Costume Quest is the latest kid-friendly adventure RPG from Tim Schafer’s Double Fine Productions studio – home of critically acclaimed Xbox Original Psychonauts and the not-so-well-received Brutal Legend. It’s the first in a series of mini-titles developed by smaller teams within the studio during a “two-week motivatonal exercise“, kickstarted after the official announcement that a sequel to Brutal Legend wasn’t on the cards.
Taking place on Hallowe’en night, the game follows twin siblings Wren and Reynold as they begin their first night of trick or treating in Auburn Pines. Embarking on the mission, they find themselves caught up in a terrible plot by monsters of unknown origin that plan to steal all the town’s candy, also kidnapping one of the lead characters in the process. Stripped of your better half, you set about hunting down the monsters responsible, recruiting similarly down-trodden kids from around the game map and utilising your home-made costumes to do battle against your enemies.
It’s important to note that Costume Quest has all the trappings of your standard big-budget RPG title: turn-based battles, leveling up, obsessive item collection, special abilities, character stats and quest all feature, but where the larger games inevitably descend into endless grinding in order to progress, CQ simplifies things to the most basic of levels. This may have something to do with the fact that the title was designed predominantly to appeal to the younger generation, but it will also help to groom the RPG enthusiasts of the future, and serves as a pleasant reminder as to why the more seasoned players amongst us found the genre so popular in the first place.
The most important part of the game is the multitude of different costumes available to your character throughout your quest. Starting off dressed as a robot made out of cardboard, extra costumes are earned by finding Costume patterns and the subsequent materials needed for each creation, giving your character a range of different abilities during the turn-based battles. New friends that join your team along the way also have their own costumes, which can be swapped out at any point during the exploration-based sections of the game. The costumes don’t just come in handy during battles, as they also have special abilities that help you get around the game map. The robot costume, for example, features a set of roller skates that help you move around quicker, whilst Everett’s initial knight costume features a shield that can help you reach other areas. Despite the generally simple nature of the title, the costume-related puzzles aren’t overly taxing – although one particular puzzle was so simple that it completely eluded me to begin with, leading me to believe that the game was jipped. I duly restarted and played the first hour again, before realising the solution to the problem was so face-palmingly obvious that I couldn’t believe I missed it first time around.
Trick-or-treating your neighbourhood in each level earns you candy, which in turn can be spent on battle stamps. Available at a number of different stands situated across the map, the stamps offer up a number of different advantages to you during a fight. Counter-attacks, opportunities to poison your opponent when striking them and splash damage are just a few of the attributes the stamps give you, which in turn gives you a fairly decent range of customisation options, particularly when combined with the different costumes your little tyke can sport during the game. Unfortunately it’s here that things fall down a little, as the trial and error style of gameplay you descend into can be a tad annoying, especially when faced with enemies who are of a greater XP level than you. We lost count of the amount of times we entered a fight with what we thought was the ultimate costume/battle stamp combination, only to be pounded into submission several times – despite a number of changes to costume, battle stamps and strategy. On the upside, it does encourage you to experiment with the different attributes, and the feeling of satisfaction you get when you finish a battle against a tough group of enemies is very rewarding.
Fights are fairly simple, following the turn-based blueprint laid down by Costume Quest‘s older brothers, but avoids the more complicated, extensive menu-based system favoured by the bigger boy, opting instead to assign attacks to three joypad face buttons. X triggers the basic attack, requiring you to press a button in time, or fill an on-screen bar by hammering the left trigger in order to cause maximum impact, whilst using B activates any battle stamp-activated extra attacks your character may have. Each character also has their own special attack, represented by a candy meter which builds as you fight – once the meter, is full pressing Y will unleash the attack; a ballistic missile attack for the robot, or a healing or shield property from one of the other costumes. The battles can get a little repetitive after a while, however – with the only constant source of enjoyment being the way your shoddily made cardboard costume transforms the stumpy, pear-shaped characters into a giant kick-ass robot, ninja or something similarly awesome before each battle.
Winning fights earns you XP, as does completing the different quests. As you level up, your attack and defense stats increase, and new and more powerful battle stamps will become available to you. It’s simple stuff, but great fun nonetheless and also strangely addictive - it’s all too easy to lose a large chunk of time searching for materials for that final costume, or retracing your steps for extra candy in order to purchase a new battle stamp or two. Some players may find it a little too easy and a little too short (you’re looking at around a five or six hour completion time), but elongating the storyline and/or padding the mechanics out unnecessarily would really detract from the simple charms the game exudes.
As per the rest of the title, Costume Quest has a simple, quirky look about it that fits in nicely with the universe. The characters are short and round, probably giving sway to the fact that too much candy is bad for you, but they’re very nicely animated and nearly almost glitch-free. A couple of times the third member in our party got stuck on a rock or tree whilst bringing up the rear on the game map, and then quickly reappeared at our side - but we put this down to an AI issue as opposed to a graphical error. Battle animations are also very good: each costume has its own comic-book style animation when its special attack is triggered, and enemies explode into clouds of candy when defeated. A fair bit of attention to detail has been paid to the title, with a cool motion blur effect on your characters when zooming around using the rollerskates a good example, as is the green, smoky glow from te numerous chests dotted around the maps.
There’s no voice acting in the game, so speech is conveyed via little bubbles above each character’s head (another stalwart RPG feature) – but discussions are always quick and well scripted, with a nice line of humour injected throughout; this is a Tim Schafer title, after all.
Due to the lack of spoken word in Costume Quest, incidental music and sound effects are used to pad things out and – for the most part – it does leave the title feeling slightly empty. Despite each level having its own ditty, they’re fairly short and repeat after a short interlude; although strangely enough it only ever gets slightly annoying as it’s so sparingly use – but by the time you get to the carnival in the third and final level, the background crowd noise is a welcome distraction.
It’s hard to find fault with Costume Quest, as its simplicity is key to the overall charm of the title. The short timeline takes place over one Hallowe’en night, and it’s hard not to reminisce on your own experiences of trick or treating as a child, trading cards with friends and absorbing massive amounts of sweets. Although the game is fairly limited in what it offers, it’s only really the battles that ever beging to feel repetitive, especially once you reach the level cap, but to see one of console gaming’s greatest genres distilled into something this simple and effective is a joy. Costume Quest easily manages to juggle RPG basics with enough familiarity to tempt even the most hardcore genre fans, and it’s also disamingly hard to put down.