The main objective of satire is to cast a harsh light on the subject it's mocking and expose said subject's stupidity to the world. While there are some brilliant satirical works to be found in books, television and movies, similar masterpieces are mostly absent in the world of gaming. Enter Deathspank, the latest title from Ron Gilbert, which looks to flay the RPG gaming genre while also reveling in its fetch quests and loot drops. For the most part, the game is an absolute joy, but you can't have your cake and eat it, too, and ultimately, the very gameplay mechanics Deathspank looks to lampoon ultimately tarnish the experience.
Deathspank kicks off with the game's titular hero heading off in search of "The Artifact." He has no idea why this bacon-shaped talisman is so important, but he was sent on a quest to find it, so like a good little hero, he takes off on his way. Unfortunately, the evil Lord von Prog is after Deathspank, so this quest will not be an easy one. For the most part, it's all pat storytelling, but there are a few nice twists along the way, and the finale will go a long way toward getting players pumped for the inevitable sequel.
While the plot may be standard, it's never boring, and that's thanks to Gilbert's brilliant writing. Character dialogue pops, and the ability to select Deathspank's conversation options from a list riddled with hilariously inappropriate things to say brings a lot of joy to the game. This is one of the few RPGs where players will actually want to wander around and talk to every NPC simply to hear where the conversation will end up. There's plenty of wordplay to enjoy. (At one point early in the game, Deathspank chastises a witch for placing a magic seal on The Artifact by stating, "How dare you do something so unspeakable to a defenseless circus animal?!") The humor isn't always highbrow, though, as there are plenty of poop jokes to remind you that Deathspank and the people he helps aren't exactly the upper crust of society. Ultimately, there's something for just about everyone, and you'll more than likely find yourself laughing out loud plenty of times.
The gameplay of Deathspank is a mixed blessing, as it's mostly enjoyable but occasionally frustrating and mundane. The game follows in the footsteps of titles like Diablo and Too Human in that loot drops occur frequently, so players will constantly be managing their inventory. In addition to picking up new swords, crossbows and armor, gamers will also have to manage potions, attack items and more. While this creates a ton of diversity and a great opportunity to play however you want, it also leads to extensive inventory management, which is Deathspank's greatest flaw. First off, there's no easy way to compare inventory items, so the only way to figure out if that new sword is better than the club you're already carrying is to scroll to one item, make a mental note of its stats, scroll to the other, and then compare. It would have been infinitely easier to slap a compare button on the menu or throw in a way of identifying at a glance if one piece of equipment is more effective than another. The game goes halfway with this concept by including an option to automatically equip the best armor, but dealing with weapons and items is considerably more cumbersome.
The other major inventory issue is how limited space turns out to be. The amount of stuff that can be carried at any given time is pretty restrictive, so players will be forced to reluctantly drop equipment or items in order to free up room. Thankfully, the inventory comes with a handy grinder, which players can use to instantly convert unwanted junk into gold. It's ultimately a game-saving feature because if players were forced to return to town every time they needed to unload, then the whole experience would fall apart in a hurry.
Once players get Deathspank outfitted just so and wade into combat, they'll find an enjoyable, though shallow, experience. You can equip any four weapons you wish to the face buttons (along with support items on the d-pad), and calling up an attack is as simple as tapping a button. Furthermore, the game encourages mixing things up, throwing in a multiplier for varied strikes that ups damage and helps fill your "Justice Meter" more quickly. Once this meter is full, Deathspank can unleash an extremely powerful attack, which varies from weapon to weapon. What keeps this from degrading into a button-mashing fest is the fact that enemies pack quite a punch, so blocking quickly becomes a necessary tactic. Thus, players must learn the timing of enemies' strikes in order to fight with any efficacy.
Even with these added wrinkles, things still get pretty mundane after a while, and Deathspank's inability to use magic means that battles will always be a hack-and-slash affair. While the game supports co-op with a magic-casting wizard, it's local play only, which is a pretty big disappointment. Yes, the journey of a hero is often a lonely one, but if we can play with a friend in person, why not have the same opportunity online?
Finally, how much you enjoy the mission structure in Deathspank will likely be directly correlated to how much you enjoy the typical RPG fetch quest. Nearly every citizen's request involves wandering into enemy-infested territory to grab the item they left behind while fleeing in terror. Then again, if you can get past the ridiculous nature of the requests, a lot of them turn out to be rather hilarious. One farmer needs unicorn poop as fertilizer, but unfortunately, unicorns only poop two or three times in their whole lives, so you'll need to speed the process along by providing some relish. A major plot quest involves rescuing orphans by snatching them up and shoving them in a filthy bag. At one point, the quest-giver reminds Deathspank to poke holes. When the hero asks if that means in the bags or the orphans, the response is, "Either should be fine." Once again, it's not mind-blowing but still utterly hilarious.
This is basically the mantra Deathspank carries throughout, hoping its humor and satire will mask the fact that it's relying on the same tropes it skewers in order to make a functional game. For the most part, it works, and players will often find they're having too much fun bashing demon imps and serving the downtrodden to realize that the game can be a bit of a chore. Occasionally, you'll be reminded that, as funny as it is, the gameplay of Deathspank is nothing special, and if you stripped away the laughs, it would be a pretty average experience. While our hero may be able to take out most of the world's evil, we hope he gets his own house in order before his return. If Ron Gilbert and company come up with some innovative gameplay to accompany the amazing writing, then this franchise will quickly become one of the greatest of this console generation.
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