First, let me say that Deathspank is well worth fifteen dollars.
So, buy it.
The latest game from lead developer Ron Gilbert, received a 79-80 from Metacritic that in my opinion say’s nothing about the quality of the game. Given the culture of aggregate scores, Metacritic, in my opinion, is no place for downloadable games.
Deathspank is a special title (I mean that both literally and figuratively). It’s the beginning of an onslaught of 2D and Top Down Games and it’s an important entry into a grossly under developed genre: comedy. Deathspank is a cheaply made, affordably priced downloadable comedy title that is robust in content. It may for all intents and purposes be the best way to release comedy titles that in turn could be the crack in the damn. It deserves to be discussed fairly and as much on it’s own merits as possible.
Personally, I think it deserves to by hyped until servers crash, not necessarily because it’s Bioshock good but it is a very important step in the right direction.
Briefly, Deathspank is about an adventurer of the same name who is the self proclaimed “Hero of the Downtrodden.” When the game begins our hero is on a quest to achieve something called “The Artifact” which looks like a strip of bacon. The plot is simple. It’s certainly not a highlight of the game and it isn’t supposed to be. The highlight of the game isn’t the plot but the absurdity of the story.
Story is what Deathspank nails. What the player encounters on his journey through the game is brilliantly absurd. An eight year-old retired adventurer with an ax lodged into his back. There’s a talking tree that comes off as a total stoner. Unicorns that defecate magic pooh. A leprechaun that wants to turn states evidence and a note in the magic forest that reads: “Snitches get stiches.” What the player encounters in this game is creative, witty and written – one would imagine – with a smirk on Ron Gilberts face.
VOICE ACTING & IMMERSION
However, as bizarre and thoroughly enjoyable the story is there were few instances where I laughed out loud. I remember asking myself why through the course of the game. Again, the writing is brilliant. What I discovered was I had issue with the voice acting. Though the voice actors do an adequate job of spitting out their lines there is little chemistry between they and Deathspank. It seemed as if the actors were recorded separately. When they speak it sounds like they are not speaking to each other. It ruins the immersion.
Voice actor Michael Dobson (the title character) has a deadpan style of humor that works great for a character that is essentially a parody of your everyday fantasy based adventurer. But, he spits out every line exactly the same throughout the entire game. The reason why this doesn’t work is the world they create in Deathspank is so absurd (and it grows more so as the game progresses) that for the central character to have little to no reaction is disorienting.
In this respect, Deathspank doesn’t sympathize with the experience of its player. It presents them with jokes but implies through the voice acting they are not funny. That I did, in fact, find them funny made it all the more confusing. Hothead Games should have taken a page from sitcom television. Watch most sitcom television shows and you’ll notice a joke is followed by the sound of applause. Even comedy movies use techniques to accentuate what’s funny: lighting, camera angle, sound, etc.
Sure, Deathspank gives you this funny world and it dares you to rummage through and find in it what you find funny. Some you might chuckle at and others you may not. That may work for a sandbox type game, like Grand Theft Auto. However, I think they may have done well to control the comedy in some instances throughout the game.
Much has been said about Deathspank’s cumbersome menu system. The biggest complaint is that managing your inventory becomes tedious. I personally didn’t thinks so. I’ve always felt that part of the fun of an RPG is sifting through your inventory, finding the right weapons and armor, throwing away what you don’t need for cash so you can buy more items. But, I don’t want to spend time beating a dead horse. Personally, I think the way Hothead treated the menu system was witty and funny. I only wish they would have given us more.
The fun thing about the menu system is the variety of silly weapons (a gun that fires chickens, a magical hammer with a boot at the end, and let us not forget about the names: Most Awesom-est Sword Ever) and the title characters animations when you equip them. Put a weapon in his hand and he may duck thinking it’ll go off or something. Equip him with certain armor and he’ll do a dance, even a few Michael Jackson moves. It adds a silly element to the game that is just plain fun.
My gripe: there wasn’t enough. By the second half of the game you’ve seen all the animations there are and the weapons don’t get more interesting until you get the final item (highlight of the game). It would have been cool to see the player rewarded for spending so much time in the menu with more silly animations and even dialogue.
The most recent Ratchet and Clank had a cool mechanic where the game would feature a cut scene every time you found a new weapon. It compelled me as a player to keep buying weapons. Ratchet, though fun, isn’t nearly as comical as Deathspank. Imagine what they could accomplish using this type of reward system. It was unfortunate. I found myself hoping to see something new in Deathspanks animations when I found weapons and armor but all I got was the same old same from the games first half.
TAKE IT HOME
Comedy is an interesting thing. It only has one barometer of success: it’s ability to make us laugh. The more people laugh the funnier it is. But, comedy is so subjective. One persons favorite comedian is another person’s irritating actor who has yet another movie out. But, I believe there is something to be said about a game that forces a smile on your face every time you pick up the controller. Most games don’t do this. As much as you might like games about sports and space marines they don’t make you grin from ear to ear for hours on end. Most games create excitement, tension, frustration, and sometimes anger. Horror titles scare us. Sports titles thrill us. How many games can you find which are silly in nature, games that don’t take themselves serious and are simply fun to play. I wasn’t necessarily laughing out loud throughout the entire game but I did smirk the whole way.
Small but significant nicks and bruises aside, Deathspank is good silly fun. It is a game that can’t possibly live up to any lofty expectations. The comedy genre needs more games under its belt before we’ll see a true gem. But, we need to keep ‘em coming. Hotheads Games’ distribution method should allow for more games [two days after I wrote this Double Fine announced their next game, Costume Quest, a comedy title that will be digitally distributed], more experimentation and hopefully more success. When this happens we’ll begin to see full retail comedy titles on store shelves. And, with luck, one of them will be a bona fide hit.