Review: Costume Quest

We should have seen it coming.

There are two types of games on PSN and XBLA. The first is the game that takes small ideas, polishes them to the point of perfection, and then layers on the charm, creating a memorable experience. Recently released (on the same day, no less!) title Super Meat Boy does this to perfection: it is a simple game I could play forever. The other kind is a game that really desires to be a fully featured, $60 game, and uses its price tag and downloadable nature as a crutch to excuse it for overreaching and, ultimately, failing.

And that, sadly, is what we have with Costume Quest.

It’s not a bad game. Okay, it’s schlock. It’s an awful game. But it tries really hard. It is a game with a soul, except its soul is stuck in a sad, depressing body.

Put simply, Costume Quest wishes it were a full game. There are a full game’s worth of features and ideas here, crammed into a relatively breezy 8 hour playtime. The problem is, Costume Quest seems like a game that began as a $60 dollar idea, then stripped away features until it was worth $15. All that’s left, really, is excellent writing weighed down by horrible, terrible execution.

I mean, even the writing gets shit on by the execution! In the opening cutscene, besides everything being too small to read, the text auto scrolled at a rate no human being can read. I read at a pretty brisk pace, and I had trouble. Throughout the game, there’s witty banter, except you have to stop to read it. Rather than building a game where the developers knew you’d have to read text, they built a game where the text feels like it should have been voiced, but that feature got cut because of the downloadable nature.

Well, you get what you pay for, I imagine them saying.

Combat is similarly stripped of features. It plays out like a retarded JRPG, not in the I hate JRPGs way but in the A JRPG which is missing half its brain way. There are no items. There are no choices besides attack and a power given by a sticker (the game’s attempt at customization; too bad it’s horribly broken in favor of status ailments, which allow you to lock down the entire enemy team, 100% accuracy, while doing damage) and a super attack which takes turns to charge up and then does something unique per costume coupled with an unskippable cutscene. Yes, I laughed when the Statue of Liberty costume summoned an Eagle and Abraham Lincoln’s disembodied head to heal my party. I didn’t the fourteenth time I saw it. And I definitely didn’t laugh when I realized certain fights were unwinnable without the aforementioned stun lock, because there’s no way to heal besides said charge move.

Basically, you have a game where the gameplay is dead weight between jokes. Every area in the game boils down to trick or treating at every house, looking for random boxes scattered around, hitting every object in the world for candy, fighting a couple dudes, and talking to people. Busywork and a story, I say. The talking to people is the highlight. It’s some of the best writing in any game. Let me say this plainly: the writing, what I could gather of it, is better than Psychonauts. It is fantastic. It crackles. It is the reason other media outlets have given this game high marks. They ignore the rest of the game in favor of just savoring the writing, but I can’t do that. The rest of the game makes me long for eye-gougingly bad PS2 RPGs. This is a game corrupted almost to its roots.

And it’s not like the roots aren’t there! The combat system has some scraps of good ideas in it (albeit very old ideas, from SNES era JRPGs), with the use of stickers and time-delayed super moves. I like these ideas. The problem is, Costume Quest runs like a game that’s been stripped of every feature, for cost reasons or to make it playable by everyone. And sure, this is simple enough that someone with a frontal lobotomy could play it. The problem is, I doubt the target market (gamers who love Tim Schaefer’s previous work, like myself) are put off by complexity. So it seems to be a cost related thing.

What Costume Quest represents is the dangers of saying, This non-gameplay element is our core mechanic. The writing and style is all anyone cared about, I gather, and it left the gameplay a shallow, apathetic mess. Like I’ve talked about before, good writing and good style are like gravy to gameplay’s meat. And Costume Quest is you, at one in the morning, eating cold gravy out of a bowl.