Double Fine Productions’ original Costume Quest was a pretty special game. Set on Halloween night, its cast of trick or treating children explored suburbia, collecting candy, transforming into fantastic versions of their makeshift costumes, and thwarting the plans of evil creatures set on ruining the holiday. The entire game was nostalgic in the best sense. Through clever, funny dialogue and wonderful audio/visual design, it encapsulated the magic of the one day a year when kids can most fully indulge their imaginations. That it did such a great job of capturing the spirit of Halloween helped make up for shallow role-playing game mechanics and repetitive mission structure. Costume Quest was a flawed gem: a wonderful idea unevenly executed. Its sequel is much the same.
Following a bit of tongue-in-cheek time travel plot set-up, Costume Quest 2 finds the first game’s twin siblings once again setting out to save Halloween. This time a candy-hating dentist, bent on banning tooth-ruining sugar, has to be defeated by travelling through portals capable of transporting the characters into the game’s past, present, and future. Though the particulars of its story are different, the sequel quickly takes on a feeling of undeniable familiarity to those who’ve played the first game. The twins—Wren and Reynold—once again carry out their mission as they did before: by solving simple puzzles, fighting monsters, and, of course, trick or treating at each door they come across.
The turn-based, RPG-style combat system featured in Costume Quest 2 is fairly basic stuff centred on choosing attacks and using cards (limited-use items) from a menu. The inclusion of rhythm-based button prompts and the special attacks attached to the game’s many costumes (a pterodactyl, ghost, and Cerberus-like hot dog were among my favourites) does a bit to introduce novelty to each battle, but little to help with the slow-paced encounters spread throughout Wren and Reynold’s journey. As was the case with the original, Costume Quest 2 is far more successful when it asks players to complete quests focused on exploring the environment. Each costume has its own unique ability (the ghost can turn invisible; the wizard can light up dark areas with a wand; the clown can honk a bicycle horn) that provide solutions to the intuitive environmental puzzles strewn throughout the game. Though the objectives are always straightforward and never difficult to complete, Costume Quest 2 is at its best when the repetitive role-playing combat system takes a backseat to its adventure-style exploration and dialogue.
A large part of this is due to the way in which the game uses its time travel premise to expand on its predecessor’s original suburban setting. As the story propels itself along, the cast finds itself navigating an alligator-filled Louisiana bayou, New Orleans-inspired French Quarter, and a dystopian future (complete with hover cars and neon lights) where the dentist’s plans have succeeded and robotic enemies enforce anti-Halloween laws. Each of these levels is filled with holiday cornerstones like glowing orange jack-o-lanterns, piñata-like candy corn, and drifting fog. It all comes together with a great score to make each moment spent in the game feel distinctly Halloween-y. As is to be expected of Double Fine, the writing is just as charming as the audio/visual design. Costume Quest 2 never takes itself seriously. While it plays its ridiculous plot just straightforward enough to make progressing through the adventure feel important, the characters populating its world—from strange monsters to human kids—are prone to wry jokes occasionally reflecting on the absurdity of their place in the game’s bizarre setting. It’s a consistently funny experience. Quests involving accompanying a jazz virtuoso with a clown horn or assisting with deliveries for underground, candy-serving speakeasies may not be challenging, but they’re presented with such imagination and wit that their shallow design is harder to notice.
Finding the right balance between simplicity and satisfyingly complex gameplay must have been an incredibly difficult task for Double Fine. The previous Costume Quest was streamlined to the point of repetition, but adding too much nuance to its sequel’s systems could have alienated players—young and old alike—who appreciated a holiday-themed game that was easy enough for any audience to enjoy. The addition of a few new battle mechanics doesn’t do a lot to bring extra depth to the dull combat and quest systems, but they may be just enough to make the process of exploring Costume Quest 2’s wonderfully realized setting and cast of characters a bit more enjoyable than before. Those who want truly engaging moment-to-moment gameplay may not discover much to like here. But anyone looking for a light-hearted and well-written Halloween game will be hard-pressed to find better.