Costume Quest Reader Review
To tell the truth, I’m a bit of a killjoy. While I’m not quite hell-bent on forever shutting out the rest of the world from my hallowed ivory tower, I do value my privacy. Not only that, but I generally find myself lurking behind closed doors in self-isolation whenever a crass, commercially exploitative holiday creeps around, lest I find myself swept away in the torrent of hyperactive, obnoxious youngsters who fuel the continuation of such abhorrent celebrations.
What I’m trying to say is that I’ve never been taken in by the concept of Hallowe’en. To me, the very idea of allowing excitable pre-pubescents to dress as ethereal abominations and demand sugary treats from beleaguered neighbours must somehow breach the capitalistic values on which the free world stands, not to mention the opportunities it provides to all those sexual predators out there.
So, basically, I do my utmost to avoid the Americanised tripe that is Hallowe’en every year. I draw my curtains, lock my doors and allow myself barely enough light to safely go about my daily affairs – just about everything in lieu of installing sentry turrets to keep the inconsiderate toerags away. It’s a sound plan in theory, but less so in practice, as nothing keeps a tenacious trick-or-treater at bay forever. Most of the time, in spite of my elaborate efforts, I still end up having to hand over stashes of confectionery goods to the younglings who, in exchange for my token gifts, are generous enough to refrain from coating my walls with egg yolk.
My own experiences have probably irreversibly soured my impressions of the 31st October frivolities, which meant that appreciating a game based on such a theme was automatically going to be quite unlikely. By engaging with something that glorified the pursuit of material gain at the expense of innocent locals, I was sure I would see the last remaining evidence that the moral fabric of society was disintegrating before my very eyes. I couldn’t morally enjoy something like this, I thought, even if it did happen to be developed by Double Fine, the studio helmed by the creative mastermind himself, Tim Schafer.
Just like those I’ve come to despise, however, I find it difficult to resist taking advantage of commercial opportunities. Costume Quest was part of a recent Xbox Live Arcade sale, bringing it down to a fairly nifty 600 Microsoft Points. Having stubbornly held off on a purchase for several months, I finally relented, deciding that that a half-price serving of Double Fine goodness would be too good to pass up. All there was left to do now was to see if Schafer and his minions could override my inherent loathing of All Hallows’ Eve to serve up another feast of imaginative, light-hearted enjoyment.
By and large, they succeeded. Costume Quest draws admirably on a number of established gaming conventions and applies a few new twists, making for a quaint and refreshing experience.
The main staple of Costume Quest’s gameplay takes the form of exploration, collecting and turn-based battles. Assuming the role of either Reynold or Wren, a pair of impulsive, yet generally likeable young scamps, the player is initially tasked with the simple goal of garnering as many sweets as possible by knocking on the doors of their kindly neighbours. Things quickly go pumpkin-shaped, however, when one of the twins is callously abducted by an evil witch, with the neighbourhood now swarming with wretched creatures of the night. The solution to the problem? Knocking on more doors, apparently.
This time, though, there’s an added element of peril in the mix. There’s now a chance that a monster will be lurking in wait behind the doors, ready to take down your character in a flurry of turn-based stand-offs. Thankfully, your costumes come in to save the day. As convenience would have it, your tawdry, makeshift mounds of glitter and cardboard actually have special powers that are unleashed during the game’s numerous battles, allowing you to stamp your authority on your opponents in a variety of creative ways, ranging from heat-seeking missiles to salt-based assaults. It’s all rather straightforward and certainly nothing revolutionary, but its sheer quirkiness should be enough to win over most sceptics.
Thankfully, there are enough distractions from the combat system to prevent it from becoming excessively tedious. The game offers ample opportunity for the collecting of materials used for the creation of new, unique costumes, along with a series of collectible cards and combat upgrades. It also boasts a respectable number of optional side missions, often taking the form of fetch quests. After successfully completing these tasks, the player is rewarded with experience points, eventually allowing the main character and his or her group of recruitable allies to level up. As with the combat, it’s a system that, though shallower than in many roleplaying titles, shines fairly brightly through its inherent function as an entertaining addition to, rather than the driving force of, the gameplay experience.
Most of the game takes place in realistic settings, albeit ones littered with fantastical beasts and naïve adults, ignorant to the twisted turn their world has taken. It’s this merging of the real world and a fantasy theme that gives Costume Quest a level of charm at which Schafer has proven himself so adept at conjuring up, and it’s also the primary basis of most of the game’s comedic set-pieces and dialogic interactions. Even though there’s no voice acting, the silly, self-mocking text-based exchanges convey a more than adequate sense of social parody and downright ridiculousness, breathing more life into its set of crudely animated characters than many high-budget titles do with their much-trumpeted facial capture technology and Hollywood celebrity voice-overs.
Speaking of visuals, Costume Quest is exactly what it should be – a game that knows it can’t match its retail counterparts on a graphical level, and one that consequently doesn’t try to. Most of the character models and environments resemble the sketch book doodles of an easily distracted school pupil, and it’s a good thing, too. Anything else would have drawn the player out of the casual, feel-good atmosphere that the game creates so well through its other similarly modest bells and whistles, and what results is an artistic style that captures the imaginative cognitive processes stimulated by a world seen through the eyes of a child. What makes it work even better is the striking contrast between the graphic style used in the open world and that of the battles, during which your party’s characters channel the zen-like powers of their costumes to grow into skull-crushing, flame-spewing behemoths. It’s delightfully reminiscent of all those nonsensical Japanese animés that you deride mercilessly but secretly watch when no-one else is around.
One of the most prevalent complaints voiced by the online gaming community concerns the length of most modern releases, and it would be amiss of me not to address the issue here. Costume Quest clocks in at a very modest two to four hours at most, a revelation that is certain to put off many prospective buyers. At its regular price of 1200 Microsoft Points, it’s easy to see why some may feel more than a little short-changed by the time the end credits roll, but, for a knock-down price, the game serves up enough cheap laughs and childish quips to seem worth the investment. And, to be frank, making the game any longer would only do it a disservice, as the repetitive nature of the combat and side quests begins to present itself more potently as the climax approaches. Bringing an end to proceedings at a stage as early as Costume Quest does ultimately avoids the gradual takeover of mindless tedium that all too often plagues the final stages of many other games, assuring that the experience never outstays its welcome. Given the subject matter, the term, “short, but sweet”, may never be more apt.
So, for what it’s worth, thank you, Double Fine. In a somewhat bizarre set of circumstances, you’ve managed to give me that Ebenezer Scrooge moment of fervent seasonal spirit and made me see that good things can come out of Hallowe’en after all. Heck, you might even have ever so slightly restored my faith in humanity. Promise me just one thing, though. Don’t ever try to address my pet hates again. You may have won me over this time, but make a game centred around musical theatre or street mimes and I might just have to kill you all. Many thanks.