360 XBLA Review - DeathSpank

19th July 2010 - The digital world is growing rapidly and more and more great games are being released as downloadable content every week. While most of these are small, ‘mini-games’ if you will, few challenge the definition of what an arcade game is and push boundaries of what is possible for DLC. The latest is DeathSpank, an action RPG from the creators of the Monkey Island series, and one for every RPG fans digital collection. Read on and ill tell you why this little gem is a must have!

The gameplay of DeathSpank is relatively simple; you can assign any of your weapons to your 4 face buttons and each is mapped as and how you want it; wether is be a hefty amount of melee weapons, some ranged attacks thrown in or some special weapons, its up to you. You can also map food and potions to your D-Pad for some quick rejuvenation on the go. This set of simple controls is ultimately the basis for everything great in DeathSpank; the action, and exploration and even the questing.

Given the game is an RPG, there is bound to be some kind of levelling/customisation systems. And DeathSpank gives you one akin to the core gameplay; simple. But while simple is good in the actual combat side of things, the simplicity of the Role-Playing mechanics doesn’t help to make the game better. In fact, its one of DeathSpank’s weaker points. Each of the 20 levels you go up, you are given the choice of selecting an upgrading card from a few. There only 6 total, one for each statistic (speed, melee damage, loot, etc.), so after a few levels this system appears very flawed. Of course it doesn’t take away from the experience, it simply makes the whole RPG side of things all too lackluster and you really don’t feel like you have much control over just how DeathSpank progresses. The customisation on the other hand is decent. Its nothing to write home about per se, but it does provide enough visual and statistical improvement for you to feel the need to quest your way around and find the best weapons and armour.

Onto yet another important factor in any good RPG; the story. DeathSpank has a very defined mediocre storyline- its cool at times, but really just makes no sense and doesn’t have you sucked in. But in this game, you will still get sucked in. Not for the story though, but more or less everything else about the game.

For an XBLA title, DeathSpank has a great array of missions and quests to undertake, and while the side missions don’t add onto the overarching story of things, they are certainly very, very enjoyable and surprising varied. No one mission is the same, and even given the simple style on the gameplay, the objectives always impress.

Perhaps one of the most inspiring of the games factors, more so than the fun and addictiveness, is the humour. Right from the get-go its clear DeathSpank isn’t serious. Every conversation is filled with tongue-in-cheek humour, off-set references, and adult jokes that the little kiddies simply wont get, void of any kind of off language too- it is a genuinely intelligent and hilarious script right till the end of the game.

You can play DeathSpank co-operatively also, but unfortunately only offline on the same screen. A online component would have been nice, but it really couldn’t have added much more enjoyment given the tasks of conversing and questing for all sorts of NPC’s. Co-op play is essentially the same monster as the single-player game, only with a friend to help hack-and-slash your way around a few Orques here and there.

Its all too often developers try to stand out with ‘unique’, or ‘cartoony’ graphics, thus resulting in it being no way unique or any colour of awesome, especially on the XBLA. But with DeathSpank, the game isn’t trying to stand out, its just trying to fit in. No, not with the other Action-RPG’s so it doesn’t get bullied at school, but trying to fit in with itself. Let me explain; the graphical style here fits in so well with the constant humour and fantasy world so well its uncanny.

It could easily be called concept-art style, but DeathSpank is more than that. Sure, it has very cartoon-like textures, but it’s the little things which make it different. For example, the way buildings, and many other structures in the game are actually 2D Sprites and Models, which can only be realized if you tilt the camera to the side and see whats going on here. Its nothing big sure, but it just adds all the more humorous and unique feel to the whole package and really writes DeathSpank off as its own game, rather than just another fall-in-line half-assed Role-Playing Game.

The whole universe of DeathSpank is a little wonky too, but not in a bad way. While it may not seem like it at first, this isn’t just a alternate medieval fantasy world. No, this is something completely new and strange. The set-up of it all feel very similar to the universe of the Overlord games, which is great! But where things get really weird in the dialogue. It has mentions to things that have happened throughout history, from the 20th to way back in the 16th. It is loaded with references like this that make you wonder just when or where this game is supposed to be set, and that’s when it hits you; DeathSpank isn’t about trying to recreate a specific era, or retell a specific fantasy universe - DeathSpank is about showing that things don’t need to make any kind of sense to still be awesome.

As I mentioned before, the world all feels a bit like Overlord. And its in the sound department too, not just graphically. The subtle musical score is just like that found in Overlord; its suiting but is really nothing special and certainly not a big part of the game.

Where DeathSpank makes its stand in this part of things is in the undoubtedly great voice work. With a ton of great voice actors really putting forth the best possible other-worldly and over-the-top voice work, DeathSpank sound great. It goes hand in hand with the humorous script too, that’s for sure. One could say that the voice talent is akin to the ridiculousness of Trey Parkers many one-off characters and cameos in South Park and just like that, it makes funny even funnier.

Here we have a good, solid 8-10 hour RPG adventure, with not just quantity, but stunning quality. DeathSpank is priced at 1200 Microsoft Points, and with playtime as much as most full-priced retail games, its value you cant pass up. Some non-RPG fans may not get their moneys worth out of it due to the mission structure and side-quests, but for every RPG loving actioneer with a 360, DeathSpank is definitely one of the most valuable and quality titles available on the Arcade.

DeathSpank is a great RPG, with a solid price tag and well worthy of being named one of the best things on the XBLA. The humorous script itself is worth the price tag, but its with the surprising amount of playtime and great number of possible quests to undertake, that DeathSpank is a perfect example of what a downloadable title should be. Possibly the next Castle Crashers and definitely the new Monkey Island, RPG fans wont want to miss out on this one.

AAG SCORE: 8.8/10

+ Very addictive, fun and simply gameplay
+ Script and voice work are hilarious and very quotable
+ Tons of fun and playtime for the cheap price tag

- Some lackluster RPG elements
- Story lacks the natural oomph to get you interested
- No online capabilities for co-op mode


Reviewed and Written By John Elliott