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.