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Costume Quest & Grubbins on Ice DLC Review

Tim Schafer’s studio Double Fine, which created the innovative adventure/platformer “Psychonauts” and more recently the quirky Russian doll game “Stacking,” released the seasonally-themed light RPG adventure “Costume Quest” to PSN and XBLA on October 19, 2010. The game is a delightful bit of cotton candy fluff that features tongue-in-cheek but innocent humor, a solid if simplistic turn-based battle mechanic, and a healthy respect for the sense of empowerment that role-playing can bring to a kid or even to us, whether in a Halloween costume or through digital avatar. The game is suitable for everyone from a child who has never played an RPG before to an experienced and obsessional gamer (you know the type: the one who has to collect every single one of the five hundred useless doodads scattered throughout a game world).

[tab:Costume Quest Review]

The conceit in Costume Quest is that your sibling has been carried off by interdimensional goblins (whom only kids can see!) who have invaded Suburbia, USA with the nefarious aim of stealing all the candy that they can lay their grubby little hands on. (The goblins are called Grubbins, by the way.) You choose at the outset whether you want to play as the brother or sister – a choice that has no impact on gameplay, but allows you to cast either gender in the role of hero and protector. But you need funds to accomplish your quest, and what’s a kid’s Halloween currency? Candy, of course! You must go house-to-house in the neighborhood trick-or-treating, and when the front door opens, you’ll either get a stash of candy or be confronted by a pugnacious goblin. When you enter combat, your little tyke in his/her costume cobbled from bedsheets, cardboard, duct tape, and the like grows into an enormous, superheroic instantiation of the costume type. So the hokey cardboard robot becomes a massive Voltron-like powerhouse. The goblins similarly expand, and you and your opponents face off in turn-based battle looming high over the suburban houses.

Combat is turn-based and rather simple. Each costume has a generic attack and a special power, which charges up over time. You must pay attention during combat as the mechanics are quite reminiscent of “Paper Mario,” in the sense that attacks have timed button press sequences (which are rather rudimentary) that when properly executed do extra damage or minimize the damage that your character takes from enemy attacks. What spices up the battle is that fact that throughout the game you gather patterns and materials that allow you to construct new costumes (eleven costumes in all), which mean new characters on the battlefield when you don these costumes. You also gather party members over the course of the game, whose costumes you choose and who fight alongside you.

Finally, the candy that you collect can be traded for “battle stamps,” which are sort of like items that your characters can equip and which allow for different kinds of buffs and attacks when battling, from increased critical damage to stunning attacks to health regeneration. Different costumes have different special powers as well, from area-of-effect attacks to resurrection of downed allies. It’s fun tailoring one’s party to suit one’s play style. But by about half-way through the game, if you’re like me, you’ll have found a formula that works quite well, and you’ll have little reason to vary it. Also, the outcome of the battles will rarely be in question, especially if you consistently pull off the critical attack button sequence (which isn’t a difficult achievement).

Battling aside, much of the fun of the game lies in exploration of the three main game areas, which include the neighborhood, a mall, and country fairgrounds. One must solve various puzzles to progress through the game, which often rely on using the various costumes’ powers. Many costumes have powers that can be activated in the game world, not just on the battlefield. The robot costume has rollerblades, allowing you to jump ramps to otherwise inaccessible areas, the knight’s shield protects you from falling rocks, and so on. Some of the puzzles require some thought and experimentation; often they are solved readily enough by hunting down missing components of a necessary costume. Along the way there are side-puzzles, mini-games, trading card collection opportunities, secondary quests, and so on. You won’t be confronted with major “Myst”-style challenges, but the puzzles are quirky and fun.

The game is quite amusing in a sometimes dopey sort of way. But it does a great job of using humor that is appropriate for kids (and doesn’t even resort to the bathos of potty humor and fart jokes – which is a minor annoyance in “Stacking”), while at the same time appealing to adults with clever socio-political commentary as well as occasional popular cultural references. (My favorite is an allusion to the sadly defunct Fox sitcom “Arrested Development.”)

The game’s visual aesthetic is unique and charming. It’s cartoony in a rather original way, which is consequently difficult to describe. It might be compared to Tim Burton’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” meets “Southpark.” But ignore whatever associations you might have with either of the above texts: I’m just talking cartoon style here, not message, ethics, or humor. The music is serviceable in a workman-like fashion (it gets repetitive), and there is no voiced dialog. But hey, it’s a PSN title.

“Costume Quest” is a fun diversion built on a satisfying and quirky adventuring premise. It’s a fun world to explore and to master, and it is one of those rare games that is rewarding for both kids and adults. A speed run-though might only take a few hours, but plan on eight or so hours if you intend to explore all the crevices, finish all the side quests, and collect all the PSN trophies (of which there are twelve, including one gold and four silver). The main downside is that battle eventually becomes repetitive and is always win-able, except in the rare boss fights, which can provide slightly greater challenge and which sometimes require particular costumes and battle-stamp combinations to win.

I would have liked to see a little more variety in battling options and strategic opportunities, but I recognize that the fighting mechanic is designedly somewhat stripped-down for the sake of being accessible to a young audience. Also, it should be said that the game has very little replay value. The game would be vastly improved if it included variable difficulty levels, even if the changes amounted to nothing more than increasing enemies’ health at hard difficulties. But don’t think that I don’t like the title: This is a charming game suitable for your entire family.

[review pros=”Unique, seasonal, and empowering game play
Satisfying exploration and collection
Eccentric, family-friendly humor” cons=”Battles become repetitive
Little replay value” score=75]

[tab:Costume Quest DLC Review – Grubbins on Ice]

“Grubbins on Ice,” the DLC expansion to Double Fine’s “Costume Quest,” was released on PSN and XBLA on December 21, 2010. In this game, your collection of friends ventures through one of the goblins’ interdimensional portals into their monster land, where you’ll aid in a Grubbins revolution. The format here is much the same as in “Costume Quest”: You trick-or-treat and gather candy just like before, except now the candy funds revolutionary coffers, and the houses are inhabited by goblins – some who are comrades and some who decidedly reactionary. The game offers a new breed of enemy, but the enemy soldiers are all one of four types, just as in the original game: warrior, archer, buffing priest, or damaging mage. You’ll have access to all of the original title’s eleven costumes, and over the course of this adventure, you’ll unlock three more costumes (two of which are necessary to advance the story and one of which is not) as well as eight new battle stamps and assorted new collector’s cards. There’s another apple-bobbing game and another find the hiding children quest: It’s much of the same, but with an eccentric new tileset in this alternate universe.

The new costumes are cute: pirate, yeti, and eyeball. The eyeball has a neat adventuring power, which zooms the camera out a bit from the map, allowing you to see more, including hidden places that you might jump to. My gripe, though, is that the eyeball power is actually only helpful in one particular place, and your companions tell you to use the ability there, which sort of ruins the puzzle. Moreover, when I got to that spot, I hadn’t yet assembled the eyeball costume, but I was still able to divine where I needed to jump to reach the secret area, so the eyeball’s adventuring power was never useful to me. It’s a neat idea, but it was woefully underused, and it feels rather tacked on.

The puzzles seem easier and more geographically contained in this expansion pack. But even if this game is less intellectually demanding (if that’s not too strong a description of the original title’s brain teasers), it still has a great sense of humor. The final boss fight, though, is more challenging than any of the battles in the original game. Granted, one of the main reasons that I lost the battle on my first attempt was that the boss fight took me by surprise, so I hadn’t had time to change my party into their boss-killing costumes and arm them with the appropriate stamps. Still, a fun battle, and more rewarding than most of the battles in the game.

My main beef with this DLC is that it is really quite short. I spent somewhere between two and three hours playing it, and I completed every secondary quest, acquired every battle stamp and trading card, and won every PSN trophy (five this time, including one gold and three silver). Is the DLC worth 5 USD? It’s hard to say. If you’re jonesin’ for more “Costume Quest,” then yes, this title has all the charm of its parent game plus a few new costumes. But if you want “bang for your buck,” then this isn’t the place to invest your money.

[review pros=”More quirky fun with costumes” cons=”Too short an experience
Little replay value” score=40]

This review is based on a retail copy of the PS3 version of Costume Quest & Grubbins on Ice DLC provided by Double Fine Productions.