The difference between clever and cunning.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Costume Quest / Our Darker Purpose Reviews

It’s the very dog days of summer as I write this, but slowly, mercifully, we creep towards Fall.  With Fall comes Halloween, the modern incarnation of the old pagan rite of disguising your kids as monsters and sending them out to rob the neighbors. We’re going to review a couple of seasonably appropriate games featuring child protagonists. 

Tim Schafer and his company, Double Fine Productions, have made a number of my favorite games over the years. The art direction and writing for games like Psychonauts and Brutal Legend is memorable and endearing. While developed under a much more modest time and resource budget than other Double Fine projects Costume Quest loses none of the charm.

Costume Quest is set on Halloween night, casting you as one of a pair of twins setting out on the annual candy harvest. Unfortunately monsters bent on pilfering Earth’s candy supply mistake your twin’s goofy candy corn costume for the real thing and kidnap them. Your mission is to recover your abducted sibling, along with as much candy as humanly possible.

The sibling interaction is just combative enough to ring true.
The exaggerated, cartoony art style and atmosphere really captures the spirit of Halloween. Not the spirit of fear or the supernatural, but the sense of being a kid on Halloween night. The night is about the costumes and the candy, and any monsters that get in the way of that are going to get wrecked. 

Transform and Roll Out

Normally combating a monster invasion without weapons, training, or adult support would be a tall order, but the cast of Costume Quest has an unusual advantage. When confronted by monsters the children transform into giant combat-ready versions of their costumes. A boxy, cardboard robot suit becomes a towering mech, complete with rocket-punch. An adorable French-fry costume becomes an altogether more alarming tuber-based crab creature, showering unlucky monsters with white hot grease and salt.

The various costume transformations are a treat.
Gameplay is that of a very lite RPG. Refreshingly there are no random encounters, with monsters visible in the environment before combat begins. With patience you can even exploit patrol patterns and gain the first strike by whacking them from behind with your candy pail.

The turn based combat is enhanced by various quick-time events that reward attention and reflexes with additional offense and defense. Every few turns a special meter fills up and allows you to unleash some extra powerful attack or support ability. Combat is simple but never dull. If you do get whomped you’re allowed to try the fight again at no penalty. 

Combat is surprisingly cinematic
While you eventually acquire two allied children to fill out your party costumes can be swapped between them interchangeably. Choice of costume defines a character’s role and abilities in combat. The armored medieval knight excels at taking damage and protecting allies, while the Statue of Liberty can provide patriotism induced healing. “Battle Stamps”, lootable and purchasable with candy, offer a welcome extra bit of customization in the form of additional stat boosts or powers.

Samhain Shuffle

Environments visited include a suburban neighborhood, a mall, and fall carnival, all thematically decorated and populated with background characters amusingly oblivious to the monster invasion. You can’t advance till you hit up every trick-or-treating location on the map, and the trick-or-treat mechanic has a nice bit of tension as you wait to find out if there’s free candy or a monster fight behind the door. Simple puzzles based around using your costume’s special abilities and exploration based quests round out the game.

There are a few side-quests and mini-games between whomping monsters.
Costume Quest is a compact, digestible experience that knows not to overstay its welcome. Even if you take your time to nab every stray piece of candy and finish every side-quest completion is unlikely to take you more than 4-6 hours. This all makes for a charming, accessible game that fans of Double Fine and anyone looking for a seasonably appropriate diversion will enjoy.

Publishers should be less afraid of modest projects. Not every game need be a budget breaking behemoth that must to sell a million copies to turn a profit. There is an elegance to be found in keeping a tightly contained scope.

Reasons to play: Cute art style. Sincere humor. Accessible and appropriate for all ages.

Reasons to Pass: Short. Forgiving difficulty.

Our Darker Purpose is a top-down action roguelike with light RPG elements and a deliciously dark, gothic set of sensibilities. The game has bits of “The Binding of Isaac” and “Don’t Starve” in its family tree. The humor and art owe a bit to Tim Burton and a great deal to Edward Gory. 

Movement and combat is in the classic twin-stick style. You comb a floor of randomly laid out rooms for useful items and the chamber of the boss guarding the way forward. Each time you enter a room you’re locked in until you’ve cleared all enemies or overcome some other hazard, so you can’t just rush through.

A Series of Unfortunate Events

ODP is set in a towering, Victorian, half boarding school, half orphanage called Edgewood. The school is a nightmare Hogwarts, teaming with darkly comic fates for poorly behaved or unwary students and ruled by an unseen but amusingly malevolent administrator. The bits of lore and narrative slowly unlocked through play are gothic black-humor at their finest.

At least they're feeding the children at Edgewood.
Possibly to each-other.
You play as Cordy, an adorably pale waif with a permanent expression of bemused worry. When the faculty and staff of Edgewood abruptly vanish Cordy barely survives the purge of the small, weak, awkward, and unpopular children that immediately follows. With nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up she sets out for the top floor of the building, searching for answers and a way out. Provided she can survive the savage gangs of fellow children that have formed in the absence of adult supervision and the stranger things scuttling in the shadows and crawling across the chalkboards of the darkened school.  

Fortunately Cordy has inexplicably developed the ability to hurl small darts of flame to defend herself. While Cordy can only hurl flame in the four cardinal directions she can move and shoot independently. An extremely limited number of chalk-bombs and an evasive roll (crucial to avoiding damage) round out her modest set of starting abilities.

On occasion ODP dips into Bullet-Hell territory.
Early attempts to ascend Edgewood invariably end in failure and death, a fact the game itself is quick to tell you to expect. Indeed it’s not mechanically possible to clear ODP on your first playthrough. Overcoming a major boss for the first time advances the narrative and adds a new set of variables to the game, but also ends that particular run. Like all true roguelikes ODP is intended to be played many, many times before completion. 

Learning by Rote

Edgewood is a stark, relentlessly hostile environment. Healing juice-boxes, money, and other useful items are in short supply and invariably guarded. Attrition as much as anything else usually ends a run. Learning the attack patterns of the various inhabitants and hazards is critical to long term progress. Finishing a floor without taking damage is an accomplishment to be lauded.

ODP is highly challenging and carless play will end a run in short order. Each attempt does help you slowly unlock new items to be found and build up a modest set of permanent bonuses. This helps create a sense of progression and that your efforts are being rewarded, even as you die time and time again.

Level-up bonuses are awarded in the form of a choice of books.
While primarily an action game ODP does manage to offer meaningful character development choices and interesting items. Each level-up offers two randomly selected but sizable stat upgrades. Some options include penalties still worth considering, like a permanently slower move speed in exchange for a large chunk of cash.

Many of the items that can be scavenged from Edgewood’s chambers change Cordy in fundamental ways, like giving a massive boost to attack rate while making her formerly accurate shots spray out in a random arc. Some of the most powerful bits of gear break after you absorb a certain amount of damage (as if you needed another reason to dodge), while others require completing difficult challenges to unlock their power. 

Even the most minor of treasures have alarming guardians.
Of course there’s no guarantee you’ll be offered useful items or upgrades, and everything is lost when you die anyway. This is normal for Roguelikes, but it can still be frustrating when bad luck dooms an otherwise promising run. The game’s other chief sin (significantly harder to forgive) is that creature hit-boxes don’t always match up with their models. While the game is two dimensional the “camera” is implied to be at a slight angle, meaning shots often pass behind an enemy’s head. 

Reasons to play: Deliciously dark, gothic humor and art. Challenging twin-stick style gameplay. Meaningful progression from run to run.

Reasons to pass: Very high difficulty level. Slightly miss-leading hit-boxes.

Articles copyright James Cousar, games and images copyright their respective owners.