DeathSpank & Shank Hands On Preview - EA Takes To The Arcade

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As part of EA’s showcase last week, the publisher laid out booths for two upcoming Xbox Live Arcade titles: comedy-RPG, DeathSpank, and bombastic gore-em-up, Shank - two very different games with eerily similar titles. With the XBLA becoming a more lucrative platform for publishers in recent years, we went hands on with EA’s latest titles to find out whether they’re good enough to make the cut.


DeathSpank is the hero of heroes. He’s also a complete buffoon, and trundles around to achieve the ultimate feat of heroism: capturing a priceless artefact called The Artefact. He’s also open to any opportunity to go questing across the lands and hero the people who need a jolly good heroing.

It’s described as a mix of Monkey Island (it’s written by Ron Gilbert, writer and director the original Monkey Island) and Diablo, with the heroic DeathSpank marching over the seamless world map and giving massive hordes of ne’er-do-wells a ruddy good battering.

Batter them you most definitely shall. Up to four weapons can be equipped to the face buttons at any one time, and as the game begins, DeathSpank can deliver his heroic justice via a sword, crossbow, boot on the end of a stick or a fire axe.

He exists in a rolling 3D world with 2D art, and the whole thing looks like a gorgeous pop-up fairytale, only with Ron Gilbert’s distinct brand of humour sewn in at every turn.

It’s all very silly. One of your first quests involves you collecting lips from chickens - stoopid chickens, no less - despite our hero’s protestations that chickens do not actually have lips. Then there’s stumpy DeathSpank himself, imbued with a chin of heroic proportions and a walk so daft there’s a good chance John Cleese came up with it.

The claim of mixing a point-and-click adventure with a point-and-click RPG quickly establishes itself as more than hot air. Take your traditional RPG quest: you get told to go and pick-up a certain amount of something, then you head off to bash in loads of skulls to grab the required amount and then hand it in for some XP and maybe a couple of nice, shiny trinkets.

DeathSpank has elements of that, but more often than not the game seems to go out of its way to muddy the waters and link all the quest-givers together. Everyone’s calling out for a hero, but most of them won’t cough up their sweet loot prize unless you’ve got an item from somebody else, who generally demands you solve another problem first - just like in a classic adventure game.

The Diablo part works out pretty well, too. There’s a standard menu for weapons and another for easy access to your restorative items. Easy access is a boon, as your health bar is quick to deplete when you’re getting mobbed.

Quaffing a potion delivers an instant (and significant) boost to your health, but these are rare treats compared to the abundant tasty drumsticks, which restore DeathSpank’s health over a few seconds whilst he chomps away.

Death is only a temporary hindrance, returning you to the nearest outpost and allowing you to quickly get back to repeatedly thwacking bevies of nuns, skeletons, greems and spiders - to name but a few - to hasten their grisly demise.

A well-handled progression system ensures that there’s always something on the screen dropping or cha-chinging to provide a constant barrage of new spells and abilities. To simplify matters, DeathSpank is offered one of three perks - such as a boost to speed, strength or accuracy - each time he levels up, which means you don’t have to fussy around dropping points into a myriad of tech trees.

The marriage of two ideas works particularly well if the first part of the game is anything to go by, and there something decidedly familiar and comforting to DeathSpank’s monster bashing and loot gathering. DeathSpank uses its humour as an embellishment, and the core of the game seems to neatly facilitate the need for our hero to deliver steaming hot blades of justice to the blackened hearts of evildoers everywhere.


Shank is how all games would be if 2D gaming had never gone out of fashion; a prime example of smooth scrolling, henchman-dispatching action, with over the top blood spewing violence that 16-bit games loved to feature but never had the processing power to do properly. 

He arrives on the scene kitted out with the kind of arsenal that allows him to fit right into modern gaming trends. His standard attack is an up-close-and-personal flurry of knife slashes, then there’s a set of dual pistols he probably pinched from Lara Croft after distracting her with this month’s copy of Vogue and, finally, a chainsaw so fierce it would make Marcus Fenix blush.

It’s equal parts side-scrolling homage - enemies always seem to have completely unassuming names, harking back to the good old days of Final Fight - and a realisation of modern action trends via games like Devil May Cry and God of War.

There’s even a distinct combo system in play, and while it’s clearly apparent whirring up the chainsaw delivers the most damage, it’s also the move that leaves you most open to attack. It generally makes more sense to lay into your foes with the pistols or knife first and then to finish them off with a chainsaw attack when they’re stunned.

A simple system, perhaps, made comprehensively more difficult when you’re getting swamped in every direction by pesky foes.

Shank’s a big fella with looks inspired from a 80s Arnie flick. His top-heavy physique betrays the fact he moves with the grace of Bayonetta instead of Mike Haggar, and plenty of jumping sequences require deft use of the right trigger, which causes Shank to latch onto and swing from objects.

It’s a game trying to be part Prince of Persia, part Streets of Rage - only it’s much better at doing the latter. The jumping sequences in the level on show were remedial at best, and seemed to be little more than a weak attempt to offer an alternative to constant combat.

Fighting, on the other hand, is far more palatable. The level ends with a boss fight against an unfathomably huge butcher, proving that brains are almost as important as brawn - you have to lower down hunks of meat to create an opening to attack, and the fight ends after you savagely lop the dude’s head off by strangling him to death with his own chain. This is much better than some limp platforming.

Shank will be immediately familiar to gamers in their twenties, although an astute awareness of modern action games, and a combat system dextrous enough to keep players on their toes, ensures it should appeal to anyone who thinks a Final Fight is what happened at the end of Halo 3. 


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Game Info
EA Partners


US August 25, 2010

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