This week, Zero Punctuation reviews DeathSpank and Limbo.
They say that money is the root of all evil, but somehow I doubt Mrs. Hitler was being impregnated by a roll of Deutsche Marks. The saying works better if you replace "money" with "rich businessmen in tight suits who won't even put twenty cents in a gumball machine if they can't expect a return of investment" and "evil" with "bland, samey action-adventure clones kneeling on the bed of a dried-up watering hole licking the dirt for moisture." (And "is" with "are," if we want to be grammatically correct.) It's hard to find innovation in big-budget, mainstream games when you can't make a single design or suggestion without triplicate proof that Gears of War did it, and this illustrates the important of independent development. We're fortunate to live in a time when it's never been easier to get exposure for new and innovative ideas, and I'd like to grant a little more exposure to two recent XBox Live Arcade titles, starting with DeathSpank, a Diablo clone.
AAAAAAAAAAAA... actually, that's not completely fair. Just in case the title hasn't told you everything you needed to know yet, DeathSpank is more like Diablo mixed with hack 'n' slash and marinated in Monkey Island overnight, which makes sense, because it was served up by the same chef, Ron Gilbert. You are the stalwart hero DeathSpank; you have come to a faraway land of fantasy in order to acquire the mysterious artefact known only as "The Artefact", and do your bit to help the downtrodden along the way, with most of the downtrodden all needing the kind of help that involves killing strangely specific numbers of certain kinds of monster. DeathSpank is that particular breed of parody that basically just does all the same things as the kind of thing it's parodying, but occasionally points to itself and goes: "Hey, everybody, look!" (Then the Wayans brothers make a parody of that full of bodily fluids and pop culture references, and the collective IQ of the general public drops another precious notch.)
DeathSpank is a game that's all about its flavour text. Every character has a funny dialogue tree and every item has a funny description. Ha ha, my sides. It'd just be nice to be able to read the fucking things. It's got the Dead Rising problem of assuming that everyone either owns a six-foot TV, or sits right in front of it with their forehead Superglued to the screen, and all the text and details are smaller than a gnat's tit. The largest enemies are actually far easier to kill, because you can tell the difference between when they're raising their arm to attack or when they're just pointing out an interesting cloud to a friend, so they're easier to counterattack. Otherwise it's extremely hard to escape a battle without losing health when you're surrounded by little yappy murderers who look exactly like the crisps packets all over the floor. That's why it gets more and more irritating to have to sit and eat food to restore your health every ten seconds, since attacking or being attacked at any point while eating makes DeathSpank throw his lunch, unfinished, on the ground. Here is a man in dire need of a foam dome full of beef casserole. And it doesn't take long for the hilarious food-eating noise to start grating when it sounds like a dog eating watermelon next to your ear while discussing his favorite arsehole smells.
I guess a recommendation for DeathSpank depends entirely on whether you feel a game can be carried by humour, because there's certainly a lot of that. But strip it away and it's just a slightly annoying hack 'n' slash RPG, but hey, too many games these days are about scowling, serious tosspots with so many brooms up their arse they could lean against a wall and call themselves a cleaning cupboard, so perhaps humour is enough. Personally I stopped playing because gameplay just got too dreary and the voice-acting roughed me up like a bed full of biscuit crumbs, so let's move on.
And speaking of games that take themselves too seriously, our second XBLA game is Limbo, an arty platformer developed by manic-depressives for manic-depressives. There's a bit of an unspoken rule on "cuhs-blah" that the easiest way to get critically acclaimed is to make a bleak, arty platformer about a small child with an oversized head in a big, scary world, with bonus points if they have to lose their innocence at some point. Anyway, in Limbo you play the silhouette of a small child with an oversized head in a silhouette of a big, scary world, and your objective is to keep moving right until the game says stop.
And "bleak" is an understatement: This is bleak multiplied by grim to the power of Hot Topic. Absolutely everything is trying to kill you in needlessly gory ways. Because of the nature of the art style, there's no way of knowing they will do so until your disembodied head is ricocheting off a suicidal pallbearer's hat. There are enough auto-saves that this isn't really a problem, and it all adds to this wonderful sense of oppression and loneliness that I, as a horror fan, found quite stirring in my pants. There's a sequence early on involving a spider that I won't spoil, but if there's not at least one part of your conscious mind loudly evacuating its bowels throughout, then cancel this afternoon's appointments, because you appear to have died. Insects are a recurring theme in the game, because that's exactly what you are: a tiny, scared, insignificant insect, gazing up incomprehensingly at the towering food chain at the bottom of which you lie. The world is massive, cruel, and unsympathetic, and the best you can hope for is to end up in hedgehog poo. So man up, your highness.
Gameplay-wise, it's kind of like the evil parallel universe equivalent of LittleBigPlanet, with challenges based solely around platforming and pulling boxes around. After a while, the game abandons arachnid-based atmosphere-building and just becomes a sequence of physics puzzles, which was a little disappointing. I like how the game never repeats itself, but it is very short, especially for 1200 gamer points. It's like it ends at the very instant it runs out of ideas, clapping its hands and going: "Right, that's your lot. Here's your disappointing ending. Go home now, don't look back, you mustn't dwell..." I guess a recommendation for Limbo depends entirely on whether you feel a game can be carried by apocalyptic despair.
The final question, I suppose, is which of the two games I recommend most. Well, if you're rich enough to patronise the arts now and then, put on your tuxedo, uncork some pricey Chablis, and experience for yourself an evening of Limbo. But if you're more in the market for a bulk-buy economy brand kind of entertainment, then order out for a barbecue meat lover's with a two-liter coke and try DeathSpank. Alternatively, if neither option appeals and you'd prefer something bland and unchallenging, then why not try eating a dick!
Friend of the downtrodden game developer: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
I dreamed something like Limbo once when I fell asleep while watching Eastern European cartoons and listening to the Cure
StarCraft 2 can continue sucking it