevator pitches, but that is only a half truth. While the dungeon-crawling loot lust of action-RPGs like Diablo thread prominently through Deathspank, there is less fiddly math about your load out. Sure, you can optimize protagonist Deathspank’s arms and armor, but most of the spreadsheet comparisons of armor and weapon stats are trivialized. Players can choose to allow Deathspank to select his own armor and map a host of weapons and consumables to various buttons. Excess loot, of which there is a ton, is quickly ground into cash money from your inventory. Even your offensive choices are fairly straightforward: stunning hammers, cleaving, uh, cleavers and 360-degree slicing swords are cycled through in a rudimentary combo system for maximum damage output. Beat on enough demons, eyeball monsters and swamp donkeys and you’ll activate screen-damaging Justice Attacks that help push back the tide of assailants. There is a button-mashing frenzy to Deathspank, whose feverish reptile brain glee tickling can quickly land you in hot water when surrounded by foes. Whipping out a massive shield can deflect incoming blows, but more often it is easier to simply skip away and avoid your enemies while scarfing down a corn dog to replenish Deathspank’s health. In a pinch, potions can be purchased or found to temporarily heal, accelerate or toughen the titular mighty one.

And mighty he is. Heroic Deathspank trundles across a steep rolling horizon a la Animal Crossing sprinkled with two- dimensional flats of stores, gravestones and vegetation. The thick-inked cartoon style fits well with the chicken-cannon ridiculousness of the setting. From unicorn poop collection to rescuing leprechauns from the leprechaun mafia, Deathspank goes right for the jugular of jokes. Narrative has never been the trump suit for video games, and nuanced humor, or even sublime absurdity, has only a whisper of a history in the medium. Deathspank ferociously waggles its sweaty vaudeville hands by cramming so many puns, yuks, groaners, arch-caricature and entendre into every snip of text that some of them are bound to get a snort. Creepily cheery orphan fixations and uncomfortable drunken uncle laugh sexual references make Deathspank moderately inappropriate for youth, though often the jokes are so weird and obscure as to slide right past young kids.

While the face-smashing slog of this budget title will only take you a few hours to complete, it does offer a fun co-op setting. Friends can drop in as Deathspank wizarding sidekick Sparkles to offer some arcane assistance. Sparkles’ limited selection of abilities — fire blasts, exploding clones, a healing spell and magic missiles — give him a play style complementary to the melee-centered Deathspank. Combined with his nigh invulnerability (both characters share a life bar, though only Deathspank can be killed), Sparkles brings the already casual friendly brawl to an even lower bar of entry.

Hardcore gamers will scoff at the challenge and lack of depth that Deathspank offers and snobs will roll a single bitter hipster eyeball at the corny jokes that paint this world. Still, for $15 and no trip to retail it’s a fair trade for a few hours of fun. Hothead Games’ latest is well-built, charming to view and viscerally fun to play. There is a slight puppetness to the action, which could have been brought more viscerally to the player, but the overall experience still feels solid. While it may not be as funny as its predecessors (specifically the Penny Arcade and Monkey Island games) it is more immediately enjoyable to play. Deathspank is a great panacea for action-RPG gamers looking to burn 15 minutes at a stretch and still feel some sense of investment. B Glenn Given