Halloween seems a bit too long ago, and our 7 days of movie madness is already over, but why not starting anew with some games reviews? So let’s change the pumpkin to something more sinister, even though it’s the same one but with candles in the dark.
Starting with an RPG-lite which is all about trick or treating, Costume Quest is the perfect introduction to a special week of horror-related games.
Costume Quest (PC)
(USA 2011, developer: Double Fine Productions, publisher: THQ, platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PS3, iOS)
While trick or treating, two siblings are separated with the capture of the other by an evil witch with a craving for candy and world domination.
Cute but simple storytelling
The story is cute, but it doesn’t offer an epic tale one would usually expect from an RPG. But then again most RPGs are about saving the world, so saving one’s small sister or older brother is actually a nice deviation from the standard fantasy or sci-fi fare, even if it doesn’t hold many twists or surprises. The dialogues are usually of a high quality and despite being more of the juvenile kind, they serve the purpose of getting to know the diverse band of trick or treat-ers who all have their individual character traits.
Still, one shouldn’t expect the same amount of believable or even story-branching interaction as in a title like Baldur’s Gate, which is a bit of a missed opportunity, because even with some funny dialogues, the characters don’t really grow on the player except for their unique abilities. The game also makes fun of RPGs in some cases, but unlike Ron Gilbert’s action-RPG DeathSpank, it doesn’t reach the same quality level of parody. The story and characters often feel like an excuse for collecting candy and fighting turn-based battles.
A mixed bag of gameplay styles
The gameplay is a mix of collect-em-up and RPG-lite with adventure elements. In the context of a Halloween theme, this mainly consists of smashing all kinds of environmental objects and knocking on people’s doors to pick up candy which is then used to buy extra badges. These badges are where the RPG aspect comes in, making it possible to equip characters with certain abilities, e.g. more health, evading attacks or having more power to strike the enemy. Levelling up is simplified so that stats are automatically increased, leaving no room for experimentation or customization.
Battles can be engaged in by simply hitting one of the enemies walking around and in some cases being suprisingly attacked from behind and losing an advantage to strike first. The fighting system becomes interesting the more characters are met and the more costumes are unlocked (after finding the appropriate materials), as the group of three can be clothed before and after. With each one having different special attacks or healing abilities (after transforming into a bigger version of the costume), this suits individual play styles, although the turn-based encounters stay the same: choosing an attack and by pressing a prompted button at the right time dealing even more damage. After a certain number of turns, one can also unleash a special which is the highlight of the game, making obvious fun of exaggerated sequences as in the Final Fantasy series with its summons.
It’s a joy to behold the statue of liberty fighting with all sorts of special effects like jets in the background or a pumpkin delivering deadly fireballs from the sky. But the costumes also serve another purpose: solving puzzles. There aren’t many and they’re far from adventure-typical head scratchers, but they add to the gameplay variety a bit. For example, only with the shield of a knight one can go through a passage with falling rocks, while using the lasersword of a cheesy spacesuit costume throws light into dark places. There are many other costumes (a favorite being a pack of french fries, no kidding), and as the solutions to specific problems are usually quite obvious (in the case of the fries: attracting hungry people and leading them away), this is a nice break-up of the rather monotonous fights.
Quest for candy
Something RPGs are known and loved for are their extensive quests which are sometimes even more interesting than the main story. Unfortunately, it’s here where the game fails. While knocking on people’s doors to receive candy (or fighting hidden enemies) is fun for the first time, it gets quite tedious when one has to do this in every location. The same holds true for simple games like finding all the hidden kids, exchanging trading cards or anticipating in the party game apple-bobbing. Even if the latter fits perfectly to the season and is actually a nice distraction, the lack of additional content and especially variation is disappointing. 4-7 hours of playtime is not long for an RPG, but when the tasks are as unimaginative as this, it can feel a lot longer. The absence of choices which change the course of the story also has a negative impact on replayability and motivation for the player.
Another problem is that there are some difficulty spikes with boss battles which are in stark contrast to the easy fights. As grinding is only limited in that there are simply not enough enemies to fight, the big fights suddenly throw challenges against players who will have some major problems defeating them. Even if autosaving prevents going through the dungeon-motions like in so many JRPGS with a safe spot far away, these parts are still frustrating.
A picture book Halloween flavor
Despite the obvious flaws in storytelling and gameplay, what is maybe the most important thing in a game set during Halloween is how the atmosphere is captured. This is done remarkably well by the sound and graphics design. Even though the engine doesn’t impress with state-of-the-art effects, the unique style more than makes up for this with cardboard-like characters and a world bathed in warm colors which re-enact the season of the witch. Animations and background never seem to be incongruous but rather complement each other as in a cartoony picture one is immersed in. There aren’t a lot of places to visit, as the game is pretty linear, but these are well realized and are simply fun to walk around in.
The soundtrack is also pretty catchy with some nice parts which could be directly taken from various classic horror movies like Halloween itself. The only problem is that after a while the tunes repeat themselves, because there are simply not enough variations in the tunes. Voice acting is absent as well which makes some scenes when the music stops and only text is shown a bit of an atmosphere breaker. The speed of text is another concern for those who can’t read fast enough (and even for those who can), which is a shame, because the lines are usually quite funny but can’t be read again in a journal, as is usually an indispensable option in text-heavy RPGs.
Casual roleplaying with puzzling effects
Costume Quest offers an interesting approach to combine RPG and adventure elements in a more accessible way. Double Fine Studios succeeds in so far that the fighting and costume equipping system is easy to learn and to master while putting the likeable if somewhat flat characters into a charming, colorful world. Only after playing for a while does one realize that the quests lack imagination, unnecessarily repeat themselves and that there’s simply not a lot to do besides smashing things, collecting candy and going from one door or realm to the next.
It’s a shame that the characters and story fade into the background, as there’s quite a lot of comedy potential there. As a Halloween-themed game, this is an accomplished title, for RPG and to a certain degree adventure game beginners, it’s also worth a recommendation. But compared to other genre hybrids like DeathSpank or classic point-and-click adventures of the LucasArts era, one shouldn’t expect the same amount of content or quality.
Some final words on the DLC Grubbins on Ice which is thankfully included, at least in the GOG version: It is mainly the same game (with only 2-4 hours playtime), i.e. repetitious quests and fighting (complete with unfair boss battles) in a nice graphical package. Still, at least some tasks require a bit more lateral thinking, and the way the NPCs are incorporated in the story makes the snow world the heroes find themselves in after entering a portal, much more enticing and believable. But then again, the theme of Halloween is completely dispensed with (despite the costumes still being there plus a few new ones), so the atmosphere is quite different and doesn’t have the same amount of charm as in the original. All in all, it’s a bit of an improvement, but it isn’t a huge step forward by any means.
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