“For the true believers, Halloween is the ultimate holiday.” This maxim—from the immortal Adventures Of Pete & Pete episode “Halloweenie”—is close to the heart of Double Fine Productions. It also fuels the molten caramel heart of the company’s latest game, Costume Quest. Like Double Fine’s much-loved debut, Psychonauts, Costume Quest succeeds first and foremost as a work of pristine Americana, capturing the essence of its audience’s shared history—in this case, late-20th-century suburban Halloween tradition instead of summer camp—and leveraging it as a platform for lean, entertaining game design. Costume Quest doesn’t break any new ground in its exploration of classic RPG tropes, but it’s also free of some of the excesses that marred the final stages of Psychonauts, and that gimped all of Brütal Legend.
No time is wasted when you start off Double Fine’s first downloadable game. It’s Halloween night, and the new kids in town, twins Reynold and Wren, set off trick or treating. Whether you choose to control the boy or the girl, the game doesn’t change, outside of stray dialogue. Your brother/sister’s lame candy-corn costume gets you in trouble, when Dorsilla the witch and her Grubbin minions mistake your sib for actual candy and drag him/her off to feed to Big Bones, ruler of Repugnia. From there, you stroll through three major environments that cover the gamut of Halloween locales—suburb, shopping mall, and farm town with county fair—trying to rescue your twin. Each stage is cleared by trick-or-treating at every house/shop, with many closed off by environmental puzzles, which in classic RPG fashion, often boil down to fetch-quests.
While collect-the-item tasks can kill a game with tedium, Costume Quest’s keep the game fresh as they introduce new costumes. For example, you and your party can’t get through dark areas of the mall because fantasy-lover Everett is scared of the dark. Talking to mall staff yields the design and three materials (the key ingredients for all costumes) to make a Space Warrior costume, complete with lightsaber to illuminate dark paths. Costumes also define battle, with characters appearing in comic-book-style panels as monster-sized versions of their disguise. Each outfit has a standard and special attack—some of which, like the Statue Of Liberty’s patriotic healing spell, are hilarious—but only those with strong offensive maneuvers are useful.
Costume Quest’s only mechanical failing is the lack of variety and balance in its turn-based battles. There’s an impressive amount of variety for such a short game (six hours to complete everything, side quests and all), with 11 costumes and 24 Battle Stamps that provide secondary effects, but brute force is the only effective strategy for the game’s fights.
The shallow battles would be a problem if they weren’t fast and fun. It’s a real treat watching a monstrous, spidery pack of French fries poke a goblin to death, and since attack and defense require timed-button presses à la the Mario & Luigi RPGs, the fights hold players’ attention. The battles are also secondary to the real joy of the game. Director Tasha Harris, artist Tyler Herd, and the rest of the Double Fine staff created three environments that evoke trick-or-treating through warm colors, cartoon character design, and an expert balance of sound effects and silence. Tim Schafer’s writing also shines, with his trick-or-treaters every bit as distinct and hilarious as his campers. Fingers crossed that the short development time and low budget make Costume Quest an annual tradition itself.