There's too much about Foul Play that feels overly familiar. It's yet another indie game with a mock Victorian presentation, as you take control of daemon-hunting gentleman Lord Dashforth and his pugnacious sidekick, Scampwick. The action is framed as a theatre show - a concept already wrung dry by the likes of The Gunstringer, Battleblock Theater and the recent Puppeteer - while the gameplay itself is a straightforward 2D melee beat-'em-up, a genre that is hardly endangered at the moment.
The premise is that the reclusive Lord Dashforth is, for one night only, regaling an audience with his (mostly) true stories of adventures battling the supernatural. Each of the game's six plays opens with Dashforth holding court from his armchair, before leaping into flashback action as the scenery unfolds around him.
Where the stage show presentation impacts the gameplay is in the way traditional features are contextualised. Instead of a health bar, you have approval from the audience. The higher your combo score, the greater the applause and the higher the meter rises. Take too many hits and it drops back down again, and must be refilled with more attacks.
In theory, it's a clever twist, removing the need for health items and instead putting the focus on sustained skill for your survival. In practice, it's never as game-changing as it sounds. You quickly discover moves that top up the approval bar with the minimum of effort - parrying a blow and then battering the opponent with aerial attacks does the trick nicely - so rather than adding greater depth to the combat, it just makes it pointlessly easy.
Not that combat is particularly strong to start with. There's very little grace or variety to the encounters, and too much of the game is spent wading through screen after screen of reskinned enemies, each of which take just a few too many hits to defeat. It's just no fun slogging through them, and each new wave is quickly greeted with a weary slump and a blistered thumb rather than any sense of excitement. Some skill is required, so it's never a simple case of frantic button-mashing, but there's just not enough depth to make the elongated stages and repetitive boss fights come to life.
Worse, there are design choices here that undermine the very basics of the genre. Enemies that are about to strike display little flashes over their head to show when you can block and reverse the attack into a combo, a piledriver, a throw or similar retaliation. The screen is often so busy, however, that these tiny cues are easily lost behind other bad guys or gigantic scenery obstructions which turn transparent when the player is behind them, but otherwise mask large chunks of the screen.
There are also distracting dead zones to the left and right, where both enemies and players can wander off screen, still taking or dealing damage despite not being visible. For a game where building the combo meter into the hundreds is pretty much essential to true success, there's a sloppiness here that encourages you to stick with a few core moves that work reliably rather than risk getting fancy and tanking your score.
Anywhere that Foul Play might distinguish itself, it instead becomes even more generic. New moves and combos are unlocked slowly, at the end of each stage, meaning that while the game gets marginally more interesting as you progress, many of the moves you'd take for granted are locked away for too much of the game. By that point, you've gotten so used to relying on the basics - and the majority of enemies do nothing to challenge this set-up - that the escalation flatlines.
Visually, the game is a mixed bag too. There's a lot of charm on display, but the flat South Park-style sprites and rudimentary animation give it a cheap look more suited to a Flash browser game. There are some fun visual gags, such as the stagehand who keeps popping up by accident or the way defeated enemies sometimes lose their costumes, revealing embarrassed extras underneath werewolf masks as they shuffle into the wings, but overall Foul Play feels like a game in search of a unique hook.
The story, at least, is genuinely witty with some wonderfully dry dialogue that is sadly undersold by its delivery as static captions. Scampwick, in particular, is a delight, puncturing the pomposity of Dashforth's dubious recollections with deadpan aplomb. With a talented voice actor narrating, the words would be hilarious. As it stands, they'll raise a faint smile as you laboriously click through them to move the action along. Coupled with the flat visual style, you can see the game's personality peeking through, but it never fully reveals itself.
Most unforgivably, the multiplayer is limited to just two local players. Two players means more enemies, which means that while there's more to do, the weaknesses in the combat are amplified amid the clutter. Castle Crashers came out five years ago, delivering online four-player mayhem with style and panache, not to mention more robust character progression, so there's no excuse for such limited options here.
Limited is really the word that sums up Foul Play. It's a difficult game to dislike, thanks to its whimsical tone, but it doesn't do much in gameplay terms to win your affections. It isn't a complete disaster, but nor does it prove itself essential in a genre already well stocked with games that are deeper, funnier or just slicker in design. It's simply not that interesting, original or polished, its best features relegated to surface detail while the genre basics are distractingly undercooked. There are simply too many other games that do the same thing but much better. All the ironic top hats and comedy moustaches in the world can't change that.