The idea of Costume Quest ought to be tantalising to just about anyone who used to be a kid: it's Halloween, but this time the monsters are real, and the only way to save the world is to collect costumes and use their transformative powers to fight back.
Double Fine's first stab at turning this premise into an action RPG made a great initial impression, but unfortunately the sugar rush wore off as the combat and quests became overly repetitive. The taste it left was still sweet, but it never quite delivered on that promising original idea. Perhaps the sequel will fare better?
Again, the early signs are pretty good. Brother and sister duo Reynold and Wren arrive home from their previous adventure on Halloween and things seem to be back to normal, but before long they discover their creepy local dentist, Dr Orel White, has hatched a plan to eradicate candy and Halloween forever by manipulating timelines.
This sets up an entertaining chase back through time to a Louisiana bayou - a nice choice for a spooky location - where you start remembering how Costume Quest works in earnest, and this process of rediscovery is enjoyable. Trick-or-treating sends you into fights against Dr White's minions, transforming your party into giant clowns, superheroes and the like. You then unleash themed attacks using a turn-based battle system reminiscent of the Mario & Luigi games, where attack and defence bonuses can be earned by timing button presses at the point of connection.
Outside battle, you traipse around a little town perched on boardwalks over a swamp, chatting to other kids to receive simple quests and smashing objects to receive extra candy, which you can spend with Shady, the merchant who follows you through your adventure. Shady has Creepy Treat cards to sell, battle modifiers that increase the likelihood of special attacks occurring, double your XP rewards and whatnot. Each takes a few fights to cool down after use, so you quickly learn to swap them around after every encounter.
Beyond the bayou town is the French Quarter, where tourists watch street performers and a jazz band plays in a local bar. There are hidden chests secreted in each area, sometimes located beyond an obstacle that ties in to one of your costume's non-combat abilities. The pterodactyl costume lets you flap leaf piles out of the way, for instance, while the clown's horn startles gators. By this stage, you have a pocket full of quests and items and a good sense of the game's systems. As with the original Costume Quest, the potential is rich.
And unfortunately, as with the first game, there's very little variation from there on out.
There's nothing terribly wrong with what follows, but it feels lazy. After failing to thwart Dr White in the past, you travel into the future, but while the dentist's nefarious schemes have apparently sent the world in a new direction, your activities are still rooted in what came before. There are six more kids playing hide and seek to locate. There's another kid who wants you to find a specific Creepy Treat card duplicate. There are various doors to bang on to receive candy or get in a fight. And there are story quests, the majority of which are just about wearing the right costume to pass through an obstacle or prompt an NPC to do your bidding, before ferrying objects across the map. There's one more location after this and it's largely the same there.
Fetch quests and gear gating are hardly unusual for this sort of game, of course, but Costume Quest 2 goes about it in a particularly dull way. At one point in the future setting, you find yourself helping three casino owners with interchangeably forgettable names negotiate advertising contracts by traipsing between them over grim, grey rooftops. The one good thing I can say about this is that you can now dash around - each kid has a pair of those shoes with a rollerskate in the heel - so you can trim a couple of minutes off how long it takes. It's not all this bad - there are some extremely mild "aha" moments as you realise how a new costume's ability unclogs the way forward - but for a game about the magical power of dressing up, Costume Quest 2 is remarkably bad at disguising your chores.
Part of this is because there's very little story or character development, so there isn't much to latch onto beyond the settings and mechanics. You learn a bit about Dr White over the course of the adventure, but nothing particularly interesting, while Reynold and Wren are just blandly determined and precocious kids who occasionally squabble. Of course it's all meant to be light-hearted, but the best stories about kids send you back into your own memories of childhood to keep you engaged and entertained, and while Halloween itself may do that, Costume Quest 2 does not.
Instead you're left to brood over the naked repetition of quests and combat. The latter is never challenging, sadly. With all the different costumes and Creepy Treat cards, there was the potential here for something reasonably elaborate, but despite superficial talk of this character being weak to that minion, etc, you never notice it in practice, and as long as you keep half an eye on what's going on you never have to redo a single fight.
Want proof? Well, there's a joke costume in your wardrobe that dresses one kid up as a Candy Corn, rendering them inert in combat. At each turn, the camera focuses up on the corn kid and a caption flashes up saying something droll like "Candy Corn doesn't have arms." However, the costume-switching menu is a little awkward about reassigning costumes when you change the main character, so I somehow ended up with a Candy Corn in my party for the final boss fight, leaving me a kid short. And I still beat it with room to spare.
The game's not all bad, but you do find yourself straining to be entertained more often than not, so that when a half-decent joke comes along - like the Orwellian "Tooth Academy" where kids are sent to be re-educated in the future - you hungrily consume it. Unfortunately, most of the locations after the bayou are dull and grey and lack the gentle wit and sparkle of the game's opening minutes, so you're rarely sated.
Costume Quest 2 isn't a long game - it took me around six hours to complete, including almost all the side quests - but even a short game can outstay its welcome, and while there is still a great concept at the core of Double Fine's Halloween series, if anything this sequel is even further away from nailing it than its predecessor. Shallow and repetitive, Costume Quest 2's winsome appearance and occasional wit never quite obscure the busywork at its core.