Costume Quest, a game with a dull name and a colorful pedigree is not just a trick-or-treating role-playing game coming to the Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 this fall. I saw it in action. It has modern smarts.
The game comes from the creators of Brutal Legend, chiefly from a Double Fine Productions team led by animator Tasha Harris. Costume Quest reminded me of some of the games I played when I was younger — a role-playing game with an overworld and turn-based battles, in this case the former being a neighborhood ripe for trick-or-treating and the latter being clashes between fantasy alter-egos and bad guys. It certainly looks like an adventure for kids, what with the big-headed boy and girl characters and the gleeful nature of it all. Your boy hero can tilt back on his heels and roll down the street on his Heely-style skate shows, you know? Kid stuff.
But like a good cartoon and surely like some of the games I played when I was younger, this game will have wit that will keep an adult engaged. For example, each of your Halloween costume alter-egos has a special attack move used in combat like it is a Final Fantasy summon. The Statue Of Liberty character summons, well, Americana to help her fight: Abe Lincoln, a bald eagle, etc.
This balance is what players of Double Fine games could have expected. The studio's Brutal Legend game last year was a cartoonish-ode to heavy metal, though not quite the kid-friendly game Costume Quest is. More similar in tone may have been Psychonauts, Double Fine's 2005 mix of summer camp shenanigans and the exploration of the landscapes of characters' imaginations. Both games were written with clever dialogue and crisp humor. Applying that style to a trick-or-treating game will bring Double Fine even closer to that Disney or Pixar ideal: aimed at kids; amusing for adults.
The game feels retro in its design simplicity and purity. Its over-world is viewed from the kind of overhead view seen in Super Nintendo role-playing games. You gather a party of up to four heroes as you collect costumes, talk to characters and solve puzzles. The game will dole out simple quests, like the need to collect parts of a costume before donning it and using it for combat. Combat itself is enhanced with some support for some button-prompt moves during the turn-based attacks. The deviation from most old-school RPGs is that the fate of the world does not appear to be at stake. Maybe it is, but the game does appear to be, primarily, about trick-or-treating. How dire could things really be in a game that makes your health bar look like a roll of Smarties?
I was charmed by my first look at Costume Quest. This is a game that looks like it could engage children and people who used to be children. So many games are so serious. And so many games that echo gaming's past do so primarily by recreating what was cool a decade or two ago. This game feels different. It seems light and fun, built on older designs but with a Halloween style that feels timeless. We can play it soon, this fall, as a downloadable game for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3.