Wot I Think: Costume Quest PC

Autokids, trundle out!

After far too long a hiatus, Double Fine Productions unexpectedly returned to PC last week, releasing their year-old, Halloween-themed RPG Costume Quest on Steam. Hopefully the rest of their games will follow, but in the meantime here’s what I made of their dress-up duff ’em up.

There aren’t enough costumes! Then again, any number of additional costumes probably still wouldn’t have been enough to dissuade me from using the very first one, the winged, rocket-lobbing robot suit, over and over again. Maybe it’s because it looks a bit like Thundercracker from Transformers, or maybe it’s just because I’m a boy. Boys like machines and violence, girls like pink and unicorns. Those are the rules. (Apart from when they’re not.) Costume Quest does, after all, play unashamedly to the child in us: it’s a celebration of the goofy cheesiness of American Halloween, admirably managing to keep cynicism out while never falling prey to mawkishness.

It is, lest you weren’t aware, the first game from Psychonauts devs Double Fine since the commercially disastrous Brutal Legend. It arrived on consoles around this time last year and, at the point, we thought we’d lost Tim Schafer and co from PC-land forever. Turns out we haven’t! Well, sort of. Costume Quest is perfectly serviceable as PC ports go, but I can’t say I got any sense that the team who brought it across intended to make it anything more than a port. Sure, it’s got resolution support and a few graphics setting (more than Rage did at launch, certainly), it isn’t littered with Xbox controller icons and it runs smooth as butter, but it still looks about ten years old and I wouldn’t recommend trying to make your way through it with keyboard and mouse.

Mostly because it doesn’t really use the mouse, apart from a sluggish cursor in the menus. So it’s an awkward keyboard-only affair that feels still and surly. Plug a gamepad in (I used a 360 one, which it recognised and configured for off the bat, including switching the on-screen prompts to suit) and suddenly it goes from shopping trolley to… well, given the likeably lazy pace of the game, more tricycle than racing car. But good tricycle, not bad tricycle. If you don’t/won’t have a gamepad in your house, I guess I’d have to recommend you steer clear of this: it just feels wrong on keyboard.

Well, that’s the major gripe about the PC version out of the way. Let’s get onto the game itself. It’s an RPG set in the present-ish day, concerning a group of vaguely outsider pre-teens trying to fend off an alien invasion in suburbia. The aliens want to steal all the candy in town, which obviously fits the trick or treat theme rather nicely. So, your tasks are to collect things and to beat up the invaders in traditional turn-based battles. In these battles, the kids’ costumes come to life: so the cardboard box’n’bucket robot suit you wander around town in becomes a full-on mech suit, a French fries suit obtained from the local fast food hawker becomes a potato-based horror-spider and a light-up plastic sword and safety helmet becomes a lightsaber-wielding space hero. The game’s single greatest charm is seeing what giant-size wonders the children’s bric-a-brac constructions explode into for the fights, which is why it’s such a crying shame that there are barely double figures’ worth of costumes.

In fact, Costume Quest all over feels like the seed of something larger, and something I truly hope comes to pass. The fights are entertaining but samey and too simple, requiring only the lightest touch of strategic thinking – I.e. Take out the healers first, make sure at least one of your guys has a heal power himself – and all too rarely requiring you to use your most recently acquired assembly of tin foil, sellotape and yogurt pots. You’ll play your favourite costumes, and there’s nothing whatsoever wrong with that. But doubling the costume count would have improved things immeasurably.

Each new one is obtained more or less when the game decides it should be obtained, usually by scouring the latest level for three components, but occasionally given outright. So it’s not really a costume quest after all. ‘Candy quest’ would have been more apt, but if they’d called it that they’d probably have had to use a pink font and put a unicorn on the front. (There is a unicorn costume, actually, but it’s more Robot Unicorn Attack than My Little Pony).

So it’s a short trek through well-observed suburban environments, intermittently having easy, similar but endearing fights against a slim selection of enemies, collecting candy, buying a small selection of upgrades and completing brief, simple quests to help progress to the next part. The essentials of the game are straightforward and unchanging, but the playful, wry, but non-snarky tone and a generous smattering of visual imagination largely saves it from feeling repetitive. In the last acts, the unchanging and increasingly regular fights do lean towards grindy, but exploring the levels and wondering what comes next keeps the game itself fresh and charming. And, of course, the characteristically strong writing helps.

There’s a strong, happy whiff of Psychonauts to it, this too being a tale of smarter-than-the-average-bear children on fantastical adventures, but it steers clear of the real weirdness or darkness. It’s playingin much more conventional, and knowingly sweet, territory, and it’s a testament to Double Fine’s writers that it never collapses into the saccharine. There’s nothing anywhere near as memorable as Psychonauts at its best, but it’s consistently likeable, raises a few belly laughs and plenty of smiles from both the dialogue and background gags. All that pretty much masks any concern that the game’s a bit too simple, a bit too samey, a bit too lightweight. It is all those things too, but it’s so cheerful and imaginative with ‘em that I just didn’t care.

Costume Quest isn’t, either in design or on a technical level, the grand dramatic return to PC we’d love to see from Double Fine, but what a pleasant place to be it is – and I would love, so much, to see this expanded into something bigger and bolder.


  1. ASBO says:

    Sounds a bit like “Stacking” then, which I thought was pretty good, but the novelty wore off pretty quickly.

    • bakagami says:

      yeah, I played this & Stacking on my PS3. I had fun but it depends on an individual’s ability to enjoy the gimmick that each game relies on. I’ll say this about Costume Quest: it is THE simplest turn-based RPG possible. not saying its without challenge but the game has been pruned down to the bare essentials for the genre

  2. Eclipse says:

    well, I think you lost me at traditional turn-based battles…

  3. wccrawford says:

    “Likeably lazy”? Ugh. More like boringly slow. I tried it on PSN and I just wasn’t impressed. I don’t know why they can’t make another Psychonauts, but it really appears they just can’t.

    • ClockworkTiger says:

      I think the reason they can’t make another Psychonauts is because despite how great it was, and how fondly it’s remembered, it sold really, really poorly. These small, lower budget, light games designed for the consoles’ download marketplaces have been successful enough for Double Fine that they may be in a position financially to bring us a larger traditional game eventually.

  4. InternetBatman says:

    I really liked this game. I had no issue with a keyboard (the mouse is practically not used), mostly because the controls and fights are so simple it added a fun bit of challenge.

    I’m very disappointed with Doublefine’s PR department though. A lot of people were waiting for this game for a long time, and they sent out a single press release. Had they drummed up a little more enthusiasm, maybe sent the trailer along with the Press release and told people it was coming it would have at least stayed in the top Steam sales longer. Unless they have a killer Halloween promotion planned, that’s just throwing money away to poor business sense.

    Also, the midgame ad for Stacking was gauche.

    • ClockworkTiger says:

      According to the latest Giant Bomb podcast, Double Fine wanted to have a PC version from the get go, but the publisher for Costume Quest (THQ? I’m too lazy to double check) would not part with a single red cent to let them do it. They said the only reason we’re getting one at all right now is because a fan with some pretty deep pockets ponied up the cash.

      I don’t think Double Fine has it’s own PR department, and they have no backing from their publisher for the PC version. They are going it alone on this one with the limited resources available to them.

    • InternetBatman says:

      Still, smaller teams like Team Meat and Carpe Fulgar can get multiple articles published on their games and let people know it’s coming. There just seemed to be no promotion at all. It didn’t even get a splash page or announcement on Steam, did it?

    • bakagami says:

      not only was there an ad for Stacking, there was a trophy associated with it

      ~edit: oh wait, I was talking about the hidden chamber with the Stacking characters. in the PS3 version if you found this cave you earned a trophy. but that was in the DLC and it was before Stacking was released.

  5. benjamin says:

    I had to look up the word “saccharine” (excessively sweet or sentimental) +1 for vocabulary.

    Although I’m a bit of a Double Fine fan I can’t say I’m going to buy this. I want a large chocolate fudge cake of a game not a light candy one. Looks like I just have to play through Psychonauts again!

  6. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    I want to dress up like Robot Nixon now, dammit. I just don’t think it is part of my work dress code.

  7. MrMud says:

    “girls like pink and unicorns.”
    You clearly havent watched enough My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

    As for the game, I got bored really, really fast when playing the 360 version back when it was released.

  8. malkav11 says:

    I adored Costume Quest. It’s light, silly, fun. There’s just enough nuance to the battles to keep them interesting for the duration (at least, imho) and the only ones that take more than a minute or two are boss battles. Combine that with light environmental puzzling with costume powers and the Double Fine sense of humor and it was a nice little treat.

    However, I can’t really agree that it would work expanded. I think it’s one of those games, like Portal, that is just right at the size it is. The combat isn’t really varied or robust enough to support more game than we get (with the DLC included on the PC release), and since costumes are just one attack and one special power with most not really doing anything out of combat, expanding the number of them would provide a few moments of entertainment but wouldn’t appreciably expand the scope of the game.

  9. sneetch says:

    I got Costume Quest on the PS3 last Halloween and I loved it. The kid’s conversations were great, the combat was simplistic but fun and it was just the right length IMO.

  10. djbriandamage says:

    That game’s pretty good but not great. I love the writing and art style but otherwise it’s pretty well the same game as the Penny Arcade adventures, though of higher quality.

  11. Prime says:

    Maybe the amount of investment money they were able to secure precluded significant development time spent on adjusting everything for PC, which I could sort of excuse. Kind of. Then again it is meant for kids, so maybe implementing a full WASD/mouse setup was always going to be unnecessary.

  12. DrGonzo says:

    I thought it would be a great thing for Double Fine to go and create lots of smaller games. But in practise it just hasn’t worked. I loved Pyschonauts and Tim Shafer’s previous work too. But haven’t enjoyed any of these little games so far(having tried them on the naughty-box).

    Edit- They were all quite charming, but as games I didn’t enjoy them one bit.

    • Lemming says:

      It HAS worked. These small games were/are ideally suited to PSN/XBLA which is what they were intended for.

      It has that indie-game feel and if you go into it expecting that kind of bite-sized bit of off-the-wall fun you’ll be pleasantly surprised – same goes for Stacking.

      There is no point buying this if you are expecting a full-blown disc-based odyssey like Psychonauts or Brutal Legend.

  13. Radiant says:

    How long is the game?
    I want to get this for my nieces to mess around with.

  14. Drake Sigar says:

    I’ll buy anything made by Schafer, even if he does look like the love child of Tim Burton and George Lucas.

  15. jonfitt says:

    I feel like it might review better when viewed by its target audience?
    I’m sure they would agree that more costumes would be better, but increased complexity is not always desirable after a point.
    Grindy is also sometimes pleasant for a younger audience they like to master something and then be given the opportunity to repeatedly exercise it.

  16. jamesm says:

    My wife’s taste in gaming no longer extends much further than hidden object/puzzle agent-type iPhone games, and she can’t stand RPGs, but we played Costume Quest and its DLC together on the PS3 and she adored it, mainly due to the charming presentation.

    It’s definitely not a hardcore gaming experience. I’m not sure I’d play it on my PC. But as a very light RPG/adventure hybrid it’s hard to beat.

    I’d love a proper sequel, ideally with more varied minigames (e.g. the apple-bobbing). What’s a clever Hallowe’en-themed diversion from the candy collecting and monster fighting on the first level becomes increasingly contrived and repetitious when you encounter it the second and third times.

  17. Ted Brown says:

    Experienced gamers can certainly knock this for being a light, candy-like object of no nutritional value. But it’s candy! If you want a meal, go find something bigger! =)

    Anyways, I’ve been looking for an age-appropriate “RPG Intro” game for my kids, and I think I found it.

  18. oceanclub says:

    Just to note it’s for sale on Steam today for €4.65; I think I’ll pick it up just for the writing alone.