Thursday, February 13, 2014

Game Review - Foul Play (XBLA, 2013)

The beat 'em up genre is almost as old as gaming itself, usually featuring games with simple enough mechanics that you can pick it up, play for 15 minutes, and then move on - ideal for classic arcade action.  Foul Play takes that successful formula and gives it a wonderful aesthetic.  It's not groundbreaking, but it's a damn fine game.  Here's why:

Foul Play tells the tale of dapper Baron Dashforth, expert Daemonologist, and his capable apprentice Mr. Scampwick as they travel the turn-of-the-twentieth-century world investigating strange daemonic events.  While the plot isn't very complex, it gives the protagonists enough of a reason for witty banter and a variety of locales (ranging from Cairo to Atlantis) to be a great premise.  The script never had any real laugh-out-loud moments, but it definitely made me chuckle a few times, so I'd say it got the job done.

The real charm of the game comes from the fact that it's all presented as a stage show.  The player characters battle a variety of monsters (all of which are clearly people wearing costumes) in front of a cheering audience, giving the whole thing a rather unique ambiance.  As the set changes, you'll see feet moving props, and sometimes a fallen enemy will get up and run off stage.  You will occasionally see a stagehand making a mistake or goofing off, and although those moments are scripted, they make the game feel very lighthearted. It's a cute way of managing the overall art direction, and it hits the mark.

Perhaps the most fun feature of Foul Play is the fact that this play atmosphere translates into one of the gameplay's major mechanics.  Rather than having a health bar, the top of the screen prominently displays a meter gauging the audience's mood.  If they're enjoying the show because you're dispatching foes quickly with a variety of attacks, the meter will fill and you'll get point multipliers.  On the other hand, if your enemies manage to land a hit on you, the meter will drop, ending the stage if it falls all the way to zero.  This mood meter also serves as a level timer of sorts, as the audience's interest will naturally decay over time if you don't do something exciting.  Combine this mechanic with cheers and boos as things happen on stage and you have a style that is surprisingly well-integrated into the gameplay itself.

Due to this consistency of aesthetic and mechanics, Foul Play is generally a blast to play.

There are, of course, other mechanics - a combo system, new abilities that unlock as you level up, and special items that you can equip for extra effects - but I found that most of those other features were not nearly as entertaining as the core gameplay.  Similarly, while there are a number of nice audiovisual flourishes that pop up throughout the game, the underlying stage play and related sound effects drew my attention most of the time.  It's a pretty slick game, and while it has a handful of bells and whistles, it doesn't really need them.

My biggest complaint is overall difficulty.  The game itself can likely be completed by most players in 5-8 hours, which isn't terrible for a downloadable game, but I never really felt challenged by it.  Most stages do have a number of special challenges you can complete (completing all the challenges for one stage will net you one of those special equipable items), and getting the full 5-star score in some of the acts can require a few attempts, but even then, nothing really stood out as genuinely challenging.   As such, once you've completed the story and mastered all the challenges, there's not a whole lot of replay value.

Overall, Foul Play is a great addition to the beat 'em up genre.  With a quirky atmosphere and solid gameplay, it's good for half a dozen hours of entertainment, but its lack of longevity and relatively low difficulty lead me to think it won't be changing anyone's mind about the genre.  If you're interested in some classic arcade action in a beautiful package, though, Foul Play is definitely one to check out.

My Rating: 8/10 - great.