DeathSpank is funniest when you're not in control but still fun when you are.
DeathSpankPublisher: EA Partners
Players: 2 players
Platforms: XBLA (reviewed), PSN, PC
Developer: Hothead Games
Release Date: 2010-07-14
Comedy in games is hard, nigh impossible even, because comedy revolves around timing, and when players control timing, they invariably throw it off and the joke falls flat. Most jokes in games are visual, with the occasional pun and meta-humor, something clever and witty that makes you smile but rarely makes you laugh. DeathSpank falls into this trap a lot. The item names and descriptions are clever but not laugh out loud funny; however, DeathSpank also understands this inherent limitation and works around it by sticking most of its humor into the conversations and dialogue trees, in which the actors and writers have more control. It’s no surprise then that this is where the game shines.
You’ll want to explore every option in every dialogue tree from the very beginning. It’s usually obvious which option will actually progress the conversation, but that will be the last one that you pick because the rest are so absurd that your curiosity will demand that you select them. You’ll want to hear those words spoken, and you’ll want to hear people’s reactions.
The voice acting is one of the best parts of the game, adding such emphasis and gusto to each word that even simple expository sentences becomes entertaining. However, all conversations are written out verbatim in text boxes that pop up onscreen, and it’s only natural to read these messages when they appear. Since people can read faster than they talk, you’re likely to read the punch line before the actors say it, ruining the surprise and the joke. Another case of player agency killing comedy. Or you can skip over any spoken lines completely by hitting the B button, but this is tantamount to breaking the game. Whenever someone is talking, it seems like the best idea is to just lean back, close your eyes, and listen. Nobody moves when they talk so you won’t miss any action, and you won’t read ahead of the script. DeathSpank is at its funniest when you let go and let the game guide you.
No matter how good the humor is, it can’t carry the game by itself. Thankfully, there’s a fun and addictive adventure here as well. The world is surprisingly big, and it's impressive how one area flows seamlessly into another. You’ll see a couple potential side quests on your map and run off to collect them, only to find yourself in an entirely new and unexplored area. This fast-paced discovery ensures that you’ll always have a new quest to finish, a new land to explore, new creatures to kill, and more than enough loot to satisfy your desire for the latest and greatest new thing. There’s always something to do.
Combat initially seems so simple that it’s off-putting. Hit your foe as fast as you can and hope he dies first. But after an hour, the nuances become apparent and make fighting genuinely fun. You carry four weapons at a time, each corresponding to a face button on the controller. Using a different weapon every time that you attack creates a combo bonus, so the game encourages you to use your entire arsenal. Also, blocking is key to survival since you’re usually surrounded by enemies, and even weaker foes can do damage in large groups.
The most unfortunate thing about DeathSpank is something that no loot game can escape. At some point you become so powerful that nothing is challenging anymore. When you level up entirely, most enemies die with one or two hits from a crossbow, meaning you can just shoot with abandon and will wipe out any creature foolish enough to come near. Thankfully, by this point the game is essentially over. It doesn’t stretch on unnecessarily (an advantage all downloadable games have), but it does end on a major cliffhanger that comes out of nowhere. This is fine for episodic games since you know the story will be continued, but for other games, it’s a major gamble on the success of the game and usually leaves a player feeling gypped, not excited. I felt cheated.
But these are nitpicky annoyances. DeathSpank oozes personality and wit: The art is colorful and beautiful, the characters are funny and charming, the loot is addictive, and the combat is fun. You couldn’t ask for more from a downloadable game.