It took four years for Brütal Legend to claw its way out of development, four years of hard work, heavy metal, and publisher troubles - the latter eventually resulting in an angry legal showdown that was settled out of court. After all the hassle, you can hardly blame Tim Schafer and Double Fine for wanting to try something different.
The new plan, as revealed by Shafer at this year's Develop Conference in Brighton, is to put out a quartet of smaller games in relatively quick succession. The four titles were all born out of something called Amnesia Fortnight - a two-week period in which the Double Fine staff took a break from their usual work, and instead built their own mini-projects from scratch. When the company heard that Brütal Legend 2 was dead in the water, it turned its attention back to its four prototypes - and now, strangely enough, all of the projects have publishing deals.
It's a happy turn of events for the studio, and for us it should hopefully mean four helpings of Double Fine's typical creativity and wit, without a massive wait in-between. It's important to note that Schafer himself is taking more of a back-seat supervisor role, leaving each game to be directed by its original creator. The Monkey Island scribe has leant a hand on the writing for Costume Quest, but the project is being overseen by Tasha Harris - lead animator on Brütal Legend. The game itself is a light RPG romp set in an American suburban neighbourhood on Halloween, served with a knowing sense of humour that both compliments and contrasts with its cute, cel-shaded appearance.
The plot focuses on Wren and Reynold - a squabbling brother and sister tag-team who've just moved to a new area. At the start of the game the pair get a lecture from their parents, who calmly dictate that one of the kids must take charge as they head out for a night of trick-or-treating. Your first action in the game is to control the mother's arm as she decides who gets to wear the smug expression - whoever she picks will be the character you play as. Regardless of who you plump for, things swiftly take a turn for the worse: first your sibling embarrasses you by wearing an utterly rubbish costume, then they get snatched up by the inhabitant of the second house you visit. But don't reach for your pitchfork and your copy of News of the World - because the kidnapper isn't a dribbly nonce-in-waiting, but rather a dim-witted monster named Gus (Phew!).
As it turns out, the monsters are here to steal the town's sweets. Your brother/sister is dressed as a piece of candy, and Gus thought that they were some kind of novelty talking confectionery. Now you've got to get them back - not because you're worried about your sibling getting killed, but because if they do you'll get grounded. And that would be kind of a drag, non?
The adventure that ensues finds your kid of choice trawling the neighbourhood, attempting to follow the trail of the kidnapping nasties. Your first obstacle is a large and rather sinister-looking security gate that will only open once you've gathered sweets from all the remaining houses in the first area - but then since you don't really care about what happens to your brother/sister, you'd have done that anyway, right? Each home that you've yet to visit has lights running up the driveway, and these then blink off as soon as your candy-raid is complete. Sometimes you'll be greeted by a clueless adult who'll add to your tooth-rotting stash (sweets also function as in-game currency, incidentally), but on other occasions the door will be opened by a monster. In this case, it's time for a fight.
Costume Quest's rumbles take the form of turn-based battles, but with an added, rather lovable twist: in the main game Wren/Reynold and their peers will look like kids in costumes, but here the kids transform into gigantic, "real" versions of their effigies. The default costume, for example, sees you kitted out as a robot: the standard version of this outfit looks like a relatively simple (but still kinda cool) cardboard box, but during a fight you'll become a massive, Gundam-like mech. Your foes also grow in size, and the resulting clash looks a bit like a Godzilla-sized punch-up at a fancy dress party.
The combat itself is a straightforward, pared-down take on the normal RPG fare. You wait your turn, pick an enemy to target, and then push a button to initiate your basic attack. There's a simple timing mechanic to determine how much damage you do, ala the Gunblade in Final Fantasy 8, and after a few hits you'll power up your special ability - for the robot suit, this is a quick-but-deadly shower of missiles. If you're wearing a different costume, you'll get other abilities: the knight gives you a handy protective barrier, for example.
Ah yes - I'd not mentioned the outfit-changing thing, had I? As you progress through the story you'll find the blueprints for other costumes, and if you gather the three required elements you'll be able to take on a new look; as you recruit other kids to join your party, you'll also be able to swap into their togs. Aside from being quite neat in their own right, these new getups have powers that help you to explore the gameworld. The robot suit lets you zip about on some form of rocket-shoes, the knight has a shield that helps you to get past environmental hazards, and the Statue of Liberty... well, I don't know about that one as I ran out of play-time, just as I acquired it.
As it so happens, I acquired the Statue of Liberty gear as part of a side-quest - one that tasked the player with getting into a Patriotism party. There appear to be loads of diverting sub-assignments, and even within the course of half an hour's play I managed to notch up a sizeable list of things to do, all marked down in the notebook that acts as your organiser. There are also collectibles to find and combat buffs to acquire - the latter take the form of stickers. I've not played enough to know whether the combat gets hard enough to actually require buffs; the fights I sampled were very easy, but that might just be because it was early-on in the story.
To be frank, I doubt that anyone's expecting a hardcore, super-challenging strategy RPG from Costume Quest; charm, accessibility and humour are the keystones here. It really is pretty damn funny too. At one point you're invited to take part in an apple-bobbing mini-game, one in which much of the fruit is riddled with worms; the host NPC proudly explains that this is due to the fact that he only buys organic produce.
My only real criticism of Costume Quest is that it currently seems to lack a map function; the world gradually opens up as you fulfil certain demands, but I still found myself aimlessly wandering about at times, searching for the one house that I'd yet to visit. This issue may be fixed before release day, but even if it isn't then it's a fairly minor irritation. Costume Quest looks like it should be another original, high-quality offering from Double Fine - and with any luck this one won't get cancelled.
Costume Quest will be released this autumn on PSN and Xbox LIVE Arcade.