‘DeathSpank’ Review – Hardly Corporal Punishment

Hothead Games had me at “DeathSpank.” It’s one of those curious names that tickle the cortex. It screams “Hey this game is going to be offbeat!” without betraying a whiff of content. I’ll admit that I shouldn’t have signed on without understanding what “DeathSpank” was. Critics, I hear, are supposed to be learned and cautious on top of being optimistic. But I’m glad I jumped on-board — “DeathSpank” makes my insides feel good and proves that I’ve got instincts like a thing… that, uh, has really good instincts? Man. I should work on my analogies.

The Basics

Unabashedly hack-and-slash, most time in “DeathSpank” is spent devastating mobs of fragile enemies, gearing up with dropped loot, and donning a courier’s cap for a horde of nameless NPCs. It’s “Diablo” boiled-down with a few important twists. One of which is the 2.5D perspective, which helps shine light on the complete tonal shift from its closest analogue. The four-weapon combination systems, its adventure-game-style item-fetch puzzles, colorful world, inane hero, and unique co-op compliment do the rest.

The Highs

24/M/Hero Looking For Work
“DeathSpank” is the story of a hero — named DeathSpank — seeking a powerful object. But where the traditional narrative should be dull, it isn’t. The game is rife with wit and self-referential humor that extends to its mechanics and pop-up book visuals. “DeathSpank” knows it’s a video game built upon tropes and confronts that fact with humor, warmth, and punchy asides.

Mobs, Mobs, And More Mobs
Slicing through fodder is made more enjoyable in “DeathSpank” by way of its combat mechanics. You’ll get four weapons to use, that when rotated in a fight, create mini-chains that can knock back swarms of opponents. Tucked within this mechanic is a “Justice” meter, that also when used, can unleash special attacks such as spinning assaults or even a stun moves that hit like a thunderclap. Design-wise, this keeps the combat engaging and as complex as you want it to be, quashing the tedium of swarm battling.

A Really Open-World
“DeathSpank” is a big game, with a lot of colorful room to explore, find weapons and items within, and level-up inside. Quests don’t take forever to complete, thanks to quick-travel, but you wouldn’t be in bad shape without it: superb quest diary writing and a helpful “Hint” system keep things moving.

The Lows

My Girlfriend Is A Wizard?
What this game really needed was a social compliment. This need isn’t fulfilled with the game’s co-op component, which in essence, is a local-based “girlfriend mode” that has another player (no health bar) casting ineffectual spells on both you and the hordes of enemies. But to its credit, its well-implemented — you won’t find any camera issues or feel like you have less of an impact as a result.

I’m Like Every Other Hero
The leveling system in “DeathSpank” is bare-bones and doesn’t offer true character customization. At each gained level you’ll be able to bump up a percentage in attack, defense, movement, or block with only three tiers of boosts available.

… And I Can’t Use This
I can’t quite pin down the reason why, but most of the loot drops or treasure chests are useless for me in “DeathSpank.” I constantly get armor and weapons that are well below what I have, meaning I simply have to toss new stuff into the inventory’s “grinder” to forge into gold that I can then exchange for armor way above me. But even if I did find some stuff that I fancied, I wouldn’t be able to store it. “DeathSpank” lacks an off-back loot bag.

Dude With Obvious Name Has Obvious Name
There are more than a couple of gags in the game that are repeated. I see this most with NPC names, which tend to be something like “Guy By The Termites” and variants of that. But also a few missions are re-hashes on the same old jokes, which are, by the way, funny (the first time), but I wouldn’t call them knee-slappers.

The Verdict

I had a dream that XBLA and PSN titles could have this amount of meaningful, well designed content. In all respects, “DeathSpank” is the realization of this. It’s a full-fledged, content-heavy game with solid writing, deep-enough mechanics, and a world to be proud of. It’s also easily one of the best RPG’s I’ve played in recent memory. Check it out.