keskiviikko 24. syyskuuta 2014

REVIEW - DeathSpank | Xbox 360 | 2010

GENRE(S): Action / RPG
RELEASED: July 13, 2010 (PS3)
DEVELOPER(S): Hothead Games

Hothead Games was founded in early 2006 as a privately funded independent developer and publisher. Two years later, they released their first episodic adventure game, Penny Arcade Adventures, with genre icon Ron Gilbert of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island fame working in the capacity of a story and design consultant. While serving the same purposes for Telltale Games as they were outlining Tales of Monkey Island, he started designing a whole new game of his own for Hothead, in collaboration with Clayton Kauzlaric with whom he worked on the strategy game Total Annihilation in 1997; this game was to be Gilbert's first as main designer since 1991's Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. DeathSpank, an action-RPG Gilbert described as "Monkey Island meets Diablo", and loosely based on his Grumpy Gamer web comic, took almost three years to make. The game was ultimately released in two episodes due to its large size; the first "episode" was released in July 2010, and the second one came out only two months later. In the summer of 2011, a third game in the series was released, without Gilbert's involvement as he had moved on from Hothead Games to join his old LucasArts teammate Tim Schafer at Double Fine Productions. ...So, who cares about that one? These first two games form the real legend of DeathSpank - awaken your inner hero and take a stroll in this world of utter nonsense. Only one guy in the world can come up with this stuff.

"Hello, non-distinctive non-player character. I am... DeathSpank."

No-one really knows where this thong-wearing masked knight came from and why - and no one really cares, either. He is DeathSpank; the Dispenser of Justice, the Vanquisher of Evil, and a Hero to the Downtrodden, just as he introduces himself to just about everyone who's willing to listen to him talk for more than two seconds. Although his pompous demeanor might get on your nerves a bit, he does get the job done; ANY job. Heroism is his obsession, it's what he lives for. That, and a magical artifact known as... The Artifact. Unfortunately, he's not the only one after it. Of course he's not - what would a protagonist of a role-playing game do without a high-level arch nemesis? Duh!

Lay waste to the wild ones.
Let's talk about heroes. If you'd just casually ask me to name my "heroes" in the video game business, I'd probably tell you I've grown out of having actual "heroes"; anyone can hit, anyone can miss. That's pretty much the truth, too - besides, the media rarely talks about main designers nowadays, just studios. But behold, as a true legend of computer gaming makes a comeback to main designer status after 19 years on almost perfect exile, suddenly no-one talks about Hothead Games. It's all about Ron Gilbert. Ron Gilbert leaves Hothead, the sales drop. So do the ratings. Go figure. But, here I am once again getting ahead of myself. So let's rewind a bit.

I do have "heroes". Shigeru Miyamoto will always be my hero - no matter what he's up to nowadays, he's designed several top games of yesteryear because of which I still play games today, not to mention games I still take on a sporadic spin, three decades later. Hideo Kojima - not my favourite person in the world, but that don't change one tiny peck of what I think about him as a game designer. Hironobu Sakaguchi, obviously, together with composer Nobuo Uematsu. Those guys made Final Fantasy what it was up 'til the turn of the millennium, and just look where that franchise stands today without either one of these grand old men of J-RPG around in any capacity. Finally, Ron Gilbert - without whom I'd probably never have fallen for one PC game in my life. Perhaps the original Maniac Mansion didn't really grab me by the balls, but the famous script utility they specifically created for that game got perfected in just a couple of years, and resulted in the birth of several of the best, funniest and most intelligent point 'n' click adventure games ever made. After reading about it for so many years, I finally played Monkey Island in 2000. The Curse of Monkey Island, though, which wasn't designed by Gilbert... but through that game, I found The Secret of Monkey Island, and through that one, Gilbert's centerpiece Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, which I still consider one of the greatest games ever conceived. It changed my perspective on so many things - mainly on how fun playing on a PC can be. Say what you will, to me this 23-year old classic is still the best PC game ever made.

My first reaction to DeathSpank was not all positive, even though I was ecstatic to have Gilbert back on the scene, and back in the creative helm. 19 years is plenty of time to craft the outlines of your next pet project, and this is a guy who you know to suck every bit of innovation out of a simple gameplay scheme. It's not just any action-RPG, it's an action-RPG made by Ron Gilbert - it's going to be simple but fun to play, colourful, and most likely God damn hilarious... as well as expensive. A risk. Back when the first "episode" came out, I had just heard, maybe a day before its release, that it's more or less the first part of a two-part game. Its price felt too steep for just the "first half". The reviews weren't perfect, and I was in at least such a poor financial state that I actually cared about them, had it been a Ron Gilbert-brand game or not. I didn't do demos, at all. Not sure why. I always went straight for the full game - but only if I was 100% certain they were good. ...Which they always weren't. Nowadays, I'm not as careful. Even though it may sometimes feel the exact opposite, I'm not that judgmental anymore. I take risks. DeathSpank is one risk that has been waiting for taking for a very long time, and I'm glad I took it. It's not perfect, but it's got quite enough of those moments a huge fan of those good old SCUMM classics can't help but cherish. Or an RPG fan, as simple and streamlined as the game might be in that sense.

Pluckmuckel, the only real settlement in the
whole game. But it's a nice one.
The graphics are really good, the comic book look with everything out of proportion and deliberately unattractive character design works like a charm in a game of such humorous nature. The level design is quite unique, as the whole world is depicted as one giant globe, it's like... well, like any level in Super Mario Galaxy, on a game-wide scale; Choosing any direction from a certain point of the map might take you somewhere new, it's surprisingly vast and unlimited for a downloadable game of a relatively small bit size. However, when the whole world map finally unveils, you'll see how surprisingly straightforward it all was, and how much was obviously left for the sequel, or "second episode" to cover. There aren't a whole lot of different tunes in the game, but a LOT of dialogue. In the style of old SCUMM games, you can carry on with any conversation about as long as you want, but you can just as easily end the conversation any time you wish. It's all in how much you can take 'em jokes, nothing else. DeathSpank's tongue-in-cheek voiceover work, especially that of the main character (voiced by Michael Dobson) might start getting on your nerves towards the end, just as the humour itself. More about that later, though.

DeathSpank has a very simple role-playing concept. You are DeathSpank, a legendary hero whose primary mission - which he considers his own, but is more or less doing it for a woman (aren't they all?) - is to recover "The Artifact", a vague-looking... thing, which holds unimaginable power. It's quite the red herring to kick off two other primary quests; gathering materials for a witch so she can create a magical crystal used to open the path to The Artifact, and rescuing the kidnapped orphans of the town of Pluckmuckel from a very strange, narcissistic tyrant also obsessed with The Artifact. In between these quests, there are about 80 sidequests waiting to be accepted all across the map. Each one takes you about two minutes to complete, and the rewards are often quite remarkable; powerful enchanted items for both attack and defense, and great equipment. Most equipment can be bought from stores at some point of the game, but they can also be won by doing sidequests. Like in most conventional RPG's, you need to be on a certain level to use certain equipment, but you can bend the rules a bit with perks that, among other things, allow you to use equipment of a slightly higher tier number. The nature of the quests? Try "anything". At one point, you must fetch a taco of specific requirements (you read quite right) to a legendary blacksmith to convince him to make you a new sword. In one of the sidequests a crazy farmer sends you to retrieve unicorn crap for his crops - so you need to go to a forest filled with homicidal (!) unicorns, spice up their grass fodder with some laxative and wait 'til one comes to supper. Destroy a church bell to allow the rich and self-absorbed residents of a luxury cabin site to have some peace and quiet. You are a hero to all in need - they don't always have to be good guys. You're not the smartest cat around, but you know your sword like it's your... sword.

Items and equipment cannot be sold - but from the very beginning, you have something in your inventory which basically lets you "sell" your equipment. The Grinder can be used to literally grind any non-key item or weapon to real money. As DeathSpank himself describes the Grinder: gotta love modern science!

Again quite in the style of old SCUMM games, there are some puzzles connected to the quests, but the kind and clever gameplay designers worked out a loophole for players who either weren't there when point 'n' click was the jig, or any good at them. Just going around and breaking stuff is very useful, as among many other items you might stumble on Fortune Cookies, which allow you to unlock hints for quests; the more complex the quest, the more the number of hints for one goes up, naturally. You can't buy Fortune Cookies at stores and at least it felt like the game runs completely out of 'em from a certain point onwards, so use them sparingly - you might damn well need them on some of the quests on the later half of the game. Just an example, and a free hint; a lone hermit is in possession of a sealed, wooden box which is impossible to open, and he gives it to you for safekeeping, hoping you can find a way to open it. Just looking around a bit, you might notice that there's a whole colony of termites just a rock throw away from his house. Termites. Wood. 1+1. Aww, how I've missed this shit. Too bad there's so little of it, ultimately. Most of the quests are about killing something. Or simply fetching something. I seem to remember it's been more entertaining.

What would happen if a bear and an antelope got
it on? Well, a bearalope, of course.
For the absolute majority of the game, you fight monsters and other hostile beings. You can assign both the digital pad and each one of the face buttons to anything you wish. For example, I assign 'em like this: Up = Health Potion, Left = high-level food, Right = mid-level food, Down = an item for powerful offense, such as "Hell from Heaven", X = primary melee weapon, Y = club or axe, B = magical melee weapon, and finally A = ranged weapon. It works out quite well, too. Whatever you choose, combat is quite fun, but if it's the Diablo level of thoroughly smooth operation you're expecting here, you're in for a disappointment. 'Spank takes breathers of his own accord from time to time, his range isn't always as long as it looks like, and he moves weird. Adjusting the camera to suit your current needs doesn't help, as it tends to auto-pan during combat. Weapons marked with arrows and highlighted in purple are Weapons of Justice; whenever you land a successful hit, your Justice Meter goes up, and when it's at maximum, you are supposed to be able to unleash a powerful Justice attack with any weapon. In reality, there are only a few certain weapons in the whole game with a Justice attack that makes any concrete difference. During your travels, you will find Runestones, which allow you to combine very specific sets of weapons for even more powerful Justice attacks, and these ones are really powerful, but the thing is that the weapon requirements are usually quite weak. You must equip yourself with two weak weapons to gain one special attack you can just as easily do without, and especially with the very strict inventory limit that's just bull. Having gone over the kinda small, but eventually notable flaws to the whole combat system, and the ultimately repetitive quests leaves us with the humour.

Divine punishment for the men of the cloth.
Is DeathSpank funny enough to bear through? Of course it is. ...BUT, again, if you're looking for something on the level of Monkey Island, you're in the wrong place. The presentation is very similar to Day of the Tentacle, actually, but keep in mind that this is a much longer game, and while Day of the Tentacle might've been sensical (rhyme) from time to time due to its intelligent plot, all sense is thrown out the window the second DeathSpank takes his first step. The plot is really simple and irrelevant, allowing just about every single sentence to be a joke. I probably don't need to explain that in such a lengthy game, the jokes WILL dry down and repeat towards the end. The humour loses its surprise factor, it becomes completely predictable, and simply put, the jokes might well drive you to fury whereas they entertained the hell out of you during the first couple of hours. Especially when a quest itself turns into a bad, repetitive joke, such as fetching stuff for the same NPC, one item at a time, from the exact same place, over five times in a row. All in all, it's not nearly as brilliantly and intelligently crafted, and full of surprises, as perhaps the most obvious point of comparison when it comes to RPG parody - South Park: The Stick of Truth.

DeathSpank is quite spot-on with its general difficulty - it all boils down to how dedicated you are with sidequesting. Even managing all the sidequests and beating the game doesn't guarantee hitting the level cap, though; you might need to run around the high-level areas after the completion of the game for 20-30 minutes to do that, if your mind is set on collecting all of the 12 Achievements. There's no real challenge to the Achievements besides bearing the game just a bit beyond the box. DeathSpank's a fine icon for your Gamerscore list of completed games on the Xbox.

DeathSpank is definitely expensive, occasionally irritating, very often tedious and repetitive, but it can also be a fine and outright hilarious time-killing tool. I think that in the end, Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion fans will be pleased with their purchase, especially once they realize that even if DeathSpank's merely the first episode of a two-part trip, you don't necessarily have to buy the second one - after all, the story's not exactly exciting. It's extremely recommendable if you liked this one, though, and I'll very soon tell you why.

+ Character development is simple, straightforward and accessible; you don't have to be any sort of RPG buff to be able to enjoy DeathSpank
+ Unique art style and level design
+ Well designed control scheme
+ With Ron Gilbert's signatures all over it, it's funny as heck...

- ...Until the humour becomes too much of a standard, predictable and dull
- Repetitive quests, both in storyline and on the side
- Weak advanced combat tactics; most of the time, you get along just fine mashing your way through
- Steep price for a notably smaller game than the equally priced "second episode"

< 8.0 >

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