Mediatonic's theatrical brawler Foul Play opened its curtains yesterday on Steam. It's a 2D beat 'em up where you recount the character's life on stage by punching actors. I'd intended to WiT it, but I've had to stop after a few hours play. There's only so much button-mashing I can take in a day, and my thumbs were about to ask for the understudy to step-up. I refuse to play games with my feet. Instead you can have some Impressions. Onwards!
If there's a caveat hanging over my thoughts of Foul play it's that you're probably not supposed to play it for two hours non-stop. It's a fun fighting game that becomes a bit of an endless slog after a while. My concentrated burst definitely amplified the pacing problems, but they are there. I kept playing, but only because the rest of it was so wonderful.
If the Arkham series were animated by the South Park people, you'd get Foul Play's combat. You bash enemies regularly and rapidly to keep the combo ticker racking up. When an enemy gets a hit in, it resets. So the need is to not be hit, which is best accomplished with the 'parry' button (there's a dodge button, but I barely used it). The parry button is a powerful tool: it links attacks, so you need never stop hitting people, and it also acts as a modifier. With it, you can move from basic punching and into spectacular unlockables like pile-driving and tossing actors. It's what keeps the game from becoming a complete button-masher, allowing for the player to control the flow of combat a little. The basic enemy floods the screen, but even in numbers it's pretty easy to keep them cowed: parrying hits can be turned into screen-clearing manoeuvres swiftly, and some of the bosses are affected by those counters. But it's not enough, and the constant tossing of new fodder in some scenes, extending some acts into thumb-burning territory, eventually wore me down. One boss resurrected a bunch of enemies that I killed and then came back to life himself. Not cool.
I also blame the crowd. At the bottom of the screen, the audience waits to be entertained. The audience are a very real part of the game, responding to your violence with enthusiastic cheers that boost your special power bar, and booing flubs. It's partly their inclusion that unbalances the game: with their approval being a requisite, you forced to keep fighting. Approval is a powerful drug, and hearing their increased response was surprisingly inspiring. Conversely: I got annoyed with how fickle they could be.
The setting is lovely. You're a classic Victorian adventurer, the type who's seen everything from the inside of Pyramids to the toilets of Atlantis, and who has lived the life people will pay to hear about on stage. It's the theatrical touches that sing: each time you sweep onto the next screen, the set comes together in seconds, sweeping in from all sides. This happens a lot, and each time it's an absolute delight to behold. There are lovely smaller touches, too: you can see actor's faces poking out the costumes, when an actor lies 'dead' for too long he'll sheepishly crawl off the stage or a hook will yank them from off-screen. Sheepish stagehands would be caught mid set-change. It was these touches that kept me playing, and they are worth persevering for.
But then there's the question of pacing again. You do get unlocks at the end of each act, which suggests you're expected to keep at it, which means this is a long game. At five plays, with five acts per play (apart from the final play), that's a lot of mindless tapping. I'd have stuck with it if there were shorter acts, and if the fodder I had to fight provided more interesting opponents that didn't feel like padding. As it was, I saw two acts of a five act game, and most of that played out in the same fashion. For £10 there's a lot to do, but a fair amount is repetitive.