On TV, summer is the season when small cable networks feature their most promising new shows, seizing the opportunity to be noticed while the big boys cool their heels with reruns and reality fluff. Download services like Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network have settled into a similar summertime role; they offer intriguing, offbeat games in July and August while major studios hibernate with low-effort rehashes like Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 and Crackdown 2. That relaxed environment gives the breezy, brilliant DeathSpank a chance to shine.
Knight-in-garish-armor DeathSpank is on a quest to retrieve a jaggy red McGuffin known as The Artifact. His Diablo-esque romp is larded with side quests and boasts a huge array of enemies for you to hack into pieces or riddle with crossbow shots. Likewise, weapons and other loot abound, but the sheer volume isn’t intimidating—thanks to a streamlined inventory system, snagging yet another armor piece is a blessing rather than a descent into backpack-management hell.
Frequent autosaves allow DeathSpank to be played in brief stints, although it takes remarkable willpower to avoid getting sucked in for hours, as the game is engineered to feel fresh throughout. Bad guys drop new weapons just when your current armory starts to feel too familiar. Wayward travelers and mini-bosses keep cross-world treks from turning into a slog. The rhythm of the journey always feels right.
That goes for comic timing, too. Your local GameStop clerk will call DeathSpank an action RPG, which isn’t wrong, but it misses the essence of the thing. This is really an action-comedy, with a cleverer wit than the title screen and its purple-thong logo implies. Designer Ron Gilbert, of Maniac Mansion and Monkey Island fame, hasn’t lost the puckish voice of those earlier games—rather, he’s refined it. He gets a huge assist from Michael Dobson, who voices the eponymous hero. Dobson infuses DeathSpank’s baritone with so much ego and misplaced gallantry that even throwaway bits of dialogue like “Greetings, lazy fisherman!” land as punchlines. The rest of the vocals shine, as well, down to the world-weary “hee-haw” of a lowly swamp donkey.
The world’s gorgeous fairytale landscape seems to sprawl out forever, rolling into view as you travel, as if it were the backdrop for a lavish stop-motion movie. Variety means more here than “the desert level” or “the ice level,” as each of the seamlessly connected realms has character. There’s a palpable gloom in the Demon Mines, and insane Care Bear-unicorn sugariness in the Enchanted Forest. The drive to keep exploring is strong. Cable-TV executives may not have major networks to fear in the summer, but they should be terrified of deep, blissful time-sucks like DeathSpank.