Double Fine Productions will release its newest game later in the month, a downloadable title called Costume Quest. This charming role-playing game marks something of a turning point for Double Fine. After previously developing a pair of games in Psychonauts and Brutal Legend--whose retail success couldn't quite measure up to their critical acclaim--the San Francisco studio is shifting its focus from boxed retail products to smaller, less resource-intensive downloadable games. As the first such project from Double Fine, Costume Quest feels very much like the studio is taking a breath of fresh air in the wake of big budget design burdens--its gameplay is simple and uncomplicated, with a story delivered entirely in speech balloons without the help of voice actors. There's also candy. And unicorns. But more on that in a moment.
Costume Quest gets its name from the central mechanic driving the action throughout the game. As a young child on Halloween night, you're in search of new costumes capable of giving you the superpowers you need to take on the oafish monsters that have kidnapped your sister (or brother, depending on your character selection). The search for those costumes feels like an adventure game of sorts: You run around town looking for specific items hidden away that, once cobbled together, become a full-fledged Halloween costume, such as a robot, the Statue of Liberty, or, much later in the game, a mighty unicorn.
Aside from making you look cool--and in the case of the unicorn, extremely cool--those costumes mostly come into play when you're swept into a battle against the game's ugly yet oddly endearing monsters. It's a simple turn-based combat system that doesn't bombard you with spells and abilities; instead, it uses a timing system for basic attacks similar to the Paper Mario series. After performing a few of those basic attacks in a row, you can then unleash a special ability unique to whichever costume you happen to be wearing. While hardly a strategy game, the choice of which costumes to wear into a fight--and when to cash in its special ability--seems to be the main focus of your mental processing power in Costume Quest. Will you play as the space man so you can devastate enemies with your don't-call-it-a-lightsaber laser sword? Or will you dress up as the knight so you can buff your defenses with the shield power? And that's all before you get into the potential draw of the over-the-top animations that accompany your special abilities, like the absurd visage of Abraham Lincoln sweeping across a fluttering American flag when you play as the Statue of Liberty.
All of this dressing up and monster clobbering takes place in suburban Anytown, USA. The game begins in a nondescript neighborhood of residential homes, cul-de-sacs, and tree-lined sidewalks. The Halloween atmosphere is spread on thick, with orange leaves everywhere and children running around town in all manner of costumes. And though the children are fully decked out in Halloween attire, the eccentric adults give the town just as much personality--like the dental health enthusiast who runs an anti-candy bobbing-for-apples game where you have to dodge the worms and parasites because he "only buys organic produce." You'll also go trick-or-treating, which gives the game a random battle element because you never know whether there'll be an adult inside to give you candy (the game's currency) or one of those monsters that has just been caught burglarizing. With a script penned by Tim Schafer, everyone you meet seems to greet you with some sort of humorous overture, like a monster that you catch stealing candy and introduces itself before a battle with, "You remind me of my parents…from whom I am BITTERLY ESTRANGED!"
All of this amounts to a game that's nothing if not charming. If there's one thing left to be determined, it is how well the battle system holds up throughout the duration of the story because its simplicities might fall prey to repetition in the later stages of the game. But it certainly makes a good introduction. Expect to see our Costume Quest review later in the month.