I made the terrible mistake of looking at the metacritic reviews of Double Fine's latest title Costume Quest today before writing this. Right now it's at a 71, and while that is by no means a bad score, it definitely isn't the kind of rating to earn a game fantastic sales. These days the color yellow can inspire fear into a developer. I wonder what they do around bananas... Costume Quest is an imperfect game, but it's one I would heartily recommend to anyone.
Tim Schafer's Double Fine is known for quirky aesthetic and funny dialog (as in Psychonauts and Brutal Legend), and that can be seen in Costume Quest in spades. The humor is strong, with clever writing and comical juxtapositions. But more lovable than that even is the world created by the company. The entire game takes place on Halloween night where the player takes control of one twin of their choosing (Wren or Reynold) who has to rescue the other who was kidnapped by the minions of a sinister witch for wearing a profoundly lame candy corn costume. Yes, this is a game about candy!
Currency is measured in candy, the experience bar is a meter at the top of your screen with a growing pack of Smarties, you can see how much candy you have by looking at an on screen silhouette of trick-or-treating bag. The Halloween setting follows the player through three areas with a surprisingly lot in them, from malls to corn mazes, suburbs to carnivals. For a six hour game, you certainly get around.
There are two different styles of gameplay in Costume Quest. There's the adventure mode where you will spend most of your time exploring an area, completing quests, and trading spooky trading cards. This part of the game is extremely cute, with big headed heroes and a quirky charm. When the game switches into combat mode your character goes through a transformation into an over-the-top cool version of their Halloween costume. Costumes can be changed up outside of combat, and whichever ones you and your party are wearing will determine what basic attack and special you can do.
The combat is done in a very basic Super Mario RPG style. You essentially have two moves, a basic attack and a charged up special move. You can also give your character certain advantages or an extra move by putting found or purchased stamps onto their costume (one per character). When attacking you have the opportunity to do a little timing trick (a la Super Mario RPG) to deal extra damage, or can deflect part of an opponents attack if you press the right button at the right time. This system is very simple, but if you can't get it down the game can be extremely punishing.
The choice for this part of the gameplay is likely meant to reduce grinding, you'll only need to get to level 10 to beat the game. The decision for the JRPG combat seems like a practical one as well. For children all play fighting is turn-based where the imagined version of the child declares actions before an assault, then another child contests or attacks on their own turn. If this was part of their goal (and I hope it was) it could have been integrated a little better into the game.
Honestly, this could be easily done with voice acting, my only major problem with the game. The game is very quiet during the beeping dialogs, and while a low-budget game like this certainly does not require voice acting, it is one of the most charming qualities of Double Fine's earlier works. It would add personality to the combat and the story. Sometimes the speech bubbles would go by so fast that I would miss the end of a statement. Once again, this is fixed by voice acting but it never kills the experience.
Double Fine is masterful at creating worlds and letting people explore them to the fullest (one reason why they belong here in video games instead of in other animation industries) and they an island of strong writing and smart humor among a sea of dim-witted power fantasies. While this was by no means the studios magnum opus, Costume Quest has gotten me excited to see their next three smaller releases.