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Double Fine Productions is home to some of the best creative minds working in the game industry today. But while their first two releases Psychonauts and Brutal Legend were praised for their inventive worlds, good sense of humor, and entertaining stories, they also had some issues with their game design and failed to make a big impact financially. That resulted in a new strategy for Tim Schafer and his team. Instead of pouring all their energies into large projects that the whole company’s future hinged on the success of, they abandoned the retail market in favor of splitting into smaller groups to work on cheaper downloadable titles to limit the risk and boost their output. Costume Quest is the first release using this strategy, and while we don’t know how much this strategy will help the company, it could result in a lot of really fun projects.
Double Fine’s lead animator Tasha Harris was in charge of Costume Quest and along with the rest of the team she infused the game with a clear love and nostalgia for childhood and Halloween night in particular. You start the game by picking which character you’ll play as, either the brother or sister in a pair of twins. You then go on some unsuccessful trick or treating before a goblin kidnaps your sibling, believing them to be a large piece of candy based on their costume. Apparently some monsters from another plane are using America’s biggest night for confectionery to grab up as much as they can for some nefarious purpose, led by a mysterious witch. Your goal becomes clear: save your twin and stop the bad guys so Halloween isn’t ruined.
What works the best about the game is how well the trick or treat theme is tied into the adventure and role playing elements of the play mechanics. You fight off the monsters using a simple menu based combat system, where you have a basic attack that can be enhanced by matching an on-screen prompt, which could be a properly timed button press, rotating the analog stick, or something similar. A special attack charges up over time, and you can limit the damage an enemy does with another button press. The key is that your stats and special moves are determined by what costume you’re wearing, a costume that manifests itself in a true form when in battle. So you’re not a little kid fighting off goblins, you’re a giant robot or a knight or a unicorn. The spoils of combat are experience points which help you level up; candy, which serves as the game’s currency; and cards depicting the game’s various sugary treats that can be traded in side quests.
So the basic gameplay flow is simple; to get past monster gates to the next area, you have to trick or treat at every location in your current neighborhood. Either an adult answers the door or a monster does and you have a battle, either way you end up with candy and one step closer to your objective. Candy can be traded at shops for battle stamps which give you stat bonuses or new abilities in combat. There are also plenty of kids and adults wandering around to block your progress before you perform some duty or give you side quests for various prizes, and later roaming monsters to worry about. You can find a couple other kids to join your party and help you in battle, and pieces of new costumes, some of which you’ll need to get past various environmental obstacles.
I enjoyed wandering around and collecting candy more than the combat system, which is functional and has decent variety with the different stamps and costumes, but doesn’t have time to develop much depth in the game’s maximum of about six hours of play. There are three basic types of enemies if you look past the visual differences, ranged fighters, melee fighters, and magic users. There’s very little real difference between the first two, and while the spell casters are different based on what type of magic they use, they don’t do anything you haven’t seen before. The strategy is always simple; take out any healers or buffers first, and then kill the rest before they kill you. There are a few boss fights that mix things up, but even then none of their tricks are particularly fresh for anyone who’s played a few RPGs. I enjoyed experimenting with the different costumes, but if you’re mainly interested in this game for a hopefully deep and rewarding combat system, you should probably look elsewhere.
Like the other Double Fine games though, this one’s main strength is the writing and presentation. The graphics have an attractive cartoonish look to them, and the different combat animations are fun and often humorous. There’s some pleasant, setting-appropriate music as well. There’s no voice acting, but the dialogue is still sharp and clever, with even the random messages that pop up in various situations usually being funny more than once. The plot strikes the right balance between the dastardly plot of the bad guys and the simple coming of age tale the hero goes through. The banter between the twins when they’re together is cute, and your first companion has a funny attitude. The third party member’s personality is a bit typical, but still likable.
The game does have a couple issues that hold it back a bit. The biggest one to me is that there’s no manual save. It wasn’t a big issue because I finished the game with 100% completion in two sittings, but the only way to keep your progress is with an autosave, which only occurs at certain events that aren’t always easy to trigger at a given moment. The areas are small enough to learn the layouts pretty quickly, but some sort of map might have been useful, and it seems like there should have been more uses for things like the cards and all that candy.
But these are small issues in a game that’s otherwise pleasant from start to finish. I recommend going for full completion to get the most out of your $15, and you might as well because the benefits are significant. This kind of product that hinges on its charm as much as anything won’t be for anyone, but if you have the right expectations going in, you should have as much fun as I did. I hope this downloadable experiment works for Double Fine, because the more games with this kind of spirit come out, the healthier the industry will be for interesting ideas.