DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue (PS3) Review

DeathSpank is only a couple of months old, so when faced with DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue, I’m tempted to hit copy/paste and recycle my original review from July. Most of what I said then still applies now, and if you liked the first game, you’ll probably like the second, because it’s essentially more of the same.

Is that worth another purchase? It depends, but you could definitely do a lot worse than DeathSpank. Developer Hothead has cooked up some new creatures and new environments, and there’s no denying the game’s strong financial value. Thongs of Virtue offers nearly 15 hours of gameplay for a mere $15, so you’re practically guaranteed to get your moneys worth out of the title.

That’s true even if you haven’t played the original. DeathSpank was light on plot, and everything you need to know is recapped within the first ten minutes. You play as DeathSpank, a thong-clad dispenser of justice on a quest to gather and destroy the six Thongs of Virtue in the fires from which they were made.

The plot is a thinly veiled knockoff of the Lord of the Rings, but that’s a fine launch point for satire. A fantasy game in which the three main villains are corrupt incarnations of Mother Theresa, Rachel Ray, and Santa Claus has some obvious charm, and Thongs of Virtue manages to drag plenty of punch lines out of the insanity.

The gameplay consists of unremarkable hack-and-slash combat that takes you through a series of colorful monsters and locales. You can equip up to four weapons and four items at any given time and all of the other mechanics are unchanged from the original. You can still use fortune cookies to purchase answers to puzzles and you’ll still spend a lot of time running in circles while gobbling down healing platters of pizza and fries.

Of course, the game’s real appeal lies in the offbeat humor that frequently upstages the action. Like its predecessor, Thongs of Virtue is a self-aware parody of the RPG genre and video game logic in general.  There are numerous pop culture and gaming references laced into the extensive script, and while the reliance on conventional gameplay tricks blunts a few of the jokes, the general silliness always shines through.

If you’re wondering what makes Thongs of Virtue different, you need to look towards the subtle alterations in setting and tone. Despite a rather large list of anachronisms, the first DeathSpank maintained a medieval veneer that kept the story grounded. Thongs of Virtue opts for a more overtly modern atmosphere. The game opens on a WWII battlefield, and you’ll soon be repairing radio towers, sailing on pirate ships, and doing battle with a celebrity chef in front of a panel of Japanese judges.

The historical hodgepodge is generally amusing, but it does create some mixed comedic moments. Anachronisms aren’t as funny when everything is out of place, and the game would benefit from some more stable points of reference. That said, there’s no accounting for personal taste, and you may enjoy the sheer absurdity. I preferred the humor in the first game, but the quality difference is negligible, and you’re advised to take this as commentary instead of criticism.

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The emphasis on modern military technology is a bit more problematic. Your first projectile is a semi-automatic pistol and you’ll quickly stockpile an arsenal of grenades, bazookas, and alien ray guns. The bullets make it a bit too easy to cut through some of the bad guys, and the melee/ranged attack balance isn’t quite as refined as it was in the original.

Meanwhile, there are bombs on the battlefield, crates of TNT on the train tracks, and self-destructing robots that will kamikaze your location, and with so much combustible material, splash damage becomes an unpredictable concern. The uneven terrain makes it impossible to predict impact points with bazookas and grenades, meaning that you’re just as likely to kill yourself as an opponent.

You’ll eventually learn to keep your distance, but it doesn’t take much to drop your life bar from healthy to dead. That isn’t much of a setback – you’ll immediately resurrect at the nearest outhouse – but it is an irritating inconvenience.

Fortunately, all of the other changes are improvements. It starts with the boss fights, which combine the core DeathSpank mechanics with puzzle elements that differentiate the major battles from the regular (and repetitive) grind. The bosses aren’t overly difficult as long as you’ve got a bazooka, but they’re challenging enough to be noteworthy and, more importantly, they always feel like boss fights.

Moving on, one of the biggest problems with the first DeathSpank was the overwhelming number of item drops that turned inventory management into the video game equivalent of a yard sale. That’s no longer an issue. The sequel has plenty of loot, but Hothead has wisely toned it down so that you feel more like an adventurer and less like an accountant.

The story is also far more satisfying the second time around. DeathSpank was little more than a series of disjointed encounters with random NPCs. Thongs of Virtue is a bit more coherent, as the save-the-world saga provides a narrative momentum that helps to hold your interest throughout the game.

Finally, Thongs of Virtue does allow for some limited co-op action, but it’s more of a novelty than a selling point. Neither Steve the Ninja nor Sparkles the Wizard is anything more than a tagalong sidekick with little to offer beyond fifteen minutes worth of fun. Do your friends a favor and slog your way through DeathSpank on your own.

So to circle back to the beginning, DeathSpank: Thongs of Virtue is fan service that’s about as enjoyable as it was back in July. Given the brief time between installments, that’s all we reasonably could have expected. The game is a respectable episodic sequel that presents fresh material in an entertaining fashion, and if you think that’s worth your $15, I wouldn’t disagree.