Until now, you might have started to get the impression that I’ve never met a game I didn’t like. Every one of my ten game articles thus far (considering everything from the low-rated, humble Wizorb to the universally praised, grandiose Dead Space) have been positive reviews. You’ve learned a lot about what I like—innovative gameplay decisions that guide design, satisfyingly high difficulty, and aesthetics that meld with gameplay to produce a compelling atmosphere.
Now I would like to talk about a game which I would not recommend—to anyone: the original Costume Quest, a game made by Double Fine Productions and released five years ago. In another version of reality, I could have spent this week’s article talking about Double Fine’s wonderful game Psychonauts, a masterful 3-D platformer which would comfortably find a home in a list of my 30 or so favorite games of all time (perhaps I will one day write about Psychonauts). But it’s high-time I talked about a game that goes wrong, and there’s really no better place to start than with Costume Quest, which I maintain to be the shallowest RPG I have ever encountered.
Before I get into the specific failings of Costume Quest, I would like to point out that I did not come to this conclusion lightly, after sampling an hour or so of the game. I have completed the game 100%, earned every achievement, and done the same for its expansion campaign; this sequence of tasks, according to Steam, took me around 9 hours.
And did I play Costume Quest all the way through because it kept my interest piqued throughout? No. I just kept playing because the public praise for the game (though, to be fair, not the critical praise) was so overwhelming that I kept telling myself, again and again, that I just must not have made it to the stellar, much-praised portion of the game yet. I was in denial that the game could be so lazily executed, and have so little to offer, and I spent the last several hours of play mostly in a bored stupor, just seeing it through. Now allow me to justify my reaction.
Costume Quest‘s Featureless Combat:
Costume Quest is not only an RPG; it is also an action-adventure game. Its primary designer, Tasha Harris, says its final design is influenced by titles like Final Fantasy, Pokemon, and The Legend of Zelda. The premise of the game is that you take control of a child on Halloween night, roleplaying as their costume and pursuing the abductor of their sibling. Along the way you enlist the help of other kids, collect candy as currency, and do battle with antagonistic monsters. The campaign has three chapters.
The problem is that every aspect of both the RPG and the adventure are as featureless, shallow, and repetitive as possible. Let’s start with the combat, as it is the worst offender. When you begin the game proper, you will quickly learn that there are a grand total of four enemies you can fight: a champion, a hurler, a cultist, and a priest. These four are reskinned and reused (with nothing mechanically changed but health and damage numbers) for each of the three chapters, and again for the expansion. That’s it. With the exception of bosses, these four are the only enemies you will encounter in the entire run of the game.
To make matters worse, three of them have nearly identical attacks (only the priest’s healing ability is different) which are defended against with identical quick-time events. For an RPG with multiple sections to have enemy variety this paltry is just plain sloppy, or even embarrassing. So you would think: ‘well, if the task you come up against again and again and again for the entirety of the game has the same requirements, surely the way the player-characters can handle the situations is more varied and interesting.’ Not so.
By the end of Costume Quest, you will have 10 costumes for your 3 combatants to don. Each costume has two abilities: a base attack and a charging special move that can be used every few turns. At first, it seems like now we’re getting somewhere: after all, that makes for 20 different attacks in all (and 6 more if you include the 3 costumes in the expansion). The base attacks, however, are as near-identical in quick-time event activation as are the enemies’ attacks; there is a lot of overlap in the offensive special moves; and you can not change costumes during a battle. The only substantive difference would be selecting a defensive costume, such as the knight, the Statue of Liberty, or the ninja, whose special moves are a shield buff, a heal, and a stealth buff respectively. But the enemies are so predictable, and so consistently easy, that a defensive costume (aside from possibly the statue) is a wasted spot. But either way, the combat rhythm is totally unchanged.
So what does all of this look like, in practice? You do 1-3 identical attacks, then 1-3 identical dodges, and on every third turn you do special moves. That’s the only combat rhythm, and you’ll be doing it over and over until every battle is an absolute chore. There are no combos; there is no combat variety; there are no difficult build decisions; there is no in-battle item system; and, except for ‘go for the priest first,’ there is no strategy. There is a system of buffs you can apply (stamps), but a select few are clearly the best for every situation. This combat situation is by far the biggest failing of the game, and the leading factor in me labeling it the shallowest RPG I’ve seen.
Costume Quest‘s Featureless World:
But the dull repetition is by no means limited to the combat. The one element which Costume Quest was able to accurately represent from one of its purported genre forebears is the path-locking fetch quest from the Pokemon series. The Pokemon series, however, knows how to be sparing with such elements, and how to let the player explore the rest of the time (to say nothing of how extremely poorly the above combat of Costume Quest would fare in a direct comparison to that in the cited Pokemon or Final Fantasy series). The overuse of these undifferentiated quests turns the already-limited overworld maps into a linear march from one spot to another, with plenty of actually linear regions along the way, as shown below.
The last big weakness and grating repetition that I want to mention is Costume Quest‘s trick-or-treat mechanic. These nodes of interactivity in the overworld see the player-characters knocking on doors for either an influx of currency (a treat) or a surprise battle (a trick). Once again, this mechanic is as shallow as a puddle and is recycled in every single one of the game’s chapters. Neither outcome feels like a reward. The battles need no further attention. The candy rewards do not feel earned, and use the exact same candy-pouring cutscene every single time.
Just 1 in 3 players who start Costume Quest (and at least get through one battle) make it to the end of the base game. There are worse statistics for many games that I love, but I can usually pinpoint a reason related to the game’s duration or difficulty to account for that (Spacechem seems an obvious case-in-point of both). For a game this short and this unflinchingly easy to have over 60% of its players not finish it seems a demonstration that the game can not hold its audience’s attention.
Now, of course, it’s not all bad. For instance, the simple art style was well-selected, as it is flexible enough to work for the transformations and monsters as much as for the kids and their neighborhood. Also, the writing of the dialogue, as can usually be expected from Double Fine, is convincingly youthful and occasionally humorous. Likewise, the story, however predictable, does fit the premise well. And above all, the premise of literally transforming kids role-playing as powerful characters is by any measure a brilliant subject for a game, though that mostly just makes the superficiality of its use in Costume Quest all the more embittering.
Finally, I would like to confront the most common defense of Costume Quest offered up when its droning repetition and shallow mechanics are pointed out: that it is a kid’s game. One would be hard-pressed to find a poorer line of defense. First, I would make it absolutely clear that I played light-hearted, charming RPG adventure games with turn-based combat that far exceeded this game’s quality in every category when I was a child (Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga comes to mind—an astronomical, exponential increase in content and quality at just around twice the price). Second, if the only defense of a game that can be offered is that a person has to be deficient or undeveloped in some of their faculties to appreciate it, then the defense is self-defeating.
So this is not even an RPG for young people; this is more like baby’s first RPG, which you are asked to play through three times in succession to reach the end. And at any rate, it was not marketed to very young children, nor is most of the game’s praise coming from the parents of very young children. In the end, the game just comes across as unfinished. Every aspect of Costume Quest hints at potential which it feels like the game barely makes an effort to meet, as though this is an alpha build of a game with lots of features and details missing. Costume Quest is a boring, repetitive, too-easy affair that is worth very little of your money, and even less of your time. Its faults drastically outweigh its merits. Fans of RPGs—even fans of indie RPGs—would be well-advised to look elsewhere for a game.
Masked by Charm: