Don’t answer the door.
There were a number of Halloween-themed introductions available to me for opening the Costume Quest review. Do I go with the simple ‘trick or treat?’, or do I expand a little and say ‘best leave the lights off and pretend you’re not in’?
I’ve opted for the conclusive ‘Costume Quest is nothing more than a fairly unremarkable game thinly disguised as something more’.
Now you should be saying, “Craig you bronzed adonis, coming up with a load of visual metaphors loosely based on the game’s subject matter is a lazy man’s way of stringing together an opinion”. And you’d be right, if the game in question was not made by Double Fine.
This is how Double Fine make their games; They pick a theme, they riff off it and come up with as many metaphors, puns and clever little ideas as they can and then tie it all together with intelligent, funny characters in a stunning world that is eventually let down only by gameplay that fails to live up to the stellar writing.
In Psychonauts they analysed the brain and took us to Whispering Rocks, a psychic summer camp for children, with platforming levels that were constructed from the personalities of its characters allowing us to literally explore the depths of their subconscious. In Brütal Legend one man’s love for heavy metal transforms a roadie’s ability to build, fix and direct anything into a real time strategy hybrid where stage battles are fought with head bangers and pyrotechnics in a kick ass world made of chrome and rock.
In Costume Quest they picked Halloween, went and watched It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and then saddled it with turn-based combat and tentative RPG elements.
The basic setup was there: take a group of small children trick-or-treating in tattered costumes, that imaginatively transform when in battle, on a quest to save their sibling from sweety snatching monsters.
It just doesn’t go anywhere interesting and where it does go is repetitive and underdeveloped.
The battles are augmented with quick time events and will be familiar to anyone who was previously disappointed by Penny Arcade Adventures: On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness. Everything is kept simple, each costume having essentially one attack and one special move that charges up after a few rounds. It’s fun the first few battles but quickly becomes a drag.
Where you’d expect to find variety in the costumes abilities there was not. Costume pieces are collected and constructed in such a linear fashion that there isn’t much opportunity or need to play around with them. There’s so little to experiment with and no need to experiment at all. While I’m happy that I was spared from needless grinding and level building it really shows how meaningless the level system and earning experience points is in the first place. It serves only to give the illusion of progress.
The collected candy can be spent on battle stickers that can give an extra ability or trait for each child. Again though, there’s little variety in these secondary abilities (increased strength, counter-attack, splash damage) and once equipped it’s a case of out of sight, out of mind. I’ll say nothing of the fact that only one sticker can be stuck on a costume at a time because RPGs don’t appreciate such logical questioning- it’s artificial limitations all the way until they loosen the constraints and widen the rails.
The problem with Costume Quest is that this never happens. The battles never open up. There’s no tactics or strategy to be employed whatsoever- which for me anyway is kind of the point of a turn-based RPG. The tactics used in the first two battles will be the same ones used in the subsequent fifty including the bosses who have – let’s all say it together now – an arbitrary increase in health.
‘Quest’ takes the usually video game definition of ‘take this thing over there’ and ‘bring me that thing over here’. But the areas are so small that it’s impossible not to uncover the scattered costume pieces or discover all 18 children playing hide and seek. The apple bobbing minigame was fun the first time but not the subsequent eight times which I suppose is true to life.
Some costumes can be used outside of battle- the knight’s shield protects from water and the space warrior’s glow stick lights up dark paths- but they are useful only once and never again. I can’t stress how linear and limited Costume Quest is. Everyone who has played it will have had exactly the same experience almost down to the button presses.
And this time the writing just isn’t strong enough to forgive its many shortcomings. Double Fine have written children before but the kids here, while equipped with pithy dialogue, are completely generic and lifeless. The candy grabbing grubins are all middle management bad guys providing fairly banal gags about outsourcing and downsizing. And it’s not okay to have your characters quip knowingly about convenient plot twists and barely developed motives.
When I realised how shallow Costume Quest was I thought perhaps this is the type of game to play with the younger members of the family but they wouldn’t find any of the jokes funny. The whole thing smacks of a DreamWorks movie. It’s engineered for two different demographics that are mutually exclusive rather than the Pixar magic that transcends age.
The kids probably won’t take too kindly to the minimal animations and lack of voice acting either. Personally I loved its sparse autumn soundscape and crude costume designs but I also fondly remember those cartoons that slowly zoom in one a single picture with a long, lumbering narrative. But I think those shows were meant as a form of calming sedative rather than entertainment.
I’m not sure who exactly Double Fine had in mind when they made Costume Quest. It’s shallow and boring for adults while being an uninteresting distraction for kids. Everyone else seems to love it but it was over in one evening for me and I guarantee that by next Halloween no one will even remember it.