Xbox Live’s “Summer of Arcade” doesn’t officially start – according to Microsoft – until July 21 when Limbo is released. Why DeathSpank (which was released this past Wednesday) isn’t part of the big Summer of Arcade promotion, I have no idea. Created by Ron Gilbert (the guy who brought us Monkey Island), DeathSpank is an action-RPG with a totally unique style. After a couple of hours of playing, it’s clear to me that DeathSpank is going to go down as one of the better Arcade releases this summer and should be mentioned with Shadow Complex as a game that would be worth buying were it released regularly and not as a downloadable Arcade game. Fortunately for us, it can be ours for just $15 and five minutes of download time.
Described as “Monkey Island meets Diablo,” DeathSpank features an over-the-top hero named DeathSpank. Due to some prophecy or legend, DeathSpank is destined to obtain the Artifact, although he – and everyone else it seems – has no idea what the Artifact is aside from, well, an artifact. All that’s known is that the Artifact is hidden and must be retrieved before it falls into the wrong hands. And thus, DeathSpank’s quest begins.
The gameplay itself is very similar Diablo or games in the Zelda series: a top-down action game in which you can level-up your character while acquiring various upgrades in weapons, armor, and even potions. Naturally, different weapons have different strengths and abilities, and one can assign weapons or items (like potions) to any of the four controller buttons, as well as any of the directions of the D-pad. As such, there’s a seemingly limitless number of weapon and item combinations that can be equipped at any given time during the game. And there’s a ton of weapons and armor. I’d bet I’m at best a quarter through the game and I’ve already had to grind some of my items (instead of dropping items, they can be ground up in a grinder and converted into cash) in order to free up more room in my inventory. A nice feature to prevent grinding up the wrong item is that by simply pressing the RT button on the inventory screen, DeathSpank will be equipped with the optimal armor combination. I’m guessing that later in the game, in certain situations, however, the “best” armor may not actually be the highest rated, but the one that provides some type of special resistance (like, for example, an armor that is especially effective against fire attacks).
I found out pretty early on that mashing buttons isn’t going to cut it. Blocking becomes necessary as enemies grow stronger, and in order to maximize melee damage, you’ve got to use combos. Chaining together combos increases damage; just hammering away on the X or Y button repeatedly will get you nowhere. The enemies have indeed gotten progressively harder, which is, of course, a good thing.
Of course, the draw of DeathSpank isn’t the gameplay itself, but the game’s abstract design and pretty incredible voice acting. Three-dimensional characters roam around in a gorgeous two-dimensional world, and it’s apparent that a lot of thought went into the design of each section on the world map. So far I’ve traveled by a lake, a slime pit, and a demon mine, all of which were beautifully crafted and unique from one another. The design of the game itself is reason enough to accept side quests (and there are many) and go exploring.
Voice actor Michael Dobson provides the voice for DeathSpank, and it’s appropriately over the top. Think Bruce Campbell, but with more subtle (if that’s possible). Every character DeathSpank encounters is also voiced well, especially Bong, the laid back potion merchant. And conversations aren’t set in stone, you’re actually given the option to choose from three or four statements what you’d like to say or ask. Talking to villagers in most RPGs to get information can be tedious, but in DeathSpank, it’s fun and sometimes even funny.
DeathSpank manages to be a fun and silly action-RPG while still maintaining a certain level of difficulty. If it seems like all I’m doing is praising this game, it’s because although I’m not even halfway through, I haven’t yet been bored while playing it. I have a strong suspicion that DeathSpank is going to be a highly rated and critically acclaimed game. It goes to show that, like Shadow Complex, sometimes there are some real gems available via download.