Review: Costume Quest
Posted by Alex at 15:18 on 27 Oct 2010
The set-up is really simple - you choose one of the young twins Reynold and Wren to play as and head outside for an evening of trick-or-treating in the suburbs. But your sibling is promptly kidnapped by a monster who mistakes them for a giant piece of candy and whisks them away into the night. All the adults seems blissfully oblivious to all the monsters running around and ransacking the neighbourhood for sugary treats so it falls to you to mount a rescue attempt, travelling from your local streets to a shopping mall and out to a country village in chase of the witch Dorsilla and (of course) making some friends along the way.
You're given free reign to explore each area, and can zip around to great delight on the Heelys that come with your robot costume - pick up quests, find secret areas, root around in bins for sweets (seriously) and gather up materials for new costumes. Your main objective though is to trick-or-treat at every front door you can find, whereupon either an adult will open up and give you free treats, or a monster will jump on you and it's fighting time.
The battles are a pretty bare-bones turn-based RPG affair - some may call it too basic and while a bit more depth would have been welcome, even as a big-time RPG fan I never got bored with it. This is partly thanks to the button-matching that comes with every normal attack and defend, keeping you active in the battle rather than passively watching commands play out. But it's mostly due to the sheer charm of the things - fights see the kids' imaginations set loose as their adorable little cardboard-box and tinfoil costumes transform them into actual giant robots, space warriors or magical unicorns. The designs are fantastic, every costume has its own vibrant, stylised look and animations on the battlefield. It's just a pleasure to witness. The enemy designs are equally solid, reminiscent to me of Dragon Quest's style and they made me really wish for that series to come to the more powerful home consoles as soon as possible.
Sadly, due to the simplicity of the battle system a lot of the weaker costumes with supporting roles and special attacks get side-lined in favour of a quicker - and not really any more risky - brute-force approach to encounters. But it says a lot to the design of the game that I used every costume in battle at least once just to see their unique transformation and special attack in action.
The same kind of drawback goes for the Battle Stamp system - you can buy these stickers and assign one to each of your gang to give them special abilities in battle or stat bonuses. It's a great idea, but the restriction of one per character means I just stuck mainly to the less interesting but more generally useful Stamps providing counter and dodge moves. Simply allowing two of them to be equipped at once would have really opened up the system and made combat potentially more interesting right away.
The writing in Costume Quest is definitely its biggest strength, elevating the whole experience from something which would have been a fairly enjoyable adventure to a really memorable one. The only gaming comparison I can make is between this and Nintendo at their self-referentially best as seen in games like Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door and the often-overlooked Mario & Luigi series of RPGs on the handheld systems. The most obvious parallel which came to my mind was, however, one with Pixar.
I have no qualms in saying that Costume Quest is a good game for kids - for all the family - regardless of the negative connotations which usually comes along with the label, especially in this medium. In much the same way as Pixar films may be ostensibly for children, there is always a level or two above everything else that only adults (or pathetic man-children in my case) will understand. Costume Quest strikes the same notes, similarly impressive in terms of design and style - a degree of artistic craftsmanship and coherency present here that grown-ups can appreciate - and perhaps even superior where the writing is concerned, packed with genuine wit and clever references that would be lost on a younger audience.
There's been some mumblings about the game's length, but that seems to me like the inevitable and slightly depressing outcome of any public exposure these days rather than a complaint that holds any real weight. At maybe 5 hours all-in I have no issue, especially considering the low price and sheer amount of adorable loveliness tickling its way past my eyeballs. Much like a big bag of sweets, it may be tempting to devour the lot in one sitting but you may regret it afterwards - just pace yourself a little and there's no problem. As such, Costume Quest proved to be a perfect companion piece to Super Meat Boy - a calming, laid-back session to take the edge off SMB's utterly uncompromising gameplay - and I'd recommend the joint purchase to everyone (if possible, sorry PS3 guys.)
Besides the nonsensical absence of a manual save option, any other quibbles of mine are entirely wishful thinking rather than genuine flaws. I would have liked another area to explore, certainly - just to spend some more time with the game - but with that the gameplay pattern across each location (repeated side-quests, knocking on all the doors and so on) may have started to drag. So, more variation in quests and everything would have helped in that instance, but as it is Costume Quest has an ideal scope and duration for its aspirations.
So there you go. It isn't a perfect game in my eyes - on a number of counts I wish it had gone just a little bit further, given me a little bit more - but it is quite beautiful and utterly charming in every way. A real masterclass in what big names and well-respected studios can do with the digital distribution channels on our consoles, Costume Quest made me happy, indulged and left me feeling positive about a future with more Double Fine Productions in it, please.