Hopped Up on Pixie Sticks (Costume Quest Review)
Game: Costume Quest
Platform: Xbox Live Arcade/Playstation Network
Developer: Double Fine Productions
Released: October 2010
Overall, 2010 has turned out to be a pretty good year for RPGs.
Between "Mass Effect 2," "Sakura Wars," "Final Fantasy 13" and even "New Vegas," there've been alot of very strong entries in the genre, whether turn-based strategy or storytelling or action trappings have been your thing.
So when I say that a little 15-dollar downloadable game like "Costume Quest" is easily one of the best RPGs of the year, understand that I'm not making that claim lightly.
"Costume Quest" follows a pair of twins on Halloween night, Wren and Reynold, as you control one of them while the other's costume is mistaken for a giant piece of candy. Not a big issue in and of itself, except that there are candy-stealing monsters roaming town and they consequently snatch your sibling up, so out of fear of grounding (and also love and family and crap like that), you set out to get them back- between cleaning out the remaining homes of candy yourself. Hey, it's Halloween goddamnit, and you're getting your fuckin' candy.
Double Fine's strength has always been in the 'technical' side of game design if we're going to be completely honest with ourselves, and it's on the non-gameplay stuff that "Costume Quest" really succeeds. The art direction here is very simple but quite rich as well, an approach to cel-shading that relies more on an illustrated look of simple colors and strong character designs rather than the over-contrasted mess games utilizing this look tend to become. Between its aesthetics and music it captures just the right atmosphere, somewhere between "Calvin and Hobbes," "Peanuts" and "Nightmare Before Christmas" to make something kid-friendly and cute, but a little spooky and fun too.
The writing for "CQ" deserves special mention in particular; not only is it frequently clever and genuinely funny, but the interactions and behavior of kids are portrayed in an incredibly believable way. Your main character in particular is just the right mix of innocent, heroic and capricious, and the sibling interactions sprinkled throughout the game will ring infinitely true for anyone who's got a brother or sister. "Costume Quest" is simply dripping with nostalgia-- not the kind that gets reboots of decaying series without bothering to update their basic mechanics and gameplay, but the kind of 'nostalgia' that makes it feel deeply familiar despite it obviously having nothing to do with anything you may remember. It may never have been your Halloween so to speak, but it feels like it could have been.
As for the game itself, "Quest" is a turn-based RPG, and let me say right off the bat that in terms of gameplay mechanics, this is exactly how a turn-based RPG should be. Battles are fast with little room for delay tactics, options are simple and straightforward, and the active use of-- for lack of a better word-- quick-time events for damage/defense bonuses helps to keep the player invested in the action rather than it simply being a rote case of 'press A, repeat.'
The other key components of the game's turn-based combat are Battle Stamps-- basically a single 'perk' for each of the three people that make up your party that do everything from basic stuff (attack damage-plus, boosted HP) to more unorthodox tactics (a stun attack with splash/poison damage, the ability to counter-attack). And then there's the Costumes themselves, which are part of what sets "Quest" apart from its influences like the Mario RPGs.
There are several costumes in the game, most of which you have to construct from 3 different materials, and when you put one on in combat you actually become what you're representing. For example, the Robot costume will change you into a pulp-sci-fi-meets-power-rangers giant mech, while something like the Unicorn outfit will change you the thing from "Robot Unicorn Attack". Each one has different focuses and abilities, with a few even having exploration abilities (the most useful of which is easily the Robot suit's Dash move). Not only does it give "Costume Quest" a healthy dose of personality, but it streamlines and simplifies the often tangled mess of 'class building/specialization' for a younger audience without cheapening it.
I've made my position on "Costume Quest" abundantly clear, but admittedly not everyone will take to it. The most common complaints againsti the game are that it's A) too easy and B) too short. And while I would certainly have loved to see even more of this, I can't help but feel these issues don't really matter.
Yes, we as gamers have come to expect 50-100 hour monoliths from our role-playing games nowadays, but considering that quality family games are a shameful rarity and that so many achieve these arbitrary (and rather deceptive) playtimes by either pushing the grind or flat-out wasting your time, an RPG that you can play once in a reasonable length of time and squeeze every last drop of goodness out of is definitely not a bad thing.
In short, "Costume Quest" is an absolutely wonderful, charming little game well worth its asking price and more than deserving of your time.
The Good: Great visual design/writing, genuinely charming, fun turn-based combat, great family game
The Bad: a bit too easy for experienced players
The Ugly: Disney's lawsuit after they see the 'pumpkin costume' that TOTALLY isn't like Jack Skellington, honest
Rating: X/10 Pieces of Candy