Review: Costume Quest
With Halloween here Double Fine Productions has gotten their pumpkin baskets and broomsticks ready in the form of their delightful holiday-themed downloadable game, Costume Quest, for PSN and XBLA.
The story opens with fraternal twins Wren and her brother Reynold talking with their parents about trick-or-treating. The player chooses which sibling will be in charge, and after visiting a couple of houses the other, dressed as a candy corn, is kidnapped, mistaken by candy-thieving monsters for being the jackpot of sweets. Wren/Reynold (whoever you chose as leader) will embark on a quest to save his or her sibling before the night is over and their parents get angry, while taking on quests and joining up with other children along the way.
The beauty of the game is that, like Pixar movies, it works on both a child’s level and an adult’s level. With simple controls, a cartoony look, and rambunctious dialog on par with your favorite child star’s movies, there’s plenty here to appeal to both groups.
But at its core Costume Quest is about the transformative nature of children's imaginations. Adults don’t notice any monster activity, and if something strange happens they usually blame it on teenagers. Moreso, when your party enters battle with a monster, the characters take on the persona of the Halloween costume they’re wearing, transforming them into a Voltron-like robot, a knight, ninja, or pumpkin, for example, gaining the costume’s special abilities. The robot can shoot missiles, while the knight minimizes damage with his shield, and the Statue of Liberty costume blows the fire from her torch. This is a simplified version of a job system, as the costumes are really only used for their special abilities - in battle and out - and only minimal stat increases (if any).
Costume Quest marries hilarious dialog with charming art and speech bubbles that make you feel like you’re in a comic book. I wouldn’t expect anything less from game designer Tim Schafer, who was also heavily involved in the writing and design of Brutal Legend, The Secret of Monkey Island, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, Grim Fandango, and Psychonauts.
As opposed to the traditional Japanese RPG roots Schafer has stated was part of the game’s inspiration, Costume Quest is an RPG with no item management. There are plenty of collectibles - you collect battle stamps to power up your costumes, candy as currency, and trading cards, but nothing like a health potion or the like. Healing is done in battle by a costume’s special ability or an equipped battle stamp. This system also helps minimize the learning curve for younger players taking up the game because the player doesn’t have to deal with equipment upgrades or consider whether they have enough of an item.
Battles are not your typical RPG fights. They areturn-based but with quick-time events built in, keeping you involved and active during battle. After each attack a button will flash, and if successful your attack will do more damage. A button will also flash on the screen after an enemy attacks, but if successful it will decrease the damage the character takes as they defend. After several turns pass, your characters will be able to use a special costume ability, be it the knight’s shield ability or the Statue of Liberty’s healing anthem. The battles flow well, but never really evolve; the only variables are enhancements and new moves through the use of battle stamps (like being able to counterattack after a successful defend, increasing your dodge rate, doing damage to enemies next to your target, etc.), so while interesting at first they can begin to impede the other more engaging story elements as the game goes on.
One thing that could work against a younger player, however, is that the speech bubbles often felt like they moved too quickly. For a non-voiced game it seems like a no-brainer to fully allow the player to scroll at their own pace, unfortunately this is not the case. Much of the dialog takes place without the player’s control; only in some scenes does it wait until you choose to press X (on PS3) or A (on 360) to continue. Movement can also be a bit clunky at times, as you’ll often pause for a moment if trying to turn when not moving, making the otherwise fluid controls feel stiff.
The game is short for an RPG, consisting of only three areas that will each take you between an hour and several hours depending on how much of a completionist you are. You’ll have to trick-or-treat at each house or store in an area to move on, with a random battle element as you never know if a monster will answer the door. There are also mini-games like bobbing for apples, you can play games of hide-and-seek, and find all of the trading cards scattered throughout the game and awarded after battle. You’re given plenty of missions to complete, places to explore, and surprises along the way. I can see Costume Quest becoming a game I can seasonally replay each year, and it can easily spawn sequels themed with other holidays children love (Christmas, for example), making it a great candidate to be a series - one I’d love to invest my time in.