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The Baconing review: Hacked and slashed

"The only constant in this world is change." Wait, no, that doesn't work. "You can't change the past, but you can work to change the future." Nope, that doesn't do the trick either. "War. War never changes." No, wrong game. Hm. Here's the thing: The Baconing has a lot more of the same DeathSpank flavor you're likely used to, but without a lot of the stuff that made DeathSpank good. I guess there's not a cliched "change" quote that quite works there, huh?

Sure, the self-obsessed hero of Hothead's first two DeathSpank games is still there. There's still a whole bunch of quests strewn throughout a whimsical and colorful world. And yeah, the writing is still laden with puns and excretory humor, and is presented by a cast of solid comedic voice actors. The hero to the downtrodden still gets wacky loot like the mafioso-looking Pinstripe Platemail as he hacks and slashes his way through bizarre enemies. All that stuff is still there -- but, sadly, it's hidden under a mound of major problems.

Gallery: The Baconing (8/8/11) | 14 Photos

This sequel's largest misstep is immediately apparent: Its focus has shifted drastically towards combat. Most of the hilarious adventure game-esque puzzles that made up a good portion of the quest logs in the first two DeathSpank titles are gone, tragically replaced by straightforward "go here and kill stuff" missions. Some of the older quests could be obtuse, and occasionally too difficult to solve, but replacing them with hack-this and slash-that hasn't worked in the series' favor.

It doesn't help that even on the easier difficulties, you'll be banging your head against the wall of slightly-too-tough combat during one of the game's numerous difficulty spikes. The 'Spank will be rolling through hordes of enemies only to run across a group of particularly difficult foes, kicking off a long process of slowly whittling down the group while strafing and using fistfuls of health items.

You'd think that a guy who carries around four weapons at any given time -- including one that can call in a nuclear air strike -- could do a bit better against some mountain lions.

The combat mechanics haven't changed at all from DeathSpank's first two outings. You'll still shift back and forth from weapons like the aforementioned Mobile Nuker to your World Smasher hammer, building up your combo meter to release an uber-powerful Justice attack. Fighting has never been the strong suit of the series, but the combat-oriented nature of The Baconing makes its deficiencies far more evident. Melee weapons feel sloppy and inaccurate, often leading to crucial misses in difficult situations. Locking on doesn't help much, especially when dealing with large numbers of enemies, as the top-down vantage point makes it difficult to target the right foe.

Even the fights that aren't wars of attrition feel like they're just padding the game's length. Many of the boss fights are particularly guilty of this: Slugging away for 15 minutes at a conductor of an Orque opera, only to die while he's got a sliver of life left elicited controller-throwing levels of frustration. Nothing like an overly lengthy, repetitive boss fight to ruin any humor that might be present in a situation. So much for brevity being the soul of wit, right?

It's unfortunate, because once you get past the various combat frustrations and into dialogue with the many NPCs in the game, the comedy almost redeems all the problems with the fighting. The cast of characters that DeathSpank encounters during his journey are all wonderfully acted, and are backed by an irreverent script mocking everything from the overly masculine video game hero to lengthy quest chains. The big guy's hatred of the world's many orphans, a big game hunter that satisfies the desire for a father figure that he didn't know he wanted, and a quest which has you stuffing ballot boxes with votes for a notoriously corrupt mayor are all fair game.

Again, frustration tends to stand in the way of the humor. For instance, that one quest where you have to combine spit with a spittoon in order to get your hands on some DNA to create a clone of an estranged wife's husband, so you can take her two headed dog for a walk? It's funny in concept, until you start fiddling with the completely unwieldy inventory. Unimproved from the first two games, its huge grid of item squares is unnavigable, especially when looking for an easily overlooked quest item.

Generally, when iterating on an established formula, sequels try to polish and improve on what made them successful in the first place. Unfortunately for The Baconing, Hothead Games has done just the opposite. By obscuring their comedic voice under a fog of poorly (and frequently) implemented combat and a still-questionable inventory, it's difficult to enjoy DeathSpank's new adventure. That genuinely funny experience that DeathSpank once represented is still around; it just takes a little too much hacking, slashing and digging to get to it.

This review is based on the Xbox Live Arcade version of The Baconing provided by Hothead. It's available on Xbox Live Arcade, PSN, PC for $15.

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