With Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas coming, we’re about to experience a crush of holiday programming. From beloved favorites like the “Peanuts” specials to more forgettable fare like that creepy “Polar Express” movie featuring a zombie Tom Hanks, you’ll find no shortage of seasonal TV shows and movies in the coming weeks.
But you won’t find much in the way of holiday-themed video games, a shortage Tasha Harris addresses with her downloadable game “Costume Quest” (rated E10+, $15 for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3).
“Costume Quest,” which went on sale this week, is the latest offering from Double Fine Productions, the San Francisco studio founded by Sonoma native Tim Schafer. After Electronic Arts told Schafer and Co. it wouldn’t be funding a sequel to last year’s “Brütal Legend” [review] the studio has retrenched to focus on smaller, downloadable titles.
“Costume Quest” is the first to market of four games dreamed up by Double Fine staffers during a period when “Brütal Legend” was in limbo because of a dispute between Activision and EA over who owned the rights to publish the heavy-metal opus.
While work on “Costume Quest” began in earnest a year ago, it’s an idea Harris has had in her head since she was a kid.
“All kids, at least all American kids, have fond feelings about Halloween,” Harris said, adding that she’d long hoped “no one else would make a Halloween game before I did.”
The game, which plays a lot like classic early-’90s role-playing games like “Final Fantasy IV,” features a pair of fraternal twins, Wren and Reynold, who’ve recently moved into a suburban neighborhood inspired by Harris’ childhood in the San Fernando Valley and the movie “Edward Scissorhands.”
Shortly after their mom and dad send the siblings out trick-or-treating, one is kidnapped by a candy-stealing monster. (At the start of the game, you choose whether to play as Wren or her brother. The one you don’t select is the one who gets taken.) From there, you’re on a quest to find your sibling so your parents don’t ground you for losing him or her.
During your search, you’ll traverse three separate levels — the suburb, a mall and a rural village.
“Halloween started in Irish and Scottish villages, so we wanted to have something similar to that,” Harris explained.
Along the way, you’ll acquire companions and a variety of costumes that bestow special powers. The robot costume you start out with has wheelie skates, for example. In battles, each kid transforms into a giant avatar with abilities befitting his or her costume. The Statue of Liberty shoots flames from her torch, while the knight can use his shield to protect squadmates.
In each level, you’ll travel from stop to stop trick-or-treating. Sometimes, you’ll get candy. At others, a monster will answer the door and you’ll have to fight. The game plays with this tension by featuring a little drum roll just before the door opens.
Though the game begins with Wren and Reynold bickering, it’s obviously a paean to love-hate sibling relationships. In my playthrough as Wren, she starts out annoyed with Reynold and tries to pretend her main motivation is to avoid being grounded. Everett, the first companion she meets, however, sees through the charade.
Harris drew plenty from her own experiences with her sister while making the game.
“I was more introverted, and my sister would want to have my attention,” Harris said.
Befitting an adventure starring children, Wren/Reynold and friends can see the marauding monsters, while adults can’t.
“Adults have a problem accepting when strange things happen,” Schafer said.
You can collect patterns for about a dozen costumes. For each one, you’ll have to gather the components needed to assemble each get-up. Certain costumes will be needed to access particular areas in the game. The knight’s shield, for example, can be used to keep the other characters safe from falling water, the bane of cardboard costumes.
Throughout, “Costume Quest,” created by a team of about 15 Double Fine staffers, features the whimsy and sharp dialogue that have become the hallmark of Schafer’s games. (Though “Costume Quest” is very much Harris’ baby, Schafer had input into its creation.) Schafer said the company is starting to see the benefits of his studio’s track record now that it’s put out a couple of games, with “Brütal Legend” having sold more than a million copies.
“We have a lot of loyal fans who communicate through (doublefine.com),” Schafer said. “Some of the have been around since (Schafer’s days at) LucasArts, some since ‘Psychonauts.’”
I’ll have a review of the game up by the weekend.