The Much-Needed Parody in a Sea of Loot RPGs

Earlier this year I’d gotten myself into the mood for dungeon crawlers in anticipation for the PC release of Dark Souls. As I noted in previous posts, it’s also been a year for loot games. Under these circumstances I decided to finally install DeathSpank just to see what that game was all about.

I first tried the demo on Xbox Live Arcade back when it first came out a couple years ago. Back then my main thought was “oh, they finally figured out how to make a Diablo clone work on a controller – make it play like a brawler.” By the time I was prepared to buy the game it had showed up on a Steam sale for probably $8 or something like that. Knowing that this game would probably be buried in my Steam backlog as soon as I started Torchlight II, I decided to go ahead and install it a few weeks ago and at least play some of it.

I think DeathSpank was initially seen as the much-needed parody to put perspective on how ridiculously unrealistic western RPG quest systems are. DeathSpank is the game that actually tries to answer the question “what kind of person would go around willingly helping literally anyone who has a problem?” I try so hard not to be that guy in every other RPG I’ve played this gen, often to no avail. With DeathSpank it’s at least refreshing to not have to worry about the storyline’s believability. The writing is also indeed very good, but that was to be expected. When a well-written parody game actually has good gameplay underneath is what’s usually surprising.

Call it the western equivalent to 3D Dot Game Heroes if you will. DeathSpank is both a sound hack n’ slash as well as adventure game that asked a bit more of me as a player than I expected, even compared to, say, the first Torchlight.

When I installed this game on PC I expected the PC controls to pretty much be like Torchlight or Diablo – just click on everything while occasionally pressing space or something. DeathSpank’s console roots demand a bit more keyboard use than those games, with blocking (space bar) and quick item use (number keys) as core necessities of the game. That already makes the core combat system more involving for people who don’t like how Diablo is essentially “Click on Stuff: the Game.” I personally appreciate that kind of simplicity and intuitiveness in a game’s interface, but different strokes I guess.

Mechanically DeathSpank is otherwise a complete example of one of these kinds of games. What else caught me off guard early on though was how much the game plays around with its quests. A lot of it is indeed “go here, kill this thing, find this item, clear this dungeon,” but almost as much consists of real dialogue tree engagement and item negotiation. Having to buy a taco from a vendor with a specific set of ingredients you had to write down is the kind of mental challenge you just don’t see in video games anymore.

Lastly I’ll admit that I really like the visual style of DeathSpank. These dungeon-click games commonly have deliberately modest graphics to keep them accessible to a wide variety of computers, but DeathSpank plays this up in its art direction. The whole game kind of looks like a pop-up book, with almost everything other than character models rendered as flat objects standing on top of a world that rotates Animal Crossing-style.

Between Torchlight II, Diablo III, Borderlands 2, Path of Exile, and probably a lot more, not to mention what already came out before this year, this generation’s saturation of the loot RPG will probably leave something like DeathSpank and its sequel buried. That doesn’t really stop it from being a worthy game, and if nothing else, a necessary spin on the subgenre.


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