Halloween is a very weird holiday. Unlike, say, Christmas or Thanksgiving, which we're happy to talk and think about once they've passed, the day after Halloween we want nothing to do with its trappings. The mummies, witches, and bats we thought were so much fun for the entire month of October are shrugged off and ignored the second we turn the calendar to November. This rather bizarre bias might prevent you from trying Costume Quest if you missed it when it was released back in October, which would be unfortunate. Its Halloween theme does feel a bit out of place this long after we've ditched our Jack-o-Lanterns, but it's a wonderfully witty little turn-based RPG that captures the spirit of childhood without being overly sentimental or needlessly nostalgic.
You've only been trick or treating with your twin sibling (who is embarrassingly dressed as a piece of candy corn) for a few minutes when he (or she, depending on the character you chose at the beginning) is kidnapped by monsters looking to grab all the candy in town. Knowing that your parents would be seriously bent if you came home alone (even if you are their favorite), you decide to stage a rescue, but first you must finish trick or treating. Each area has a certain number of houses you have to visit before you can move on to the next location. Knock on the door and you'll either be rewarded with a fistful of candy, which acts as the game's currency, or a monster will open the door and you'll get in a fight.
Combat is turn based and stripped down to the barest of bones. The costumes you collect by finding patterns and building materials grant different special abilities in battle to be used in conjunction with that outfit's basic attack. You can also equip Battle Stamps that will provide buffs like increased defense or automatic counterattack, but don't expect to do a lot of inventory management. You pick a costume, get in a fight, and wait your turn to do what the on-screen instructions tell you. Complex, this is not. But what Costume Quest lacks in depth it more than makes up for with style. The different costumes' abilities are fantastically over the top, an offensive onslaught that comes straight from a kid's imagination. The monsters are all pretty much the same - as you advance through the game, they just do more damage - but swapping out different costumes and enjoying the absurdity of their special moves keeps the combat entertaining, even if it is the same thing over and over again.
There are plenty of quests to complete in between fights, such as trading candy-themed cards with neighborhood kids, finding new costumes, bobbing for apples, and winning a costume contest at the mall. They pretty much all fall into the fetch category in one way or another; explore your surroundings as much as possible (something you'll want to do anyway) and you should have no trouble ticking off every last quest on your list.
The first batch of DLC, Grubbins on Ice plays out the same as Costume Quest, just covered in snow and celebrating Yeti Fest instead of Halloween. The set-up is even similar: This time, it's your friend Lucy who's been kidnapped, and she's been spirited away to Repugia, where the monsters are from. Once you hop through the portal after her, it's time for more trick or treating, more turn-based combat, more Battle Stamps, and more trading cards. It's a bit on the short side, but the new costumes you can collect are some of the best in the game, so it's worth pursuing.
Neither Costume Quest nor Grubbins on Ice are going to tax your RPG skills all that much. You can't really help but level up enough to get you past the next batch of Repugians, and a few key Battle Stamps (splash damage, counterattack) are all you need to ensure constant victory, so you don't even really need to track down all the candy if you don't want to. But stat management and inventory allocation aren't really the point of Costume Quest - the quest itself is.
Bottom Line: The game perfectly recaptures that time in our lives when we're still too young to know how much we don't know, and still manage to believe that pinning a towel to our shirts makes us a superhero. The time when bravado counts for more than experience and candy can fix just about anything. It's adorable, but not cutesy, oozing with charm and a fantastic sense of humor.
Recommendation: If you're looking for a pleasant afternoon's diversion, get it. You'll come away with a smile on your face and several hours of genuinely fun RPG gameplay under your belt.
This review is based on the XBLA version of the game.
Game: Costume Quest: Grubbins on Ice
Release Date: October 19th, 2010 (PSN); October 20th, 2010 (XBLA)
Platform: PSN, XBLA
Available from: Xbox.com
Susan Arendt appreciates Wren's approach to the holidays.