Friday, August 13, 2010

DeathSpank is Fun for all the Wrong Reasons

I'd heard DeathSpank was rather Diablo-ish going in, but my only experience with Blizzard's RPG was the scant demo I played of it half my lifetime ago. I barely recall it, but if memory serves correctly you merely pointed on enemies and your avatar fought them automatically, trading blows until one party fell. The skill came from deciding what equipment to use and stat buffs to utilize. One could still heal and use items mid-battle, but by and large, you had no active control in the combat. Of course, this is all speculation based on my memory of a 14 year old demo. But it's still what I think of when I think of Diablo.

DeathSpank looked a lot more enticing to me. I was mostly interested because of Monkey Island creator, Ron Gilbert's* involvement, but on a mechanical level the combat looked far more responsive. You could attack in real-time, block, and do all the things one would expect in a hack-and-slash action game. In short, aside from the loot-collecting, it didn't resemble my foggy memories of Diablo the way I expected.

So it was with a bit of disappointment when I played the game and soon realized it fell a little flat on the two things I was most looking forward to; the writing and combat.

The writing is certainly above average and traces of Monkey Island can be found all over the place, but I can't help but agree with Sparky Clarkson's assessment that while the game cleverly personifies its protagonist's world view, DeathSpank isn't a very interesting protagonist. Clarkson goes on to say that Gilbert did the "moron-hero" thing better in Monkey Island, but I'd argue that Guybrush Threepwood was never a moron. A wimp, certainly. And lacking certain social skills around women, sure. But not a moron. He was often clever, cunning, and aside from physical stature, really did embody the crafty skills his dream profession required. DeathSpank, however, is a moron. He's just a one trick pony. His one defining characteristic is that he's stupid, but thinks he's amazing. Guybrush too thought himself a mighty pirate, but the difference is that Guybrush had pathos. We felt bad for him as he tried to woo his love interest, an often sought after tomboyish governor. Everybody roots for an underdog and that's what Guybrush is. DeathSpank, however, is beefy and foolhardy enough to complete his quest, so there's no sense of overcoming the odds. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for a good romantic subplot. Either way, I don't care much for this guy.

That being said, the jokes hit more often than miss and there's a lot of charm to be found in the game. It's just not as consistent or endearing as his earlier work.

I want to get back to the combat though, as my reaction to it was the most surprising thing. Going into it expecting more of a skill-based hack-and-slash, I was disappointed. The enemies cluttered the screen too much, I could never tell when to block, and even when I could block successfully I'd find enemies chipping away at my health without being able to tell that their blows were connecting. It was messy, sloppy, and dare I say, broken as an action game. Here's the weird thing; I didn't mind.

Despite having direct control over your avatar, combat is much how I remember Diablo. It's so imprecise that you'll end up trading blows with the opposition no matter how honed your reflexes are. You can't take on high-end enemies at first, but must be at an adequate skill level before you have any chance at success. It's ultimately just an excuse for you to kill things, gain new levels and equipment so you can take on bigger enemies, kill them, and gain even more levels and equipment. It's everything that I claim to hate about lazy, padded design.

And yet I like it. I like watching the numbers go up and my character getting stronger. I'm sucked in in the same way that's always alienated my from RPG players and I can think of two reasons why.

a.) DeathSpank is very well-paced. It seems as though I gain a new level or a better piece of armor or equipment every couple of minutes, so I'm never wasting a significant amount of time with negligible progress.

b.) DeathSpank is short. A vast majority of RPGs I've tried I've given up on after about a dozen hours. The few I've completed were rather slow-going by the end and I really had to force myself to push on. Admittedly I'm only 9 or so hours into DeathSpank and I'm sure that if it were a 30+ hour game I too would tire of it long before the end credits roll. Thankfully, it's not. I've discovered 23 of a possible 30 outhouses (respawn points), so I'm going to assume I'm about 3/4th through and thus have another 3-4 hours left. That sounds about perfect to me. As soon as I'll start to tire of the grind, I'll be at the end and ready to move on to something else. And it only cost $15, so I don't feel cheated about length which I know is a concern for RPG veterans who like longer games.

Ultimately, DeathSpank doesn't fire on all cylinders for me, but it fires on the ones I least expected. I still maintain the the premise was flawed and wish it was more Monkey Islandesque when it comes to puzzles. Though for a genre I always looked at from a distance and could never quite understand the appeal of, DeathSpank is a wonderfully accessible entry.

*Note: One of my most embarrassing experiences as a journalist comes from when I asked a friend at Hothead studios if she could introduce me to Ron Gilbert. She took a step forward, interrupted his conversation and said, "Hey Ron! This guy wants to meet you!" Horrified, I cowardly thanked him for Monkey Island, then snuck away with my tail between my legs.
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