DeathSpank is a quick and light little piece of action-RPG excitement from Hothead Games, the crew that developed the Penny Arcade Adventures series. While it's an uneven experience, the action works well enough and the game's sense of humor hits often enough to make it come together pretty well. Unfortunately, it also gets a bit monotonous, largely due to some repetitive quest design.
The game opens at what looks like the end of the titular hero's quest. DeathSpank has been looking for "The Artifact" for a very long time, and you essentially get it near the end of the game's first section. But that's, obviously, just the beginning. Before long you'll be on the hunt for missing orphans, chasing after the orcs that ganked your artifact, and generally side-questing your ass off as you go. DeathSpank is written as a comedy, and most of its best stuff comes from things like item descriptions or occasional lines of dialogue from the nondescript characters you'll encounter along the way. The game seems like it's always trying to slide something funny your way, but most of it didn't click with me at all... though I can always appreciate a good Usenet reference.
The writing is wrapped around a fairly standard action-RPG framework with some extra streamlining done to keep things moving. You won't need to sell loot in towns--instead you can just toss any extra items you have into "the grinder," an item in your inventory that turns loot into cash that you can then spend on... well, I think I only bought like two things over the course of the game. There isn't necessarily a ton of different loot, either, so rather than poring over your slots to make sure you're properly equipped, it's more about finding gear that has a higher level requirement, since that'll automatically be better than lower level gear. It's telling that the game has an "always equip best armor" option and that it works quite well. When you level up, you'll also get to pick a "hero card" than enhances one of your traits, like melee damage or movement speed. This gives you ways to sort of customize your character, but by the end of the game you'll have just about all of them. Don't go in expecting a full skill tree or especially meaningful decisions about the development of your DeathSpank.
You can equip four weapons at a time, and most of the weapons are melee-based. I kept one crossbow equipped at all times for ranged attacks, and then slotted my three most powerful weapons in the other spaces. These slots map to your face buttons, and the game has a combo system that makes having multiple weapons equipped meaningful. When you switch from one weapon to the next, a multiplier increases and a meter for your special attacks fills more rapidly. Some special attacks can be combined, provided you have the right weapons equipped. If you get the multiplier up to seven--not an especially challenging task--you'll knock enemies back, clearing some room. You can also queue up a few support items on the D-pad, giving you fast access to health potions, food, and other status effects.
All the while, you'll be taking on various quests. Some, like gathering up a bunch of missing orphans, are primary quests that must be completed. But there are plenty of optional quests, as well. Most of them feel like they boil down to "go here and get this item" or "go here and kill this thing." One particularly glaring bit of repetitiveness has you fetching items for a talking tree. While the quest dialogue is actually great for this entire chain, all of the items are found on a main road to the west of the tree. Since you'll have already cleared out most of this area, there are few enemies to fight... you just walk back and forth to grab items for five or 10 minutes. Maybe that's supposed to be part of the joke? If it were stretched out across a longer game, DeathSpank's quests and writing would work a bit better. But crammed into the five-and-a-half hours it took me to reach 100-percent completion, it's easier to recognize the same tricks being thrown at you again and again.
While the game is fine to play alone, there's also an asymmetrical co-op option in DeathSpank. A second player can play as a wizard named Sparkles, who can cast a few spells to help DeathSpank, but isn't really much of a character on his own. He doesn't advance in level or have his own inventory, but his spells automatically scale to match DeathSpank's current level. It feels like the sort of thing that's designed for parents who want to lend their kids a bit of a hand when playing through the game, like Super Mario Galaxy 2.
Even without an abundance of the "loot lust" that usually drives action-RPGs, DeathSpank has a hook that makes you want to keep playing it. But that alone doesn't make it a fantastic game. Its moments of brilliance are usually directly offset by its shortcomings. But if you aren't especially picky and you're on the hunt for something new to play during these slow summer months, DeathSpank's good enough to fit the bill.