Costume Quest was the first title from Double Fine Studios created during the company’s “Amnesia Fortnight”, a period where the development team split into groups and spent two weeks working on prototypes for small, original games. Tasha Harris, lead animator for the studio at the time, envisioned a game that would rekindle the nostalgic joy of experiencing Halloween as a child, the simple pleasure of dressing up and trying to get as much candy as possible. Impressed with the concept, Tim Schafer put it into production. During development, Harris further fleshed out the game as an homage to the RPGs she enjoyed growing up.

 

When I first played Costume Quest in 2010 I found it quite charming, with considerable replay value that was greatly enhanced with the downloadable expansion Grubbins on Ice. It was far from perfect, but I personally considered it one of the underrated hidden gems of the year. In 2013 I learned that a sequel was in development which would be published by Midnight City. I was quite pleased, but also hesitant. By this point Harris had left Double Fine to return to Pixar. Without the original lead spearheading development, I was worried the new game would lack the creative spark that had been present in its predecessor. Now that I’ve completed the game, I see that I had no cause for concern. Costume Quest 2 may not be better than the first Costume Quest, but it’s just as enjoyable.

Having escaped from Repugia, twins Wren and Reynold managed to find an interdimensional portal that was able to return them to their home world. By a stroke of luck, the space-time distortion returned them to Auburn Pines on Halloween night. The siblings are more than happy to pig out on candy and relax after their dangerous exploits. Before they can gorge, however, a new threat is unleashed upon their suburb. Doctor Orel White, the local dentist, has made a deal with Kronoculus, a wizard capable of manipulating time. Using the sorcerer’s power, Dr. White travels into the past to retrieve a talisman which can open the gate separating the human world from Repugia. Monsters once again prowl the streets, yet this time their appearance causes another strange occurrence – all candy, costumes, everything connected to Halloween fades from existence.

Shocked by the loss of their treats, Wren and Reynold barely have time to react before they’re beckoned to another time portal. Travelling through the vortex they travel twenty years into the future to meet with the adult counterparts of their friends Edmund and Lucy, now married to one another. They explain that Dr. White used the power of the talisman to completely eliminate Halloween. He’s transformed the world into a dystopian dental dictatorship where he reigns supreme, commanding a legion of Repugians to oppress humanity. If the twins are to have any chance of freeing everyone from Dr. White’s rule and bringing back their favorite holiday, they’ll need to recover the talisman and fix the timeline – not the simplest task when an army of monsters is determined to stop them at all costs.

Tasha Harris was heavily inspired by Earthbound (Mother 2) while working on the first Costume Quest, as shown by the clever writing and quirky humor present in the game. Gabe Miller, the new project lead and head writer, applied that same comedic touch to Costume Quest 2 without any drop in quality. There’s an abundance of witty dialogue and absurd scenarios, some of my favorites being:

  • A musical duel against a kid in a Devil costume named Bub who plays fiddle while standing on a tree stump.
  • Paying a mechanic $50 to repair a broken hydrofoil, only to have him give the kids an oar, taking the full payment as $20 for the oar and $30 for labor.
  • Various comments made about the Candy Corn costume when it must pass its turn in the combat attack phase, such as “Candy Corn is an enigma wrapped in a delicious shell,” and “Candy Corn is just its stage name.”
  • A tourist to the bayou who wonders if the local witches sell crafts. (It’s a cheap pun, but I liked it.)
  • A Grubbin guard bitterly muttering that his superiors see him only as a mindless character that wants to idle in the same place all day (the closest the game gets to breaking the fourth wall.)
  • A simple-minded Trowbog named Mongo who desperately craves candy, leading to the obvious Blazing Saddles reference.

 

Also like Earthbound, more serious, personal issues are intertwined with the childlike imaginative concepts and surreal humor. The first game placed a strong emphasis on familial bonds, mainly those between siblings. In the sequel, the prevailing theme is the importance of allowing children to fully enjoy the simple pleasures of childhood. Dr. White was twisted into the bitter man the twins must fight against because of an overbearing mother who refused to let him go trick-or-treating. She was obsessed with oral hygiene, and refused to let him have any candy out of the paranoid fear that it would ruin his teeth. Years of being denied an opportunity to celebrate Halloween twisted him to the point where he became fixated on eliminating the holiday, making all other children suffer like he did, even though it was justified as a noble deed in the name of dentistry.

 

An evil dentist determined to rid the world of candy may seem better suited to a children’s cartoon, but looking deeper at the conflict reveals some darker undertones. In the twisted future, children are forcibly re-educated to hate everything related to Halloween, brainwashed to the point of shunning anything they’d normally consider fun. Dr. White himself bears many emotional scars that manifest in ways other than his totalitarian rule. It can be considered a warning about the dangers of forcing children to grow up before they’re mature; denying them a joyous youth can drastically affect their development.

Introducing time travel as a narrative device always presents the risk of plot holes, though for the most part the game manages to avoid paradoxes. Early in the game it’s never explained how the future versions of Everett and Lucy manage to obtain Kronoculus’ medallion and create their own time portals. After defeating the wizard for the first time, it’s revealed that the twins buried it in the spot where Everett’s house would be built, then asked Monty to share this information in the future, much like Doc Brown’s letter to Marty in Back to the Future Part II. However, the time holes aren’t used as well as they could have been. Their only purpose is to travel between time periods as the story dictates. Aside from the previously mentioned example and one side-quest late in the game, there are no puzzles or challenges that require altering something in the past to bypass an obstacle in the future. It was a wasted opportunity, a surprising one considering Double Fine previously used this mechanic in The Cave.

While the game never gets too involved in the logistics of time travel to become excessively confusing, there are still some aspects that are never clearly explained. How are the central characters able to retain their memories of what the timeline was like before Dr. White altered history? For that matter, how did Dr. White learn of Repugia and Kronoculus? I don’t know if the writers simply couldn’t come up with a rational explanation or they felt providing answers wasn’t necessary, but I would have appreciated some clarification.

Costume Quest 2, like the original, is a fairly basic RPG. Fitting the Halloween theme, the majority of areas visited can only be left after trick-or-treating at every house to get enough candy to progress, either by opening a new path or gaining access to the boss of the region. While such a mundane action would seem to become repetitive quickly, there’s an element of unpredictability that keeps it engaging. While some houses are inhabited by regular people, others have been invaded by Repugians or Kronies (servants of Kronoculus) that will attack upon opening the door. The constant threat that any house approached could prompt a battle is a small touch, but it keeps the gameplay engaging. Additionally there are a few simple sidequests, usually fetch quests or games of hide-and-seek, which can be completed to quickly gain experience or obtain a useful item.

The central hook of the game is acquiring new costumes to provide advantages in combat and progress through each area. Most of the outfits are split into pieces that must all be gathered along with a design plan to put it together. With the exception of the Candy Corn, which can only defend, each costume has its own unique attack and special move, with abilities ranging from attacking every enemy on the field, to restoring health, to inflicting status ailments. Their use in the overworld is usually to bypass environmental obstacles or complete sidequests – the Clown’s horn is needed to partake in musical challenges, the Pharaoh’s staff can travel along ziplines, and Thomas Jefferson allows players to negotiate with stubborn NPCs. There are two hidden costumes, a Werewolf and Solar System, which can only be obtained by completing optional sidequests. They require some effort to find and don’t have any overworld powers, but since they have some of the most powerful normal and special attacks in combat, they’re well worth seeking out.

One great improvement to the costume system is the use of roller skates for fast travel and moving up ramps. In the first game, the skates were only relegated to the Robot outfit. Now they’re a permanently equipped item which can be used whenever it’s necessary. While I appreciated this change, it was while using it that I came upon one of the game’s most glaring flaws. I purchased the PC version of Costume Quest 2 from Steam because I wanted to play it as soon as possible, and I found it was not well optimized for a mouse and keyboard controls. Having movement restricted to the arrow keys makes turning at high speeds a chore, and toggling through the various keys to swap costumes between characters became a chore. Thankfully there is an option to use an Xbox controller, which provides for much smoother gameplay.

Combat is the only aspect that’s changed significantly between entries. As before, all battles are turn-based with each player character allowed to perform an action before enemies can react. Players can attack monsters on the overworld if they manage to attack from behind, which will slightly reduce the health of every foe in the fight. Each attack builds up a meter that, when full, will unleash the special attack unique to that costume. These moves are always prefaced with a short unskippable cutscene like the summons in later Final Fantasy games, which can drag out the battles if they’re used frequently. After finishing a battle, health can be replenished by eating candy or drinking from a fountain. It’s better to seek out the fountains not only to stockpile much candy as possible for buying Creepy Treats cards and costume upgrades, but also because they serve as save points.

 

Attacks and defense once again rely on timed button presses to increase their efficacy, but the commands no longer vary depending on the costume worn. Every opportunity for a timed action is now represented by a cursor appearing over the head of the player character or enemy. Hitting the designated button when the indicator lines up with the cursor (at the moment of impact) will increase the damage dealt or decrease damage received. If executed when the cursors are almost perfectly aligned, there will be an opportunity to land a second attack or inflict some damage on an enemy while defending.

 

Regretfully, action commands are another area where keyboard controls are a hindrance. It is very difficult to get the timing down as there always seems to be some lag between hitting the key and triggering a response. It got to the point where as soon as I selected my attack I would just keep rapidly tapping the key and hope it would register at the right moment. Once the advanced moves were introduced, this had to be abandoned because it would ruin any chance at landing a special attack. Again, this is why I recommend using a controller.

Another change to combat is a strength/weakness system. Every enemy will fall into one of three classifications: Magic, Monster, and Tech. Each costume is strong against one type and weak against a second, so a balanced lineup for each battle will have a trio of costumes that have advantages against all three enemy types and ideally none sharing the same weakness. Finally, Battle Stamps have been eliminated. Creepy Treat cards, which were optional collectibles in the first game, are now used as items to provide various status effects or rewards after completing a fight. A maximum of three cards can be held at one time, allowing players to experiment with various combinations. However, after each use the card becomes inert until a specific number of battles passes.

The cel-shaded visuals were heavily influenced by The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, most obviously in the wide, expressive, cat-like eyes on most of the characters. Multiple time periods allow for a greater variety of level design, from the murky bayous and New Orleanian architecture of the French Quarter in the past to the sterile metallic structures plastered with Communist propaganda modified to promote dentistry of Dr. White’s depressing future. Enemy models have also been expanded upon with new types (Kronies) and new classifications (cyborgs). The color palette, appropriately, relies heavily on deep shades with an abundance of oranges, blacks, violets and grays. Peter McConnell returned to score the soundtrack, and while the music is well composed and atmospheric, none of the tracks really stood out to me aside from the jazz in the French Quarter.

 

Aside from issues with PC controls, there’s hardly anything wrong with Costume Quest 2. It has everything that made the first Costume Quest so endearing: humor, originality, simple yet enjoyable gameplay, and an overall experience that evokes childhood fun. Several critics have complained that the game is too easy, and while I can’t disagree with that assessment, I think they’re focusing on a nonessential issue. Costume Quest isn’t about providing a challenge; it’s about rekindling the magic of Halloween we all experienced when we were younger, and it does an incredible job.

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