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.