DeathSpank is something else. With a name like DeathSpank this game could only have come out of the mind of Ron Gilbert. The game has his trademarks all over it. From the bizarre sense of humour to the quirky visuals and twangy guitar-driven atmospheric music you know that you are in for a unique and enriching experience.
DeathSpank is a mild departure from the kind of games that you would associate with Ron Gilbert. The game is a blend of dungeon-crawling Diablo-style RPG and the classic point-and-click puzzle-adventure that Gilbert all-but invented. Our hero is called DeathSpank and he is in search of an ancient magical item known only as The Artifact.
The story follows DeathSpank on his quest to retrieve The Artifact only to have it stolen by the evil minions of the dastardly Lord Von Prong and have to embark on an even longer quest to recover it all over again. Along the way there are a myriad of townsfolk who will need assistance.
In order to to complete your quests you have to carve your way across the land fighting monsters, monks and vicious chickens as well as Lord Von Prong's army of Orques in order to defeat Von Prong and save the realm from his evil plans. This involves using a comfortable and flexible item mapping system which allows you to put your best weapons and magical items firmly at your fingertips.
The A, B, X and Y buttons are all user-definable as well as the D-pad giving you full control over how you fight. To add to the flexibility the game includes a range of different weapons and magic items that is really impressive for an XBLA title. In addition to being able to lay out the joypad controls the way you want to DeathSpank also has access to runes which he collects on the way, which create extra effects when using certain combinations of weapons.
The runes come into play alongside another big feature of the game - the Justice Meter. When the DeathSpank defeats enemies he earns Justice points which fill up the Justice Meter. When the meter is full he can unleash extra powerful attacks that can stun, knock back and even kill enemies within a certain radius. The runic powers that allow you to combine certain weapons into more powerful attacks are accessed by using the two weapons at once when the Justice Meter is full. You are also rewarded for mixing up your attacks. If you strike every blow with a different weapon then you earn Justice points faster giving you quicker access to the more powerful attacks.
DeathSpank's main tools are an array of different swords, cleavers, maces and mauls but he also has access to magical attacks through items, a crossbow and a good selection of different types of bolts from poison and undeath, to ice and fire. Of course different enemies are vulnerable to different types of weapons which increases the incentive to mix up your weapon combinations.
In true dungeon-hack fashion there are also a selection of fast move points in the form of carefully placed outhouses. DeathSpank can move between outhouses simply by entering one and, should he die, he will be resurrected at the nearest outhouse, not forgetting to do up his fly as he leaves the convenietly-placed convenience.
The game also has a visual style all of its own. The camera angle is almost isometric and the scenery is set up as two-dimensional images designed to look like stage props. The ground itself is curved and almost rolls towards you as you guide DeathSpank into the depth of the screen. This creates an interesting effect and gives the game a feel that is entirely its own. While the scenery is 2D, our protagonist and the masses of monsters and NPCs he encounters are all 3D renders making the game feel very much like a pantomine - especially given that all the artwork is created using an intensely vivid pallete of colours.
The artwork is very evocative of Gilbert's LucasArts colleague Tim Schafer. Day of the Tentacle and Psychonauts very much spring to mind throughout playing the game. As the look is influenced by LucasArts' titles of old, so is the humour. Crazy puzzles make up a good proportion of the gameplay with DeathSpank seeking out the correctly constructed tacos for elderly heroes and collecting and painting demon horns red for magic spells just as much as he is thumping Stealth Spiders and Swamp Donkeys. Weapons like the Chicken Cannon and the Lightning Rod which delivers 1.21 gigawatts of power combined with interactive dialogue sequences that feel almost like they have been plucked from the Secret of Monkey Island really show just how much of a mark Gilbert has left on the game. After such a long wait it is good to be playing a Ron Gilbert game again. DeathSpank has a comfortable air of familiarity and at the same time manages to plow an interesting new furrow on console downloads. Up until now most of the games on Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network have either been arcade or casually influenced and rarely have any titles had any great depth to them.
With DeathSpank Ron Gilbert and Hothead Games have put together something that has never been seen before as a downloadable title. The unmistakeable wit of Ron Gilbert's storytelling and puzzle craft combined with a Diablo-esque action-RPG core gameplay mechanic really shows just how far downloadable titles have come since Hexic was bundled with the first generation of Xbox 360s with hard drives.
The combination of classic and accessible dungeon-crawler gameplay with the ingenuity of early ninties LucasArts point-and-click adventures really sets DeathSpank apart as an XBLA title with real substance to it - an aim that Ron Gilbert himself has said he had for the game. Whether you are desperate to find something different on home consoles of even just a small taste of Diablo-style action in the absence of Diablo III, DeathSpank is a must have on PSN or XBLA.
There is only one way to really do justice to DeathSpank and that is to quote one of the game's characters. In the words of Annie the Orphan: "I love you Daddy DeathSpank."
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