Wot I Think: Costume Quest 2

Hi there!

Costume Quest 2 is a roleplaying and puzzle game from Psychonauts and Broken Age studio Double Fine. It’s about kids’ Halloween costumes actually transforming them, and thus enabling them to battle time-travelling dentists and candy-snatching aliens, in a fight to save the future from sugar-phobic tyranny. It’s out now.

“Is that a children’s game?” she asked in confusion.

“Uh. Not.. really,” I spluttered in embarrassment. “Sort of. It’s kind of…for everyone.”

Why didn’t I just say “yeah, but so what?”

Key to enjoying Costume Quest 2 – and sadly there are a number of big old reasons why one would not enjoy it – is to go along with its consciously childlike sense of wonder and silliness. For instance, in a dark dystopia where no-one’s allowed to eat sweets or play dress-up or really have any fun whatsoever, playing hide and seek is as primary a concern as is getting rid of the fascist in charge of it all. (He’s a dentist, specifically. With a tortured childhood. Double Fine are back in Milkman territory to some degree, though this is far more light of touch).

You have to enjoy the perpetually cheerful mood of Costume Quest, the flashes of visual and thematic invention that come with it, and its steady stream of chipper gags, because without it there would be, simply, tedium. While the first Costume Quest came across as though Double Fine were boldly experimenting with making things outside the safety fence of big budgets, the sequel in many ways comes across a lot like treading water.

It’s not for me to guess at or judge upon a game’s budget, but hopes that Costume Quest 2 would meaningfully escalate the charming and rich central conceit of the first game – what if Halloween costumes truly transformed you? – are roundly dashed. This does find its way to plenty of charm and visual playfulness, after a sorely misjudged opening few hours, but despite efforts to remix CQ1’s simplistic combat, I found it a dispiriting chore much of the time.

I pushed on past an overwhelming urge to quit, because by its third stage it finally moved on from over-familiar settings and structures to something a whole lot more playful. Its story concerns time travel, Back To The Future: Part 2 is its time travel touchstone, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. I don’t want to spoil all the fun, of course, but by coming up with the idea that candy and costumes are outlawed and playing with a 1984-but-with-dentistry theme, it grants more breathing room to a trick or treat concept that had felt tired almost from the moment Costume Quest 2 began.

Of course, it wouldn’t have been so tired had I not played Costume Quest 1 already, but on the other hand CQ2 makes bewilderingly few concessions to newcomers. It’s not a difficult game by any stretch of the imagination, so there’s no stumbling block in terms of mechanics, but it presumes great familiarity with the story and characters of the original, including its DLC. I hadn’t played the DLC, so was left a little confused by CQ’s abrupt beginning.

Still, it didn’t matter. Kids get candy. Kids fight monsters. Kids try to defeat evil time-travelling anti-candy dentist. Goddit. I guess this sequel should be filed under ‘for the fans’ rather than under ‘bigger, bolder, better, new!’, and perhaps that’s only fair given how unlikely it once seemed that there ever would be a Costume Quest 2.

The problem with Costume Quest 2, as was to a lesser degree the problem with Costume Quest 1, is the combat. It’s all the damned same. Three heroes versus up to three enemies, all stood in facing rows against a static backdrop, doling out attacks and slightly too long animations one by one.

It’s a traditional formula of course, but once you’ve seen each new costume and its special attack in action for the first time – the superhero does an uppercut, the wizard pulls a Gandalf move, the Werewolf sneaks up on his foe – it very much becomes “Oh God, stop showing me all that same stuff again and again, just tell me how much damage I did.” Most of the longer animations can be skipped, but impatiently button-hammering to avoid them is almost as numbing as watching them.

There’s a slightly heightened emphasis on the right costume for the right foe, with a new strength/weakness against particular enemy types system, which saw me occasionally swapping outfits for reasons other than simple preference – although it’s not possible to know in advance exactly which one-to-three units will appear once you engage a little wobbly dude from the main game screen. Even so, the game shows essentially the same sight over and again, and it rapidly becomes extremely boring.

The first hour or two is particularly arduous, as one of your three fighters is stuck wearing a useless candycorn outfit, with no attacks, for comic effect. So not only do you have to sit through the game showing you the same handful of gag lines excusing the outfit’s uselessness, but the already over-long and frankly tedious fights are a third longer than they used to be because you’re one kid down.

That ends once you’ve found your first new costume, mercifully. Around two hours later you’re both in a far more entertaining setting – again, dental dystopia – and you’ve got around half a dozen costumes to choose from, so Costume Quest 2 finally finds its groove.

Outside of combat there’s an increased focus on simple but sweet puzzles to get around, by using costumes’ special abilities – e.g. the pharaoh can use his crook to travel along ziplines, the ghost can turn invisible to stealth past stuff, the wizard’s staff lights up tunnels that are otherwise too dark for the terrified kids to wonder into… Stick with it and the game finds a flow, rather than simply grind. Admitting I was enjoying myself was somewhat grudging, as it had been such a slog to get to that point.

Even by and after that point, there’s still too much reliance on rinse and repeat quests – find six hidden kids in each level, find three hidden costume pieces in each level, find a rare trading card in each level. There was a mild sense of dread as each new level began because of this – but, as I increasingly think I should write in capital letters at the start or finish of every game verdict I AM PLAYING THIS GAME AT SPEED AND IN VERY LONG SESSIONS. Had I dipped in and out over the course of a couple of weeks, the repetition may have seemed less onerous.

Again though, I ended up enjoying myself. CQ2 found its way back to the easy charm of CQ1 eventually, and once again the dialogue ends skating around the more wholesome edges of Psychonauts’. I couldn’t ever quite relish the combat, but I did want to see what visual ideas CQ2 would throw at me next. It starts off looking, well, a bit cheap, but the environments steadily become more ambitious and the dialogue sparkier.

In other words, despite its combat being such a chore, take that on the chin and Costume Quest 2 just about finds its way to being the sort of game we want Double Fine to make – a puzzle-adventure with gags and fun characters silly ideas. Only just about, though.

Is it a children’s game? Yeah, but so what?

Costume Quest 2 is out now.

36 Comments

  1. tikey says:

    I felt the same way about Costume Quest the first.Finished it because I found it charming but a bit tedious. Never played the DLC for the exact same reason. It’d seem that I’ll be skipping the sequel.

    • Gap Gen says:

      I played it with the flu, so the repetitiveness was fine because my brain couldn’t handle actual challenge, and like you say, it feels very Double Fine, which is a good thing. But oh yes, the grindy JRPG-lite combat got pretty repetitive, for sure.

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      basilisk says:

      Same here. I played the DLC, hoping it would break the monotony of the base game, but it only made it worse. Sad to hear CQ2 is more of the same, which is exactly what I didn’t want from the sequel.

  2. timur says:

    I hope Massive Chalice proves me wrong, but I’m finding Double Fine’s output increasingly shallow and devoid of interesting gameplay. Nice visuals, music and, usually, writing (though the knowing wackiness can be a bit much) but a bit of a chore.

    • Ross Angus says:

      I think gameplay has always been Double Fine’s weakness. The writing and the art are like no-one else, however.

    • Nixitur says:

      Hack ‘n’ Slash came out quite recently and that has extremely interesting and innovative gameplay. I also liked it a lot.
      To me, it really seems as if Double Fine are rather hit and miss. Some of their games are absolutely amazing while others either have good ideas, but squander them or are just kind of okay.

  3. Gamgee says:

    Oh my god. Not this jrpg bias. Look I went back and played Final Fantasy 10, and I found it to be really short compared to a modern anything. What I once considered the apex of boring grinding gameplay (great story) is now acceptable by modern standards.

    I first noticed this when the remaster came out. It is shorter than any sort of free 2 play grind game. And many games with their tedious endless fetch BS. Which is just as mind numbingly boring in its own way. The fact that Costume Quest 2 is over in 5 hours tops is nothing compared to the soul drudging dreariness of trying to unlock everything in Battlefield 3 even. BF3 is still what I would consider “short” in terms of grind to unlock stuff.

    I could beat FF10 way faster than I could ever unlock the use of everything in BF3. Unless I pay money for a shortcut. I’m not an unskilled player either. I was often top 2-3 on the scoreboard with points. So I was really grinding away at that crap.

    This goes for a lot of modern games which really are just tedious exercises in unlocking crap. I wish I could just have access to it at the start. Just let this sink in. Modern games are far longer than most JRPG games with more grind in them. What sort of insane world is this?

    I can understand some people not liking that kind of combat, but let’s at least be honest with ourselves. People play far more tedious boring and grinding shit than ever and never even bat an eyelash.

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      Lars Westergren says:

      Saying “look, jrpgs aren’t grindy when compared to modern cynical free to play titles that maximise revenue by actively boring customers to make them pay, and the AAA titles who happily imitate them” doesn’t sound like the greatest praise.

      The criticism was that it was less than great in parts because sections were grindy and boring, not because it was jrpg like? How about avoiding grind and tedium altogether?

      • Alec Meer says:

        Yes, I am saying that CQ2 does it unengagingly and without sufficient variety, not that that kind of combat model is bad. I am fine with that kind of combat model.

    • TheTingler says:

      Have you played Costume Quest 2? No? Then shut up. Getting JRPG turn-based battles right and keeping them interesting is hard, and a lot of developers struggle at it. Usually Western developers. Final Fantasy, Earthbound, Chrono Trigger, never got bored with the battles. Costume Quest, Sonic Chronicles, Penny Arcade Adventures 3, I found the battles to be literally doing the same thing over and over again and it got boring.

      • Artea says:

        Huh? All those games have equally mindless combat. They all follow the same formula of ‘watch characters stand statically and select overly long attack animations from a menu’. It’s a fundamentally flawed formula.

  4. eggy toast says:

    To be honest after backing Broken Age and buying Spacebase DF9 I’m not interested in giving Double Fine money for anything that is short of amazing.

    • wyrm4701 says:

      The fact that you’re entertaining the notion of paying them at all illustrates how they can get away with treating their customers so terribly.

    • Balderk says:

      Was waiting for a release date for BA:Part 2 for so long. Full game was supposed to be release more than a year ago now, according to the kickstarter blurb. I received an email a couple of days ago informing me they just finished the writing of the second part. Disappointed….

      IMO, instead of trying to spend all the money, they should have sticked to realistic deadlines and doing what they promised, and use all the excess money for self-funding other games.
      As I read elsewhere, they were the first for which funding went so high over the initial goal, they didn’t knew how to react, I guess that’s an excuse. I just hope every other kickstarter campaign will have learn from that. Apparently they didn’t.

  5. lomaxgnome says:

    I loved the first one and while I’m sure I’ll enjoy more of the same, it’s a shame they didn’t add a bit more complexity, at least optionally. I am glad it got made though, but I went back and forth on pre-ordering it and ended up deciding against it, and it’s looking like it’s definitely a game better bought on sale.

  6. jonfitt says:

    Hmm, I’m not sure what to take away from the review exactly.
    It sounds like the combat is no better or worse than the original? That’s not a problem for me. I played CQ1 through just these last couple of weeks with my two small children and they loooved it. We only played in small bursts, and the repetitious combat didn’t phase them at all (I’ve observed that children often like repetition. I’d guess it gives them something they can “master” and understand. They also love routines in their daily lives, change is stressful).
    .
    So where does that leave me? The thing that disappoints me the most is that it doesn’t seem to have retained the Halloween theme from what you’re saying? Time traveling, distopia, and evil dentists are not things I think my children will like. The original had three areas: neighbourhood, mall, and country fair. Immediately recognisably Halloweeny except BOO! there are Grubbins stealing your candy. Bam, there’s your setup.
    .
    They might still enjoy it (my son still jumps around being a Robot, Ninja, or “Lady Libbery” fighting imaginary Grubbins) but it’s not sounding like all I hoped for.

  7. jrodman says:

    The worst part for me is the combat-as-quicktime-event-parade. It turns something that might be dull but endurable into active torture.

    • Phantasma says:

      True.

      Back then I was astonished why anyone in their right mind still used these dreaded QTE mechanics.

      Today it may seem (mostly) like a past horror out of much more troubled times, but CQ1 was just released after an era where almost every game had been plagued with plenty of “press X to see something happen we couldn’t be arsed to animate in realtime.”

  8. Hobbes says:

    So. To put this in perspective – Costume quest 1 comes out 4 years ago.

    They’ve had 4 years to iterate and improve on it for costume quest 2, and it seems they’ve roundly failed in that regard. The overall consensus from the crowd is that Tim’s finally lost his magic touch, even if the media dare not dig into the can of worms that is the DF-9/IndieFund mess.

    Honestly, if they can’t even produce a -reasonable- improvement in 4 years on Costume Quest, then it starts alarm bells ringing on their other projects. Massive Chalice -needs- to be a home run now. With DF-9 now a complete disaster that has turned toxic for the DoubleFine brand, not to mention poisoning the well for other SEA developers, Costume Quest 2 not delivering anywhere near on what it should have done, Hack and Slash was good but not out of the park great (though to be fair that’s perhaps due to the fact that Hack and Slash is more of a toolbox for interesting things and an educational tool in itself, so it should be judged by different standards),

    How’s that San Francisco lifestyle working out Tim? That $10k a month per developer burn rate still sounding reasonable? *cheerful*

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      Aerothorn says:

      Um – have you actually played the game, or are you just using Alec’s opinion as a basis for your rant? I found Costume Quest 2 to be a noticeable improvement on the first game, which I thought was already very good.

      And that attack on being a San Francisco game developer is just weird.

      • Hobbes says:

        Do keep up ;)

        The reason that DF-9 tanked, apparently, was because it’s supposedly *REALLY* expensive to maintain devs in San Fran. The fact that IndieFund took a huge slice out of SEA sales has been conveniently swept under the rug.

        As for the rest of your comment, I refer you to metacritic, the game now languishes in the no mans land of the low 70’s. That’s a bad place for a game to be. I liked Costume Quest, but not enough to warrant paying out for “more of the same”, they needed to improve on it, and -significantly- so. After the mess of DF-9, I was prepared to wait for the review press to provide opinions before I put money on the table, needless to say, in light of the rather mixed and not overly favourable reviews, I’ll wait for it to drop in price by a decent margin.

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          Aerothorn says:

          My response has nothing to do with “keeping up.” I’m aware of where Double Fine is located. I don’t understand what you are suggesting they do. DF was founded before San Francisco became the crazy expensive place it is today, and they can’t exactly move to Fargo, North Dakota because their employees have families and friends and many are tied to that location. To “move” Double Fine would be, as far as I can tell, to destroy it, because Double Fine is the people who work there.

          You are literally attacking them for existing in San Francisco, not for taking a specific course of action.

          As for Metacritic…well, this is RPS. We don’t believe in Metacritic :)

          • jrodman says:

            While I agree the criticism is a bit bizarre, SF has been expensive for a long time now. Real estate, both commercial and residential went up during the lifetime of the company but not enormously.

            Still, many many companies choose to park themselves in the location and many of them make good money doing so, because of the concentration of talent and the energy of the patterns of work. As for whether it makes sense for a smaller game studio I’m not going to get involved in that.

          • Hobbes says:

            The short answer : For DoubleFine, it stopped making sense the moment their strike rate for games dipped into the negative. It -really- stopped making sense post SpaceBase DF-9 tanking. Now they need to rethink their options and their cost base. At this point in time they have -at best- Massive Chalice, which is going to need to be a home run if they’re going to be financially feasible.

            There’s nothing bizarre about criticising their burn rate when it’s pretty much going to sink them if they don’t -do- anything about it, and certainly nothing bizarre about criticising it when it’s been a key factor in wrecking one of their big name titles and in doing so has poisoned the Steam Early Access well for a lot of other *legitimate* developers.

    • purex. says:

      Assuming they’ve been working on it for the past 4 years, which I highly doubt.

  9. Phantasma says:

    Tough luck, Double Fine.

    I might have been interested, in fact i’m even searching for a small, bite-sized distraction on Steam as i’m writing this.

    But after Space Base DF-9 i’m certainly not in the mood for ignoring average gameplay decisions in favour of some “Double Fine humour and atmosphere ™.”

    • wyrm4701 says:

      This is the sad boat I’m sailing at the moment. I paid for Spacebase, and it doesn’t look like I’ll ever give anyone from Double Fine any money again. It’s tremendously disappointing to have to vote with my wallet.

      • Hobbes says:

        Why? DoubleFine have proven they can’t manage money, projects or sequels. As of late they’re having a strike rate that’s in the negative, there’s plenty of -good- companies that exist that deserve praise. As harsh as this is going to sound, Capitalism is about weeding out the companies that do not deserve to exist, and as much as DoubleFine might like to evoke warm fuzzy feelings, from a hard headed business standpoint – they’re not making much of a case for “deserving to exist”.

      • Phantasma says:

        I wouldn’t say i’ll never buy anything from them again (this honor belongs to Ubisoft, thanks to their infamous DRM solutions), but it will need a truly stellar game, that gets reviewed to high heavens and has a significant buzz going for it, to lure me back in.

        The times of cutting them some slack because Schafer and his lovable bunch are so charmingly sailing amidst the storms of big, evil publishers are over though.

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    Aerothorn says:

    Alec, this raises a question that has been troubling me, particularly in regards to Costume Quest (1 and 2).

    The main criticisms of the series are obvious (the ease, the repetition) but…I’m not entirely sure they’re unintentional once you consider who the games are best for.

    Both Costume Quests are AMAZING games for children in the 6-to-9 range. They get all the benefits of the Double Fine art & whimsy, but also really benefit from the game’s ease and, yes, its repetition, which drills in certain gaming strategies and is comforting (a lot of small children really like repetition).

    And the problem is – I can say that for very few games. A couple of times, people have asked me for recommendation for games to play with their kids, and apart from point and click adventures I’ve really only been able to come up with “Costume Quest and TT Lego games.”

    But, of course, this is not the readership of RPS, and you aren’t wrong for reviewing it for an adult audience – but I do worry that because *all* the reviewers are adults, reviewing it for adults, the niche in which these games excel gets glossed over, and people dismiss them as mediocre or poorly thought out as a result.

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      Aerothorn says:

      basically there are enormous discoverability issues with games for children, largely as a result of the absence of curation mechanisms for them (including but not limited to reviews) and as a result I don’t think it’s economically viable to produce for that market.

      • bill says:

        My kids are not quite old enough for games yet, but I imagine I’ll be in the same boat in a year or so.
        I’m considering Minecraft, as that seems to be very popular with kids… but I have no idea on the age range.

        There was a console game where one player was the platformer and the other controlled a cursor to pick up items etc.. that second player role seemed popular with kids. Don’t remember what it was though.
        And there’s always Pokemon. (Or Yokai Watch).
        I saw a few videos of the Dora adventure games. They looked very close to the TV show and might be good for younger ones (but I don’t know if you’d wan’t to play with them).

        I guess the problem is that it’s really hard for reviewers (usually adults) to put themselves in the shoes of kids. Adults tend to do a very bad job guessing what kids can and can’t understand and enjoy.

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          Aerothorn says:

          I think the best thing an adult can do is to watch a child play it and collaboratively write the review with them. Which is not something I expect any typical games writer to do (particularly if they don’t have children of the proper age!) but there’s a need.

          Minecraft is definitely a good choice, particularly if you start on creative mode; survival mode may be hard for the younger crowd, but then again, a 6-year-old walked past my window the other day talking about mining obsidian, so what do I know. It has accessibility issues in terms of the networking/Java end of things, but that’s me being an adult – it’s massive success with kids (including their success in navigating the byzantine universe of Minecraft mods) shows that it’s clearly doable.

          • Hobbes says:

            Except Children lack the critical skills to evaluate much beyond what’s immediately engaging and shiny to them. Games aimed at kids don’t have to do much to pass muster, case in point is the numerous news articles we see in the MSM of kids being fooled into making IAP’s on nice shiny sugary games on mobile platforms which then make them press the nice shiny buttons to get snozzberries and end up hammering their parents credit cards unknowingly. They lack points of reference and critical thinking and logical reasoning, those skills haven’t been fully honed, which is why it’s difficult to use them as review subjects.

            Of course that is unless you’re magically expecting the review slant to become more positive as a result…

  11. frogulox says:

    “I AM PLAYING THIS GAME AT SPEED AND IN VERY LONG SESSIONS”

    Separate to the review itself, this is hugely important! And not only I am actually really pleased to read it but I think it should be a more vigorously analysed aspect of the game.
    There are games that are compelling, there are games that are addictive, there are games that are terrible; but across the whole spectrum of quality is .. i guess maybe a moment to moment engagement factor.

    Is this any good? Played for an hour a few days a week its great. What about this? No good unless youve got a month free of plans and an IV supply of caffeine.

    Its never really spoken about but personally I think its equally as important as ‘rubbish single, majestic coop’ or ‘character design is lacking but the music is fierce’