The tweaks to the combat make it a much more challenging affair, detracting from the franchise's strengths. But fans of the previous DeathSpank games will at least enjoy the game's writing and dialogue which, while not for everyone, is top-notch as usual.
If HotHead Games avoided the name DeathSpank: The Baconing because gamers are getting tired of the developer's obnoxious protagonist, that's a devious marketing trick. See, HotHead's latest might have dropped the name of its titular hero, but it is still very much a DeathSpank game. With the formula getting old by the end of the first game, it's surprising to see HotHead jump in so soon with a third title.
But it has, and thus players can expect the same mix of quasi-dungeon crawling and slapstick humour as in the franchise's previous two outings. Don't worry if you're totally new to DeathSpank though, the game does away with complicated narratives and intertwined storylines, settling for a plot that's enjoyable all on its own. (Though long-term DeathSpank fans will get that little bit more out of The Baconing.)
The game opens with a grumpy DeathSpank relating his malaise. The world is saved, there are no more damsels in distress, and the hero has nothing to do. Well momentarily at least. In timely comedic fashion, an army of robitcally enhanced Cyborques start destroying 'Spank's hometown of Thongtopia just as his monologue concludes. "Erm... That'll do," cries the protagonist as he hops into action.
Turns out DeathSpank's been wearing all of the Thongs Of Virtue at once, creating a powerful doppelganger in the form of the AntiSpank, a menacing mirror of our hero. To succeed — and defeat his evil adversary — 'Spank must burn the Thongs Of Virtue in the mythical Bacon Fires, and thus save his home-land of Thongtopia.
Urgh. If you've ventured this far into the review you've probably already got a good feel for the kind of comedy in DeathSpank. It's all pants, bottoms and silly puns, but when its on form it's genuinely laugh-out-loud. It's just a shame there are so many groans along the way. DeathSpank's schtick ranges from irritating to hilarious, and the game's success as a work of comedy is going to depend directly on your personality. The game definitely made us laugh from time-to-time, but such laughs weren't as frequent as we'd like.
Beneath the pop-up book visuals and sharp attempts at humour, you'll uncover a Diablo-inspired dungeon crawler. You'll wander the game's impressively sized world smashing up foes and tackling quests. It's standard fare.
While the game feels mechanically identical to previous titles in the series, there are a few subtle tweaks here and there. First of all the game's been made significantly more difficult — presumably in the hope of teaching players to be more tactical with their relentless sword swinging. This is enhanced by a new blocking system, allowing DeathSpank to shield bash (in order to temporarily stun foes) or reflect projectile attacks back to their parent.
Though The Baconing is a much more challenging game than its predecessors, the penalty attached to death is still little more than a clip around the ear. 'Spank will respawn at the nearest out-house whenever downed, zipping his trousers as he emerges from the water closet just to add a little wink to proceedings.
The other major change to The Baconing's gameplay is projectile weapons. These now come with unlimited ammo, and can be charged into more devastating attacks. You'll start the game with conventional cross-bows, but end with war-machines capable of clearing the screen with one clean shot.
The tweaks in difficulty mean The Baconing is a much more technical game. Admittedly combat was never DeathSpank's strong-suit, but it added context to the game's best elements: humour and dialogue. The increased complexity of the combat — while a welcome attempt at trying to improve on the series weakest elements — actually detract from the carefree nature of the franchise. You can no longer lie back on the couch with the DualShock 3, because the game is much less forgiving now.
Outside of these tweaks, the moment-to-moment action itself is very familiar. You'll still pick up various bits of equipment and weapons, sending useless gubbins to the Grinder in order to make a bit of cash. Money can then be spent at various market stalls and retail outlets in order to buy rare weapons and potions.
While the original DeathSpank opted for a highly fantastical setting, Thongs Of Virtue attempted something a little more modern. The Baconing sits somewhere in-between, and as such lacks the cohesion of its predecessors. You'll spend much of your time rushing through ambiguously connected corridors, and while the game makes no bones about its unimaginative level design, it can feel like a bit of a slog at times. Of the game's five districts, only the Forst Of Tomorrow and Valhalla Heights add an interesting back-drop to the action, and even then there's no real reason to return to them once you're done.
At times The Baconing feels like its ticking boxes. The brilliant sailing level from Thongs Of Virtue is rehashed here, and the pacing is all over the place. While the majority of the game focuses on combat, the final fifth is packed with puzzles which could have been better spread across the whole campaign.
Make no mistake, The Baconing still represents value for money — there's a good ten hours of gameplay here — but it never really hits its stride. It's more DeathSpank for certain, but with the formula already well imprinted, it never really manages to hit the heights of its predecessors.
If the series is to continue, it needs to evolve. The dialogue and humour is spot-on, but HotHead seems to have run out of ideas elsewhere. In upping The Baconing's complexity, the developer's lost some of the lazy charm that previous entries in the series exuded. That said: it's still an enjoyable romp while it persists. It just could have been so much more.