Version tested: PlayStation 3
If, like me, you have a bit of a sweet tooth, Costume Quest is going to be deadly for your waistline. An hour in and I was craving a pack of wine gums. By the time I finished the game, I'd demolished a whole bag of Haribo.
As you explore you'll come across candies in the street, in bins, bushes and piles of leaves. They cascade into your tote bag or pumpkin pail from the hands of generous neighbours. They're the game's currency, used to buy Battle Stamps, the buffs for your character's attacks. They're omnipresent. If there's been a more effective gaming advert for the confectionery industry and no, Sam Fisher's surprising affection for Airwaves chewing gum doesn't count then I haven't seen it.
Fortunately, Costume Quest isn't the kind of sugary indulgence that's likely to make you feel sick. Rather, it's a light and delicious treat that's perfect for enjoying between this winter's gaming meals without the risk of ruining your appetite.
You play as either Reynold or Wren, a pair of twins forced by their parents to go trick-or-treating together on Hallowe'en night. Whichever you pick, your sibling dressed as a large boiled sweet is kidnapped by monsters attempting to steal all the local candy for a mysterious glucose-related master plan concocted by a snooty witch named Dorsilla. Your job is to rescue your sister or brother and foil Dorsilla's syrupy scheme.
To reach your Wiccan foe, you're tasked with unlocking a large gate at the edge of your neighbourhood. To do this you need to liberate all the candies from the various households in other words, knock on every door and ask "trick or treat?" Sometimes you'll have your bag filled with candy; sometimes you'll encounter monsters and have to fight them in fairly rudimentary turn-based combat sequences.
What makes this more interesting than it sounds is the set-up. In the early stages you're dressed up in a cardboard robot outfit and a friend who you rescue from the local bully is a rather feeble-looking knight, complete with crumpled bin-lid shield. But as battle commences, the kids enter a flight of fancy whereby they transform into huge and powerful versions of the characters they're dressed as. So Reynold becomes a giant, missile-firing mech and Everett is suddenly a hulking, chainmail-clad paladin.
Encounters are reminiscent of the Penny Arcade games or the Mario RPGs, with timing-based inputs boosting the power of your attacks and reducing the force of your enemy's blows when defending. A special meter which builds during each turn eventually allows you to unleash a more powerful attack, while the aforementioned battle stamps let you dodge more effectively, poison or burn enemies, or even stun one of your opponents by pelting it with rotten eggs.
Once you've cleared out all the houses, you're free to move to the next area, though most players will want to polish off the brief side-quests or explore for hidden items. Treasure coffins hold extra candy and costume parts, though you'll need to speak to NPCs to obtain the patterns first.
Each costume (there are 11 in all) has its own special abilities, though there's so much joy in their discovery that it'd be remiss of me to spoil too many. There's a genuine, childlike thrill to witnessing the transformations: a tinfoil hat, large sheet and feather duster make for a perfect home-made Statue of Liberty, and while the charmingly simplistic art style halfway between Fairytale Fights and Animal Crossing doesn't show off the sticky tape, the loose threads and the crinkles in the foil, you know they're there.
Other asides see you battling monsters to locate rare 'Creepy Treat' cards to trade with kids who are missing that all-important one to complete their collection and there's an apple-bobbing mini-game. Like the rest of the game it's fairly simple, but it's an excuse to hear more of the sparkling dialogue. The stall-holder initially claims it's a protest against the abundance of candy on Hallowe'en before offering sweets as a prize. "It's positive reinforcement, duh."
The script is surprisingly subtle in places, not awash with outright belly laughs though the Statue of Liberty's special attack is a rib-tickling highlight but with clever observational humour that captures both the wide-eyed innocence and occasional worldly cynicism of kids of a certain age. You'll chat to wandering Hallow-tweenies just to hear their thoughts. "Man, I hope I'm the only banana tonight," mutters one. "Last year? Total banana-fest."
The relationship between Reynold and Wren is perfectly pitched, the dialogue nailing that mix of sibling affection and rivalry. The kids are smart and savvy without ever being irritating, which is quite an achievement.
One particularly delightful moment sees a group of miniature Abe Lincolns refuse Reynold entry to a Patriots Party until they're dressed appropriately. Arriving in Statue of Liberty garb, Reynold is convinced he's patriotic enough, before Everett corrects him: "Actually, it's a symbol of freedom from tyranny, which is a different and more inclusive concept than loyalty to country."
The action moves from the suburbs to a shopping mall and eventually to a village fair, though the fundamentals remain the same, even down to the apple-bobbing game returning (with suitably tenuous reasoning for its presence). Once you've added a third member to your party the adorable, bespectacled science-loving Lucy there's little variation barring the addition of new costumes.
While it's easy to underestimate their appeal, it's equally not hard to see some players' attention wandering a little in the final third. The forgiving timing inputs and the effectiveness of some of the more expensive battle patches mean the combat rarely gets particularly strategic, with just the odd healing move sprinkled among the constant attacks. It's never a chore as such, but by the end, you're going through the motions a little.
As with Double Fine's previous titles, you get a sense that you're playing a 6/10 game in a 10/10 world. Unlike those previous titles, Costume Quest rarely gets frustrating (its low difficulty level alone ensures there are no Meat Circus moments) but neither are its mechanics anything particularly special. Not everyone will take to the typically Schaferian humour though Tim isn't in direct charge of this project, his fingerprints are all over it and it's also worth mentioning that it can be raced through in around five hours.
But why would you want to? Like Psychonauts before it, Costume Quest presents a world that deserves to be savoured as well as saved. It's another delightful look into the minds of children; a window into their vivid imaginations, and the wonderful places their ideas and dreams can take them and you.
8 / 10