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Costume Quest XBLA Review

04/02/2011 Family Returning Gamer Review
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Costume Quest XBLA

Costume Quest




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Costume Quest is let down by a repetitive and dull battle mechanic, but its intelligent writing and imaginative concept gets as close to that Pixar magic as any game ever has.

I've never dressed up for Halloween. Well, no, that's not true. One Halloween I tried to be clever by dressing up for a Saints and Sinners disco as Simon Templar, but that wasn't so much a costume as a suit, a toy gun, a lot of hair gel and a very dodgy Roger Moore impression.

I never got to properly experience Halloween as a child, though. I imagine it would've been fun to pretend to be a robot, say, beeping commands for the input of confection into my oral processing unit. Costume Quest seems to capture the essence of this fun through the imagination of a child.

In Costume Quest you play as either the twin brother or sister of a family that's just moved into a new neighbourhood. You and your twin are all set for Halloween night, dressed up as a robot and a piece of candy corn respectively. You set off to trick-or-treat only to bump into a goblin-like creature. The monster, called a Grubbin, is ransacking houses for candy. So when he mistakes your twin for a giant piece of candy his sweet tooth kicks in. The Grubbin snatches your twin and runs off into the night, and to rub it all in your candy bucket is still empty.

So you explore the neighbourhood, knocking on houses in your search for candy (and your sibling) and teaming up with other costumed kids to aid you in your quest. You come across more Grubbins, but using the special powers of the various costumes you find on the way you're able to defeat the monsters, track down your kidnapped sibling, and even get home before bedtime.

If that sounds like a potential plot line for a new Pixar film it's no coincidence. Costume Quest's lead developer, Tasha Harris, used to be an artist for Pixar. She wanted to create a game that tapped into the make-believe fun of dressing up. Together with Double Fine founder Tim Schafer she sprinkles child-like concerns, sophisticated humour and charming presentation over the few hours you spend with the game.

The responsibility and routine of adult life can slowly rob us of our ability to imagine and create.

Costume Quest is funny and cute. The humour, a self-aware intellectualisation of ordinary childish events, took me back to getting lost in the pages of Calvin and Hobbes as a youngster. The battles here could have been lifted straight from the mind of Calvin.

Just as Calvin would dream up a titanic snowball fight between giant polar bears, Costume Quest transforms your costumed party into a band of super heroes that tower over the neighbourhood like Godzilla over Tokyo.

It's this sense of imagination without care or worry, the childlike ability to transform the mundane into the extraordinary, which draws me into the world of Costume Quest. The responsibility and routine of adult life can slowly rob us of our ability to imagine and create. But Costume Quest lets me regress to a time when that was all I ever did, and for that I'm genuinely grateful.

All this makes it more of a shame that the battling gameplay itself is over familiar and predictable. It's so dull that it threatens to make the six hours the game lasts a bit of a chore. When the battle starts the only available actions for each party member is to attack or flee. After a couple of turns you can unleash a special move, but that then disappears for another two turns. It's all a bit repetitive and pretty devoid of strategy.

I understand wanting to keep the game simple. Appealing to children and less traditional gamers is important with a title like this, but Costume Quest is so simple it's insulting to a child's intelligence.

Thankfully this is made up for with an intelligent script and genuinely funny side missions. Like the apple bobbing challenge where you help a man confused about whether his political agenda is to get kids to eat more fruit or more sugar.

Just as Calvin would dream up a titanic snowball fight between giant polar bears, Costume Quest transforms your costumed party into a band of super heroes.

Even though completing Costume Quest was a struggle, I still find myself wanting to celebrate it, if only for the concept. I've often talked about wanting games to mature as a medium - seeing gaming grow up was one of my driving reasons to return to the medium - but maturity isn't just about making games for adults. Casual games can be just as engaging when done right.

Pixar movies are intelligent, beautiful creations that have no comparison in games, and that makes me sad. I don't just enjoy the movies for the hidden gags or because they're pretty, but because they make it so easy to connect with my inner-child. I shed a tear when Wall-E got Eve, when Boo said goodbye to Sully, or when Andy finally grew up.

For all the charm of Mario, when he finally gets the princess it doesn't really matter that much emotionally - the depth of world and story isn't there. For all the things Costume Quest did wrong, it managed to involve me emotionally, and that has to be a big step forward in anyone's book.

Written by Sinan Kubba

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Sinan Kubba writes the Returning Gamer column.

"As an 80s kid I was obsessed with gaming. But university, stress and life relegated my hobby to the backseat. After years in the wilderness, I'm back into video games. I don't just want to play games that remind of a happy youth though. I'm just as excited about games that take things forward, experiences that re-ignite that curiosity and fascination I had years ago."

Here are the games I've been playing recently:

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