Foul Play Review
‘Always expect Foul Play’, asserts our protagonist, daemon hunter extraordinaire, Sebastian Dashforth. Aided by trusty chimney sweep sidekick Scampwick, our hero must take up the gauntlet and follow in his Father’s footsteps to rid the world of its daemonic ills, one gothic literary reference at a time. There are thrills, spills, obscenely high combos, and all that coupled with a pleasing aesthetic had me feeling very smug with myself when the final percent of this 1.97GB download fell off the bar. It was time to take to the stage, eyes squinting against the limelight, and roll up the old sleeves for some fisticuffs in this lovingly crafted arcade title that its creators, Mediatonic, have branded ‘a showstopping Theatre Brawler’.
Developer hyperbole aside there’s an undeniable sense of je ne sais quoi to this game, something mysterious, something oddly and unexpectedly atmospheric for one so far removed from the realms of the AAA blockbusters, the billion-dollar budgets and the writhing orgy that is the PR and marketing world for the games sector. Foul Play has sufficed to remind me that games needn’t strive towards reality, nor try to compete with the existing market, all they need be is fun to play in their own right, and for reminding me of that Foul Play gets a standing ovation from this reviewer. Let’s have a peek behind the red curtains and see how and why.
The visual style undoubtedly deserves a mention, with its 2D sprites cascading forth from every imaginable orifice of the stage and the rafters. There’s an innocence to the childlike palette which contrasts eerily with the gothic themes and a vitality to the title’s general presentation. The backdrops are beautifully crafted and these alone are enough to prevent Foul Play from descending into an exercise in grinding, button-mashing drudgery.
Particularly well-made levels include a depiction of the gates of hell itself, which while a far cry from what’s been shown by the likes of Dante’s Inferno et. al. carries a distinct air of personality and pizzazz which manage to conceal the simplicity and limitations of the side-scrolling genre. Spotlighting and shadows in the modest cutscenes fulfil their role in creating drama, and refocus your attention on the brief moments of plot narrative in between the chaos that comprises the bulk of the gameplay.
Though the story is far from original with one foot in European folklore, the other in a library full of gothic literature, and a hand in the brain of a steampunk obsessive, Foul Play is a patchwork game of narrative Twister, and with each spin of the wheel landing you in a set with a completely different set-theme to the last, dullness is avoided. Perhaps that is the genius of the strange design quirk of the game: the fact that the whole story is not intended to be actually happening, rather being played out by actors on a stage. This allows for a potentially infinite range of settings and gameplay moments without them having to bear the limitations of the story. Whilst I don’t fully understand the necessity of the ‘theatre’ aspect, this is undoubtedly a positive it allows for. There’s plenty of back story available through the unlocks too, but with these so far removed from the gratuitous madness of the main game they feel more than a little redundant.
It’s hard to imagine a more bloated and oversubscribed genre than the side-scrolling brawler, it’s tried and tested and there’s little excuse to fail in treading a path along which so many developers have journeyed before. Happily enough, Foul Play steers clear of the abyss on this one and offers satisfactory button-mashing, skull-bashing, idiotic fun to sate even the most hardened of unimaginative gamers. Suffice it to say that my thumbs had more than a little twitch to them by the end, which normally would hardly warrant mention but in this genre is surely a box to be ticked.
The functionality of the parry and combo system is sound and it’s perfectly feasible to have some astronomical digits rolling up in terms full of praise as you decimate the forces of evil time and time again. The large combos are satisfying and the sense of hitting your stride once you get into the rhythm is verging on fulfilling. They say that mastery is one of the buttons that moves us, and as the game rewards you with praise and gold stars in abundance at every turn, silent, textual cries of ‘stunning piledriver’ and ‘stage crasher’ at every turn, it’s hard not to feel the pinkish hue in the cheeks and curl of the lips that accompanies smug self-satisfaction.
There’s a bountiful Co-op mode on offer, which is Foul Play’s ace up the sleeve. Where the relentless (and sometimes repetitive) battering of opponent after opponent might become tiresome without someone to share in the experience, with a friend present competitive cooperation abounds as combos get higher and higher and egos get more swollen or bruised depending on who’s brought the most agile pair of thumbs to the party.
There are, however, some areas where improvements feel sorely missed. For instance in the Co-op, which is a fundamentally important cog in the Foul Play entertainment machine, jumping in and out mid level is impossible and the signing in process, requiring a profile for each player, is needlessly cumbersome and bizarrely seems to preclude the ability to play as guest which is an exercise in stupidity on the developer’s part. Something like this would be so simple to include it’s beyond me how this got past the testers, though perhaps they were so won over by the charming fairytale they didn’t want to say anything about it in their feedback. Or perhaps their heads popped in frustration on falling short of the x200 combo for the umpteenth time…I suppose well never know though, however this does feel like a foolishly neglected feature and one that would have earned the title some serious brownie points.
Also worth noting in the Co-op is how the screen can become a little too jumbled, perhaps a larger stage would have improved playability here. Almost paradoxically, another complaint is how the number of enemies when playing with a friend doesn’t seem to increase compared to solo play, which seems to make achieving the challenges the game sets you more difficult, regardless of how efficiently you, as the dynamic duo themselves, are dispatching of your quarry.
Charming as the game is, some elaboration on the utterly minimalistic voice acting wouldn’t have gone amiss. There are a few grunts and guffaws, and a few ‘hai-yah’s here and there. Most of the cutscene dialogue, which is all that segments the brawling, relies on text alone, which in the heat of battle can be mighty tempting to gloss over, particularly when you know there’s an outrageous hodge-podge of mythology and horror in boss form waiting just a few metres to the right of the screen. Had Mediatonic gone the extra mile here, Dashforth and Scampwick would’ve trodden the boards with far more character value and transcended being mere vectors of destruction, communicating button presses of X and Y straight into the faces of your foes, they might’ve become humorous, instead of each silently told joke rippling away into irrelevance. It would also have lent some gravitas to the whole saving Daddy quest Dashworth chases.
I must admit more than a little confusion regarding the choice of the developers to make Foul Play its ‘Theatre Brawler’. Barring any publicity or marketing opportunities I can see no need for this in the game, the story could be told more directly with the same efficacy, and whilst the novelty of the props and sets moving, the little stagehands perpetually dropping things and cocking up and the excitement of a fanatically joyous crowd perhaps means something, it still all feels a little superfluous, the mood-o-meter reflecting the crowd’s thoughts being in effect no different from the health meter it so awkwardly and ostentatiously replaces. However, my point about how this angle adds to the versatility of the potential plotlines (read possible, future, paid in-game content and brand me a cynic), still stands.
Despite the flaws, there’s little to really shout about against Foul Play. It’s reasonably imaginative; the writing is humorous, if only mildly so. The characters are stock, but in a satirical sense, so we can let that one fly and there is a great range of enemies, even if they are all pretty much the same when it comes to the crunch. The scenery is lively and engaging for when the mind wanders, and there’s button-bashing aplenty.
Unlockable content pokes its head through the trapdoor to extend the game’s lifespan, and completionists and achievement hunters may enjoy the range of both functional and purely aesthetic extras available, though as a unit, Foul Play falls a little short of justifying its £9.99 price tag, offering perhaps two and a half hours of play for those who aren’t interested in going back through to get at the fluff, and a game shouldn’t rely on features such as these to keep players coming back. Perhaps there could’ve been a director mode or something that made full use of the theatre gimmick.
But as I said, a standing ovation all round, and for the negatives I’m nitpicking. This is not genre-defining, groundbreaking or any of the clichéd taglines game boxes seem to have emblazoned over every available inch these days, this is simply good fun, and so now, briefly and in word form, I’ll stand. And then I’ll clap.