DeathSpank Review

By Rob Manuel - Posted Jul 13, 2010

From the wacky and sometimes twisted mind of Ron Gilbert comes Deathspank, a downloadable dungeon-crawler that will have you traversing a world of demons, two-eyed Cyclops, and unicorn poop. Despite some of its short comings, both beginning and advanced players will find something to like in this comical romp through a fantasy kingdom. And don't forget –- unicorn poop.

The Pros
  • Gameplay for beginner and advanced players
  • Great sense of humor
  • Amazing visual style
The Cons
  • Story doesn't hold together
  • Too simplified in many areas
  • Quest structure needs work

If you’ve ever been rooting around in a dungeon, picking off the bloody armor of a fallen foe, and thought to yourself, “you know what this game needs? Comedy,” then I might have found the game for you. Deathspank looks to bridge the gap between casual and hardcore dungeon crawlers with a rather unique take on the genre. When you’re looking for something a little different, sometimes you just need a good spanking. You know what I mean. 

This is (NOT) A True Story

In this tale of both hacking and slashing, we come across our hero, Deathspank, as he embarks on the last leg in an arduous journey to find the artifact -- ironically known as The Artifact. After a couple of quests under his leather-studded belt, he reaches The Artifact only to have it swiped from him by the evil Lord Von Prong. Of course, this means that we’ll have to travel through unicorn-infested lands, find lost keys, and create the perfect taco just to get The Artifact back.

Despite his over-the-top heroic voice, Deathspank actually makes for an intriguing character that can easily switch from bumbling warrior to confused straight man to fit the situation. Most of the thanks here should go to Ron Gilbert, the lead game designer who brought us other such comical classics as The Secret of Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion. His sharp and often dark sense of humor permeates everything from quests to settings. In a genre that’s often focused on getting the quest, I found myself actually listening to some of the full voice dialogue.  And it’s because of the all the great dialogue and often weird characters that it’s unfortunate that the game never feels anything more than a series of quests rather than a story pushing you to a climatic ending.

Thoughtful Spanking and Fuzzy Handcuffs

In all its whimsy, Deathspank hides a very rather elegant system that rides the line of casual and hardcore gaming. Bringing up the words “dungeon crawler” in casual conversation has often been used to treat insomnia. Add to that the fact that you’re taking a typically PC genre and transporting it over to the console and you’re one drunken celebrity away from certain disaster. Yet, Hothead Games managed to address these issues by adding a second layer of strategy to many of their mechanics.

Weapons can be assigned to any of the buttons -- just mash and attack. Use the same weapon too many times in a row and you’ll be locked out for a second. Lucky for you, there are three other face buttons to start smashing. Use another weapon and the game rewards you with a damage multiplier. This steady stream of swing axes and swords of vanquish will quickly earn you a high damage multiplier.  Simple actions hide complex mechanics.

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Blocking is another example of a simple concept with deeper strategy. Normally, pulling the right trigger gives you a couple of seconds of relief as you run like hell from overwhelming odds. Time it right as the opponent strikes and it instantly fills up your special meter to deliver a devastating attack. In a game where you would expect button mashing to be the answer to every problem, it’s refreshing to see a design team try something a little off the beaten path.

I’m Down With OCD (Yeah, You Know Me)

Quests come fast and heavy and won’t let up until you beat the game. From destroying state’s evidence on a Leprechaun to collecting demon poop with your poop hammer, Deathspank utilizes the same quirky sense of humor for all your questing needs. They even let you crack open a fortune cookie, an item that appears throughout the game, to give you hints on how to complete the quest if you ever get stuck.

The mission structure sometimes makes questing a little too easy. After clearing out a magical lumber mill and collecting flannel shirts for a psychedelic talking tree (don’t ask), I was then instructed to find a blacklight (again, don’t ask) in the same area. Since I had just murdered a small population of lumberjacks not two minutes before, the area remained empty. Walk in. Find the blacklight. Turn in your quest. While trying to pack this downloadable title with as many quests as possible, some do not shine nearly as bright as others.

The loot was a little disappointing as well. Of course, how could I ever stay mad at something called Fire Axe II: Fire Harder? But for a dungeon crawler, the loot should flow like water.  It’s when you visit a shop that you realize you already own most of the stock on the shelf. As for potions and other items, you can only hold a limited amount of each item. You can have fifty empty slots but that sixth Heck from Heaven just isn’t going to fit. There’s also no way to compare weapons other than highlighting each one individually. Some quest items become stuck in your inventory, taking up valuable potion space. While the mechanics allow for a deeper level for advanced players, the rest of the game seems simple for simplicity’s sake.

More Sparkles Than A 'Twilight' Easter Parade

Deathspank has a few more tricks up its studded sleeve -- or should I say sparkles. Any time during the game, you can plug in a second controller to allow a local friend to take control of Sparkles the Wizard. This shiny sorcerer comes with a few of his own tricks such as a distance bolt spell, a flamethrower spell, and the ability to heal. On the down side, you can’t equip the wiz with any new weapons and his life bar is tied into your own. He gets hit and you’ll feel the damage. Having a second character whose main focus is to mostly snipe from the distance and heal may help some players; most people will opt to go in alone.

One of the more striking aspects of the game is the visuals. Background pieces standout like images from a pop-up book. The look is striking, adding to the strange nature of the story, but it often hinders gameplay when an item or enemy hides behind one of these cutouts. Even in such a small area, players will get to transverse fields, demon infested mines, and the mating areas of some rather angry unicorns. And probably the best area is the one I won’t give away. Anyone familiar with Gilbert’s other title, Monkey Island 2, will surely see how the visuals might hint at a larger story underneath.  

Yes, the Unicorn Poop is Edible

There’s a twisted genius that lies behind the flaming g-string of justice. Deathspank doesn’t only presents a host of entertaining characters, but innovative mechanics that accommodate both new recruits and seasoned veterans in their quest to dispense justice and vanquish evil. While not every aspect may be perfect -- the quest structure can be a bit too easy and the game seems to trade humor for plot cohesion at times -- this reviewer hopes that this will be the start of a beautiful franchise.