The latest game from Ron Gilbert (Monkey Island I&II, Maniac Mansion, etc) DeathSpank is all about the adventures of the titular hero, told from a third-person action roleplaying perspective. With Ron Gilbert at the helm, expectations (for both amusing narrative and fun gameplay) were set almost unattainably high - and that's before we knew any detail about the game itself.
Ostensibly a Diablo clone, DeathSpank is all about killing things for XP and loot so you can level up and kill bigger, badder things for shinier, pointier loot. Keeping in mind that words like "RPG" and "XP" can be off-putting for, well, people that don't own pocket protectors, certain details you might expect from the genre have been masked by more casual-friendly terms and presentation. If you're concerned that might mean the experience has been dumbed down, put that out of your mind right now - all of the core mechanics of the genre remain intact. Ron has simply managed to find smart ways to eliminate complexity and increase comprehension without dramatically simplifying anything.
DeathSpank (or his co-op sidekick Sparkles) is controlled in a pretty straight forward manner - the analogue stick tackles his basic movement as you might expect, with each of the face buttons controlling one of the four weapons he has equipped at any one time. Once you get to grips with this basic premise, additional layers of the mechanics are revealed: chaining alternate attacks (rather than spamming the same attack over and over) boosts your justice gauge, which can then be unleashed by certain weapons for various devastating effects. It's from this that the core strategy of your weapon selection and use is drawn, as it can be useful to have weapons that don't use your justice power (so you can keep attacking while your justice power is maxed without using it, saving it for an important moment). Likewise, it's worth having a weapon that doesn't do any damage but has a devastating justice attack - like an area-effect stun.
There are other things, too, like the ability to block moves or advanced targeting (over and above the smart targeting that comes as default). Weapons range from the standard (i.e. some part of it is either pointy or blunt and you swing it at things) to the magical, with an array of weird hybrid devices in between, like the boot-on-a-stick that stuns things. Typically it's a good idea to have a ranged device of some sort equipped, with the ability to really focus on dealing death from a distance if you are so inclined. There's no class selection as such but DeathSpank is a pretty versatile kind of guy (well, within the "spanking death into things" category, at least) so whether you like getting all up in someone's face with razor-sharp stabbing sticks or you prefer the run-n-gun approach, you can customize the experience to suit.
Loot in DeathSpank is handled much as you'd expect, with dispatched foes dumping the contents of their pockets on the ground before they finally shuffle off this mortal coil - all DeathSpank needs to do is run over them to pick them up. Items range from the comical (the chicken launcher is a favourite) to the necessary (quest items, gold, etc). Should you find your (typically roomy) backpack becoming overly full, a rather handy device in your bag allows you to grind your excess equipment into currency (grinding for gold - geddit??) eliminating the annoying trip back to town to vendor your gear. Vendors still exist, of course, with numerous incredibly expensive wares available to the cashed-up adventurer - you just don't need to keep running back when your bags are full.
Levelling allows DeathSpank to equip higher level loot, whilst also granting him a "card" to improve some basic element of the game mechanics. One card will increase his movement speed, another his melee damage - etc. There are six different cards in total, with any one of three pre-selected cards available to choose from each time you level up. With the level cap set at 20, you'll find yourself with a pretty pimped-out character when you top him out. What you won't find are numbers - aside from things like the amount of damage a weapon does or health armor adds, there are very few numbers to worry about: no points to assign, no number soup flying above the heads of foes in combat. These things are still happening, just out of sight where you don't need to worry about them.
The narrative, the names of various items, characters and situations in DeathSpank are genuinely amusing. The titular DeathSpank has a suitably heroic, Patrick Warburton-like voice. He swans around, crown prince of his own private universe, generally saving the day in a badass way. The people he meets run the full gamut of ARPG caricatures, with names like "guy who lost his wallet" and "generic non-player character" taking the proverbial mickey out of genre stereotypes. There's even an overarching story, with layers peeled back through stylized cutscenes at key points in the story. The high level story isn't going to blow any minds but the presentation and humorous manner in which it is presented will garner many a chuckle from people of all levels of experience with the genre.
Graphically the presentation is wonderful, with cardboard cutout buildings, rich colours and amusing characters filling out the vibrant world of DeathSpank. There are occasional slow-downs but they're not significant in their impact. The audio, particularly the voices (every line of the multi-path dialogue is voiced) is fantastic - DeathSpank's voice being a key highlight. Solid delivery is what enables great writing and that's exactly what you'll find here. Don't skip the extensive dialogue; it's worth listening to!
The game is also long - the world is large, if linear, with an extensive network of outhouses to travel around it with. Yeah, you read that right - DeathSpank can teleport from one outhouse to another via a means that he didn't want to discuss. To be honest, that's probably for the best. There are loads of NPCs to meet and loads of quests to complete - some of which actually require you to use your noggin. Sure, most are a variant of the now-cliche "kill x of y" or "collect n of z" type but when you're tasked with taking a special hammer to literally bash the crap out of demons (crap that you then have to collect) there are no complaints here at all.
DeathSpank is fun to play, funny to watch and it allows a second player to jump in at any time and assist by playing sparkles the incredibly camp magical elf. What's not to love? At $24.90 on the PSN store, DeathSpank represents fantastic value for money and is a purchase that no discerning gamer should allow to pass them by. Here's hoping for a sequel with online multiplayer in it - that's the only thing missing. DeathSpank is the downloadable game of the year so far.