Having already worked on The Penny Arcade Adventure titles for the PSN and XBLA, for their latest title Hothead Games have once again tapped into the talents of Ron Gilbert – a man who, along with Tim Schaefer and Dave Grossman, will forever be remembered for his involvement with the early Lucasarts point and click classics like Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island.
Twenty years on from these games, Deathspank shows that the rather unique creative spark that runs through Gilbert’s titles still hasn’t gone out. The game follows the eponymous (and overly confident) Deathspank as he rampages across the fantasy land, from brightly coloured fields, gooey tar pits and dank dungeons. There’s a real range of different environments for Deathspank to explore in his search for a powerful artefact called… The Artefact. If the name of the game wasn’t a good enough of an indication, this underlying premise should also give you an idea of how serious Deathspank takes itself. After all it wouldn’t be a Hothead Games / Ron Gilbert release worth its salt if it wasn’t just a little bit off the wall.
While point and click titles from Gilbert’s past might have seen a slight resurgence on the download platforms lately, Deathspank’s sprawling adventure is far removed from those, concentrating more on action of the hack-and-slash RPG variety, similar to Diablo. Facing insurmountable odds, the player can assign a number of weapons to the various buttons and get straight to pummelling everything that stands in their way from completing quests as they roam the bright, pop-up style world.
Chickens, Imps, Unicorns, Ogres and Dragons – everything is fair game for getting battered about with the bewildering array of armaments which Deathspank can collect. These range from your simple broadsword to fist shaped granite stones, flaming axes, lightening staffs and crossbows, all of them with unique traits and stats. The game is a loot-drop paradise so there’s also a mind-boggling supply of money, potions and trinkets to scoop up. With weapons and armour being placed on Deathspank in real time, this allows the player to see how his skills are progressing, regardless of all the stats for health, defence and magic that are also going on under the hood.
At first Deathspank’s approach to the action can be a little overwhelming. The game gives scant introduction to how the finer points of its system work and while basic button mashing is initially enough to get you through, as the enemies get tougher and larger in number (let alone stature), death can be a regular occurrence. The frustration this could cause is cleverly cancelled out by the fact that there’s no real `Game Over` and each time Deathspank is defeated he returns to the nearest smelly outhouse. With little more than a quick readjustment of his codpiece, he’s ready to start fighting again, hopefully retrieving the loot which is dropped as a form of penalty. The outhouses, alongside acting as respawn points, also allow the player to teleport between them once visited, which comes in handy given the sprawling game map.
The player will need to get to grips with effectively managing their weapons, inventory and armour, as well as manually recharging their health with potions, corndogs, choc-ices (or any of the other assorted snacks), while also concentrating on chaining together attacks by varying their weapons to fill up their Justice meter for a powerful special move. Written down like this it certainly sounds much more bewildering than it is in practice, but there’s no denying that it may take a while for all this to click and that the game could have done with a much clearer tutorial to help ease players in.
While the gameplay elements don’t hark back to the point and click era, there are other aspects which are undeniably built around this heritage. Talking with the worlds various inhabitants brings up multiple dialogue responses, some of which are played strictly for laughs. There’s also the interface for the classic `use item X with item Y`, complete with canned responses for not being able to combine objects.
The weird menagerie of items goes all out to beat such classic creations as Monkey Island’s rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle, so the player can look forward to carrying anvils and wooden paddles, whilst being tasked with a surreal set of orders like collecting chicken lips, or (quite literally) battering the crap out of Imps. All tasks that fit in with the games surreal humour. In the same way as the Monkey Island games were never riotously, side-splitting funny, Deathspank exhibits that same underlying humour which raises a chuckle at the time, but gets under your skin and stays with you long after you’ve turned the game off. Once you’ve seen a Unicorn drop rainbow coloured poop as loot, your life will certainly never be the same again.
Deathspank is a glorious title which feels so fit to bursting with creative ideas and charm, that it’s hard not to engage with it. While the game certainly isn’t flawless and the gameplay style won’t be to everyone’s liking, it’s undeniable that it strikes the right balance between action and RPG-lite. This is no small feat in itself, but when also combined with the visuals and humour you have a title which offers hours of entertainment.
Now that Gilbert has left Hothead Games for pastures new, it’s unknown if we’ll see any further adventures for the boisterous hero but if this first outing is anything to go by, we’re certainly crossing our fingers in hope.