Who wouldn’t want to reminisce about sorting the spoils of a successful Halloween night? Or about the time your ghost costume was mistaken for an onion and you were mistaken for a girl? (I was very young, okay?) I love seasonal experiences, and Costume Quest would be inappropriate in any month other than October. However, anything that channels the spirit of Halloween while reminding us of magical days past deserves consideration, even if tired dialogue and game design plague the experience.
Imagination fuels the Halloween season. Thus, Costume Quest’s generic and cliché-ridden narrative comes as an unfortunate surprise. The game seems unable to stick to a single tone as well. The opening moments make one expect a Bradburian journey into the mysteries of Halloween, but a script full of generic dialogue and cheesy humor dashes those expectations. Incongruously adult behavior from the protagonists also ruins most of the cute kid moments that could have made the narrative touching. The result of these inconsistencies is off-putting, but it’s likely that many players can overlook this shortcoming and just enjoy the nostalgia.
Costume Quest adheres to the classic three-act structure and distinguishes between them by locale. In each setting, players must trick-or-treat, find new costumes, and battle candy-seeking goblins using those costumes. Unlike the costumes of my childhood, these transform children into enormous and terrible monsters capable of immense destruction. Combat uses a simple turn-based system with only a few options: attack, special attack (once every three rounds), and run. To prevent combat from stalling, attacking and defending require quicktime events a la the Mario RPGs.
Unfortunately, each of the three areas follows a similar pattern. Each contains approximately the same number of houses at which to trick-or-treat, the same type of story quests, the same sorts of fights, and even the same mini-games. The design isn’t imaginative to begin with, and when repeated thrice ends up feeling lazy. Most battles play out identically, given the few options available in combat, and navigating the environments can prove difficult due to faulty collision detection and sluggish control.
Still, Costume Quest succeeds in some ways at putting one in the Halloween spirit. The effect is not as powerful as it could have been, but is nevertheless palpable. The colorful, sharp graphics bring three locations to life, two of which are particularly Halloween-esque. The suburbs remind us of scouring subdivisions for the biggest and most lavishly decorated houses, which are bound to give out the most candy. The country represents the other, darker side of Halloween. Like the graphics, a few simple melodies lend a certain whimsy to the settings, although the absence of voice acting seems odd. Just walking around, trick-or-treating, and soaking up the atmosphere proves enjoyable.
I loved collecting costumes and trying them on in combat as well, partly thanks to the wicked transformations many costumes undergo. I never thought the Statue of Liberty could look so evil. Going door to door for candy brings back good memories, and the sweet loot can be used to purchase battle stamps. When slapped on a character, these raise HP or attack power or apply a poison effect to all attacks. The final boss can only be defeated by making clever use of these, so bolster your collection. Creepy Treat Cards are the best collectible, however, even if they have few tangible rewards. These trading cards feature gross make-believe candy, such as chocolate carrots and barf roll-ups. Most play on a well-known type or brand of treat. Trying to complete my collection sweetly reminded me of childhood collections like Pokémon cards and MadCap pogs. Had the narrative been backed by the same imagination seen in these things, Costume Quest could have been a holiday classic.
Grubbins on Ice DLC
Free with the PC version, the Grubbins on Ice DLC improves the value of the package by adding over an hour of extra gameplay. Considering that the core game lasts a mere four or five hours, an hour is a long time in Costume Quest. The DLC revisits the protagonists after the events of the main game as they undertake a journey to the aforementioned greedy goblins’ home plane.
What follows amounts to a fourth act, copying the formula established in the core game’s three acts. There are more fights, more costumes to make, more collectibles, and more silly dialogue. And once again, more of the same mini-games, although instead of bobbing for apples like in the core game, the DLC has players bobbing for candied eyeballs. By the end, combat grows stale, as each battle becomes more akin to its predecessors. There’s also an unbelievably tacky room designed as an advertisement for a then-upcoming game. Fortunately, the new location means that most of the graphics are new, which took considerable time and energy. Some of that energy should have gone into new gameplay ideas, but at least there are a few new costumes to compensate, including a classic pirate and a yeti.
I once heard that all poetry concerns love, death, and the seasons. Video games usually only pay mind to the former two (perhaps that’s why they struggle to be considered art), but Costume Quest embraces the third. The decision to make a season-specific game deserves recognition, even if the gameplay and script might lack the imagination required by my favorite holiday. Costume Quest may be a nice little game, but that’s certainly not the highest praise.