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Costume Quest leverages fascinating theatre tricks that up the stakes on its diminutive adventure. Well balanced and endearing as hell, this is the cleverest of technical marvels - one that seems to deliver effortlessly.
With Costume Quest Tim Schafer and Double Fine have switched to smaller episodic games. Their previous big budget epics have the technically excellent Brutal Legend, Psychonauts as well as the older point and click cartoon adventure Full Throttle.
This was a high profile move for them, inspired partly by the various corporate politics that led to the cancellation of Brutal Legend 2. I recently heard Tim Schafer talk about the pitfalls of big budget development. For him, the budgets and hence risks are so big that many great games simply don't see the light of day.
Whilst between publishers on the original Brutal Legend, the team locked themselves away and riffed on new game ideas, forgetting all that had come before. A technique that has been used successfully in other creative industries. The two week experiment (which became called Amnesia fortnight) let these small teams organise themselves differently to develop ideas quickly into working prototypes. A mixture of competition, creative flair and pressure cooked up some very workable ideas. Costume Quest was one of these.
The first instalment of Costume Quest was available in time for Halloween. In it you choose to be one of the sibling pair of Wren and Reynold. A bickering brother and sister off trick or treating in homemade costumes. Whichever you don't choose becomes the one that needs rescuing. I am not sure if this is a nod towards the Terranova blogger, philosopher and game ethics guru Ren Reynolds but I can't play the game without thinking that (Ren is a friend and colleague who resides amongst a host of gaming academics and gurus: Bartle, Castranova, Malaby and Damer. He often talks about the importance of character naming in videogames.)
The first thing that stands out is the visual style. It is a cell shaded cartoon but fully 3D. In the opening level's town you move in an isometric view, with a fixed aerial camera angle. This helps preserve the cute cartoon feel. The view does move during various cut scenes and set piece conversations. The most movement occurs in the fight sequences that form the centrepiece of the levelling up in this RPG.
In the early levels you go door to door with your sidekick character, as you knock on a door a dramatic stab of music plays, the door is flung open. You are sometimes greeted by a friendly neighbour who pours candy into your collection bag, triggering a delightful rumble from the control pad. Other times you are greeted by a nasty Grubbin who is it intent on fighting you for your candy.
When playing this with my kids' in the room it generated happy screams of excitement in the few seconds of orchestral "dum dum daaaah!" before the door opened. It was like all being gathered around a lottery scratch card as each door was opened to find a prize or a forfeit. Not a terribly complex game mechanic, as you have to fight all Grubbins to open up the next levels anyway, but a dramatic one.
From a technical perspective this sequence had me fascinated. Moving an overhead isometric view down to the kids level looking up at the door in first person starts the process. This is accompanied by dramatic music. Next there is the timing of the door opening, then the subtlety of the character stepping out of the shadow into the light once the door flings open (not an instant reveal). It's precisely created, perfectly thought through and delivers considerable dramatic tension and fun in what could have been an arbitrary part of the game.
It generated happy screams of excitement in the few seconds of orchestral "dum dum daaaah!" before the door opened.
Meeting a Grubbin initiates a completely different game mode: a turn based head-to-head fight. It's a style common to most role-play games. You have your team stood opposite an increasingly levelled up array of bad guys. You start with one foe and get moved to challenge bigger and stronger collections.
Here, your homemade Halloween costumes become over-sized weapons and the cartoon style gets even more extreme. The cardboard box robot that your character starts with becomes a huge transformer style missile wielding machine. New costumes are part of the collect and find challenges in the game are therefore key to new battle tactics. The tin foiled covered knight with a trash can lid shield becomes a giant dashing heroic paladin with a magical protection shield that can be applied to your team mates.
The fights are played out against club wielding monsters with the town in miniature at your feet. The cartoon style persists, but the level of detail increases. The enemies have more definition and anger lines on their faces, there are less curves and more edges, spikes with fire and explosive effects. There are even some realistic non cartoon images, such as the face of Abraham Lincoln flying past the Statue of Liberty costume's special move.
Again the choices of presentation here seem cleverly intentional. The technique of holding the battle over the miniature town not only provides context but gives the feeling of a contest happening in the heavenlies. The pastiche of real and rendered images adds a sense of other worldliness, similar to Monkey's ghostly visions in Enslaved. It all works together to conjure not a little magic for these fights.
The technique of holding the battle over the miniature town gives the feeling of a contest happening in the heavenlies.
Game mechanic wise there is a small amount of skill required here. Timing the hitting of buttons or pressing a follow up button being all that is needed. The choice between defence, health management and attacks is strategically key - as becomes apparent as the enemies get tougher.
As the attack is unleashed the camera moves more dramatically, or in the case of the special attacks performs white bordered comic book panel images of the power up then some explosive and dramatic results are rendered. After the fixed camera view of the questing it makes battle sequences seem more intense to have directed pans and zooms. The cartoon look may initially seem technically simplistic but is actually doing a great deal of work with a lot of flexibility and style.
This was obviously effective for me. I often felt so pleased when the effect of triggering a special attack that I would let out an involuntary "Yes!" as a few of the larger foes were dispatched.
As with most RPGs you end up with a choice of modifiers for each character. You buy stamps with your collected candy from an aspiring entrepreneur in the suburbs. Counter attacks, enhanced damage and multiple targeting feature in these stamps. As you progress this balancing of costumes and stamps becomes critical to success.
Underneath these battles may be an advanced game of rock, paper, scissors, but the fun and balancing that Double Fine inject into the formula alone makes them worth playing. While Costume Quest is undeniably smaller, they haven't cut down on their trademark humour. A few of my friends and I still quote Full Throttle at each other: "Not with my box of bunnies" is a favourite and there are plenty of these one-liners running through Costume Quest too.
You need to be content with quality over quantity.
Costume Quest has recently been extended with the release of the Grubbins on Ice download content. It seems that this is only accessible on completion of the first quest so you may want to hold off on a purchase until you finish episode one. It's not a game that lets you dive into those new snow covered scenes with new costumes and collectibles just because you have purchased it.
This lite role-play genre isn't for everyone. You need to be content with quality over quantity. The usual mass of enemy types, spells, weapons and modifiers are here distilled to the absolute minimum. If, like me, you are taken with the world that Costume Quest creates, and the masterly techniques it employs to draw you in this is worth playing through. I am still enthralled by the quality on offer here. It is cute, funny and slick. So on balance it trumps the concerns about the lack of depth.
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