At its core, Costume Quest is a lighthearted (and at times, weirdly insightful) Halloween-themed jRPG-lite. In it, you play as either Wren or Reynold as they embark on a quest to save the other from candy-stealing monsters who have mistaken their sibling for a large piece of candy, and as you can probably imagine, the journey to do so is weird. In fact, Costume Quest’s emphasis on general weirdness and humor that revolves around precocious children is reminiscent of Super Nintendo classic Earthbound in the best of ways, and while it ultimately ends up being the shorter and more shallow game of the two, it’s nevertheless worth the price for those who can see past its shortcomings.
A tale of trick-or-treating
Costume Quest’s constant lightheartedness means that its story isn’t quite as memorable as those in other games, with the whole thing essentially boiling down to “trick-or-treat at every house in the area to progress, then fight the final boss at the end of the third area.” That’s not to say that it doesn’t have its moments of greatness or anything, because there are a few moments where one of your companions will say something more insightful than you’d expect out of someone their age that’ll crack you up, but the general story is about as no-frills as they come. However, the characters successfully carry this ho-hum story along regardless, so this isn’t as much of a negative as you’d probably expect.
Precocious little scamp, ain’t I?
This is a short game, so there aren’t a huge number of characters that you’ll run into before the end, and yet everyone you come across is memorable in some way or another. From your eventual companions Everett and Lucy to random children in banana and Lincoln costumes, it seems that everyone always has something interesting to say, whether it be an amusing comment about their chosen costume or a nuanced explanation of the difference between patriotism and freedom from tyranny. There’s something strangely magical about games that imbue children with the knowledge and wisdom that typically only comes in adulthood, and this leads to all kinds of amusing situations where adults are shown to be less intelligent and observant than the game’s children. That’s not to say that it’s making a statement of any kind, but it’s a unique form of humor that few games apart from Earthbound have bothered with, making this an exceedingly rare type of game.
It’s a jRPG-lite, kind of
Awhile back, a forum that I’m a member of got into a discussion about what defines an RPG in video game terms. Things got a bit confusing, but me and another member eventually agreed on four elements that are present in all games of the genre: an overarching story, the use of stats for abilities/skills, character progression from weak to strong over the course of the game, and an inventory/loot. By that definition, Costume Quest isn’t a full-blooded RPG because of the lack of an inventory or loot, and its stats are so bare-bones that it only barely squeaks past in that regard. Really, it’d be most accurate to refer to it as a jRPG-lite with adventure elements because it has a lot in common with Japanese RPGs and Zelda games. After all, Costume Quest’s combat is turn-based, and its focus on “experience” to level up will be immediately familiar to fans of the jRPG genre, while your candy functions as a currency not unlike the rupees in Zelda games.
Stat-wise, there are only two things to keep track of: HP and AP. HP is your health, obviously, while AP seems to be your attack value (though I can’t recall this ever being explained in-game). Strangely enough, you don’t actually have to keep track of either of these two things, and your ability to affect either of them is severely limited. There’s also no grinding in this game despite most jRPGs and jRPG-inspired games tending to revolve around it, so you can actually ignore the numbers if you want.
A quest for costumes
Costumes obviously play a huge role in Costume Quest. Not only do they grant your characters HP and AP boosts (depending on the costume), but they dictate what kinds of attacks you’ll have access to inside of combat. For example, the normal attack of a character dressed in the “knight” costume is totally different than a character dressed in the “pumpkin” costume, and each costume has its own unique special move that charges up over the course of battle. After three or so turns, you’ll have access to this special move, and the effects vary wildly. One costume’s special move damages all enemies on screen, while another shields one of your allies. Another heals all of your allies, while yet another stuns all enemies who are capable of being stunned. Finding the best combination of costumes is the key to succeeding, though the game’s combat is definitely a bit on the easy side.
Outside of combat, you can change your costume at will, and many costumes come with special skills that you can use to help you outside of combat. For example, the “ninja” costume allows you to become invisible, making it easy to sneak up on enemies, while the “robot” costume gives you roller skates that allow you to use ramps to reach new areas. Not all costumes have special skills that can be used outside of combat, mind you, but many of them do.
Making new costumes
As you make your way through the game, you’ll occasionally receive blueprints for new costumes. From there, you have to find the items that go into making that costume hidden throughout the world in chests, and said costume will immediately become available for use once you’ve found all of the requisite items. Not all costumes are required to finish the game, however, so you can miss out on several of them if you’re not going out of your way to look for costume components.
Apart from choosing which costumes your characters wear, the only other method of customization comes in the form of “battle stamps,” which are basically equippable items that imbue the equipper with a perk. For example, one battle stamp allows you to counter-attack if you successfully block an attack, while another gives you a special attack that stuns non-boss enemies. Others raise your offense or defense, and still others give your characters splash damage that can hurt multiple enemies in a single attack. Each of your characters can only have one battle stamp equipped at a time, so you’re only able to customize your approach to combat in incredibly limited ways, but stronger battle stamps become purchasable as you make your way through the game, providing a nice sense of progression.
Going door to door for candy
Each area is blocked off by a large gate that only opens when all of the homes/businesses in the area are out of candy, so the bulk of the game consists of trick-or-treating to progress. Of course, monsters are stealing candy out of several of these places, so while some of the houses are occupied by adults who will give you candy, you’ll also run into instances where monsters will open the door and attack you. Since going to each door is required to progress regardless of what’s behind them, this ultimately gives you enough experience that you’re constantly leveling up and becoming stronger. However, this also makes the game feel repetitive.
QTEs are the enemy
Costume Quest’s reliance on QTEs during combat is probably its biggest flaw. Rather than automatically attacking when you select an attack like in most jRPGs, the game instead requires an input from the player. These vary based on the costume your character is wearing, so while the “knight” costume requires you to quickly press the displayed button/key, the “robot” costume requires you to hit the displayed button/key when a bar fills up to a certain point. None of this is fun, and it actually makes the game’s combat exceedingly tiring and tedious despite Costume Quest only being 5-6 hours long. To put it simply, QTEs are never fun and developers need to quit relying on them.
Even the save system is like Earthbound’s
In Earthbound, you saved the game by calling your dad and having him record your progress. In Costume Quest, you save the game by calling the police and having them record your progress (though you can hit the phone with your bag of candy to save if you don’t feel like going through the dialogue). The game also autosaves at the end of quests, so while the save situation isn’t an ideal, save-wherever-you-want kind of system, it’s nevertheless inoffensive as a whole.
Each area you end up in will have two things in common: someone who wants a rare card that you’ll stumble upon when fighting enemies, and a bobbing for apples minigame. These are both interesting at first, but their ubiquity, combined with the lack of any other mind-blowing sidequests, make them a drag to play through toward the end. Some more variety would have been much appreciated, or at least a switch-up like a card collector double-crossing you at some point. Instead, these sidequests are as vanilla as they come, and the whole thing seems like little more than an excuse to pad out the length of the game.
There are also some minor issues that you should be aware of going into the game. For one, boss encounters tend to be a fairly drastic difficulty spike compared to the tamer fights that precede them, and you should make a point to have at least one of your characters wearing a costume that can heal everyone. Another annoyance is that boss characters can’t be stunned no matter what, which is something that you have to learn through trial and error. You’re also unable to skip your special move animations inside of battle, which pads things out a bit and seems like completely unnecessary fluff after an hour or so. Apart from all that, the only other complaint I have is that some of the trees in the starting neighborhood have an annoying tendency to block the camera and make it difficult to see things, and the camera is fixed in one position, forcing you to deal with it.
The art design in Costume Quest is appropriately lighthearted and childlike, though inside of battle, things get a bit more serious-looking. The different is night and day, really, and it reminds me a bit of Legend of Legaia in how everything is cutesy outside of battle, then more detailed and threatening whenever you’re forced to fight. A large part of this has to do with your costumes dictating how you appear in battle; rather than looking like a kid wearing a costume, you instead appear as though you’re actually that thing. For example, wearing the “pumpkin” costume means being an evil-looking pumpkin monster inside of combat.
The cel-shaded aesthetic is pleasant, though the 3D models and design decisions occasionally let the whole thing down. The short video of candy being poured into your pail, for example, is of a decidedly low quality, while combat inexplicably takes place inside the confines of an ugly white border. Many of the adults answering the door are also incredibly ugly-looking, with the cel-shading breaking down and making them look incredibly strange.
The music is forgettable
The main music is appropriately Halloween-ish in how creepy it is, and there are one or two other tracks that also contribute to the mood of the game, but I was incredibly underwhelmed by the soundtrack as a whole. The arrangements throughout the game are sparse except for the bombastic battle music, and even that quickly gets old. Honestly, I don’t see the soundtrack impressing anyone unless they’re obsessed with B-rate orchestral music that has a cheap horror movie bent.
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