|DeathSpank | for Xbox Live Arcade and Playstation Network | Rated T for Teen | Developed by Hothead Games | Published by Electronic Arts|
"I run into these contrived situations a lot," admits the eponymous hero of DeathSpank
, shortly after accepting his zillionth bizarre task from a complete stranger. DeathSpank can't help it: he's hardwired to be a hero. He'll comply with any request, no matter how pointless, repetitive, or unrewarding. The same is true of many video-game protagonists, of course, but the difference is that this dolt exists within a self-aware fiction. He's in a game that understands the absurdity of most game objectives.
So though his quest is ostensibly to defeat an evil dictator and retrieve a powerful artifact "known only as . . . the Artifact," DeathSpank spends most of his time as an errand boy. Far from resisting the daily grind, he seeks it out. "Got any more side quests for me?" he pesters one character. It's fun for the player that the game is in on the joke, and this knowingness papers over what are, yes, monotonous side quests.
DeathSpank's objectives tend to fit into three categories: dropping something off, picking something up, or killing something. Sometimes there's no challenge involved. When an enchanted tree asks for about six different things, each request is a discrete mission, and every object magically appears nearby. DeathSpank just needs to fetch them. But, reader, it does make a difference that he is retrieving for this talking tree a pair of headphones, a black light, and a prog-rock album.
DeathSpank is the brainchild of Ron Gilbert, the man who created The Secret of Monkey Island, the beloved adventure game for which no superlative suffices. This one shares Monkey Island's madcap sense of humor, from the shady characters who populate every corner of the map to the cheerful obtuseness of its hero to the loopy dialogue. Although DeathSpank can chat with most of the NPCs he encounters, speech in this game isn't simply functional. The player can pursue twisting conversational paths; these offer no tangible rewards but plenty of delight.
Dialogue in games has been on the upswing, thanks to a resurgence of graphical adventures and BioWare's laudable emphasis on character-driven drama, but few writers share Gilbert's deft touch. He's at his best when skewering game machismo. "The town's just up the road. You can't miss it," a character tells DeathSpank. DeathSpank replies grimly, "We'll see about that."
Although he may be a buffoon, DeathSpank is a bad-ass when the action starts. He marches into battle against hordes of enemies who die quickly and leave behind lots of loot. His ability to block enemy attacks adds a veneer of strategy, but in general, the path to success is paved with stronger equipment. DeathSpank can wield four weapons at a time — which are rarely enough. Fortunately, the goodies come fast and furious.
And if the story is a farce, the gameplay is no joke. Weapons and armor arrive with their own status effects and statistical boosts for our hero, and some weapons can be combined on the battlefield to devastating effect. All that's missing is an easy way to compare items, though the limited inventory capacity turns out to be surprisingly helpful: you can tell right away what you have to work with. No one will confuse DeathSpank with Diablo, but for a downloadable game that sells for $15, the complexity is just right. And the humor? A bargain at any price.