A charge commonly levelled at video games is that their writing is more-often-than-not pretty terrible; a hideous generalisation that nonetheless even the most ardent gaming defender will reluctantly agree has more than a bit of truth to it.
Unfortunately, even games that ought to proudly fly the dual banners of narrative and character development such as RPGs are often stultifying tedious affairs, limp retreads of prior triumphs filled with dialogue that’s flatter than the Christchurch CBD.
Of course there are exceptions, and fortunately for Hothead Games, Deathspank creator Ron Gilbert is a man responsible for designing and writing a number of such anomalies, including the much-lauded Monkey Island series. The bad news is that Gilbert jumped ship to Double Fine Productions following the release of Deathspank’s second outing, Thongs of Virtue. Somewhat surprisingly then, The Baconing’s writing is of the same standard as that of its forbearers. Unfortunately, so is everything else.
Having effectively conquered the land at the end of Thongs (spoiler alert), Deathspank is bored and so does what any one of us do when such a malaise hits; he tries on all of his underwear (the aforementioned thongs) simultaneously, inadvertently creating the destructive AntiSpank in the process. A bizarro version of himself, the Antispank must be defeated by casting five of the six thongs into the hallowed Fires of Bacon, so it’s much like when Frodo sought the fires of Mordor, if that tale were penned by Terry Pratchett and Frodo was a actually a self-absorbed, blithely ignorant nincompoop.
As with Thongs and first Deathspank instalment Orphans of Justice, The Baconing is an action-RPG set in a vibrant 3D world whose elements look as if they have been cut from the pages of a comic book and pasted onto the landscape, an aesthetic that fits the overall tone of the game perfectly. Loot is plentiful, as are adversaries and absurdly entertaining dialogue trees. This game is genuinely funny and the voice acting is so glorious in its excess that even jaded RPGers and the ADD-addled should be captivated.
Combat too is much as it was before. Long-range and grenades aside, the emphasis has shifted away from the modern weaponry of Thongs back to the crossbows of Orphans, though fortunately they are much deadlier than their underpowered counterparts of that game. At melee range up to four weapons may be wielded simultaneously, and varying what ol’ Spanky strikes with while timing hits correctly results in combos which fill his Justice meter faster than just hacking away with a single implement. Once the Justice meter is brimming, certain weapons utilise it to unleash devastating special attacks. The only new addition to combat mechanics is a shield which Deathspank may use to block attacks or deflect missiles back to their point of origin. This is handy particularly as ranged enemies are deadlier than ever, but some kind of dodge ability would make the combat livelier still.
The series’ trademark weird quests (“Find me a chilli taco!”) number over one hundred, and the comedic foundation of the game allows for some truly strange but beautifully varied lands to be traversed without things seeming too ridiculous. Fortune cookies may be used to unlock hints should the player become stuck, but things are usually pretty straightforward – too linear, even. Thankfully, there are numerous enemy types to bash through over the course of the approximately ten-hour campaign. What is missing are the puzzles, and as solid as the combat is, it can’t help but become monotonous without other gameplay elements to break it up.
If anything desperately needs an overhaul though it’s the inventory system, which is clunky and slow to use. There is no quick way to compare the stats of two items and criminally, you cannot use an item from the inventory screen but instead must equip it, return to the game, use it and then re-equip whatever was in that slot. Given the amount of potion-swigging this game’s higher-than-average (although extremely variable) difficulty demands, this is a bad oversight, even if you can equip items to D-pad slots as well.
“Girlfriend mode” co-op – where you share a health bar and the secondary character is scaled back so no inventory or stat juggling is required – returns with an extra sidekick bringing the total available to four. Although it’s a uniquely thoughtful inclusion and each sidekick has personality, options for a full co-op experience really ought to be implemented here given they are available in most other ARPG titles these days. Full co-op would certainly inject some much-needed gameplay variety into this stagnating series.
The Baconing is certainly a solid game, but for those who have played either of the first two it is a case study in diminishing returns, and Hothead would be well advised to expand and refine gameplay if they are keen on keeping the series both vital and viable. There is certainly much of a great game here, it’s just disappointing that little has been added since Thongs to give existing fans enough reason to drop their Microsoft Points on it.
If you haven’t already delved into the Deathspank universe, The Baconing is definitely worth checking out for its humour and zany cartoony feel. However, those already familiar with Spanktopia should be advised that they have already played this game, it just went by a different name.