You wait years for a game that uses a theatrical backdrop as a presentational concept, and then two come along at once. Alongside the PS3’s Puppeteer, Foul Play uses the aesthetics of a constantly changing stage show to display it’s two-dimensional side scrolling beat-em up action. Brought to XBLA and Steam by mobile and browser developer Mediatonic, it is a strong example of it’s genre, hiding a surprisingly demanding set of fighting mechanics underneath it’s sharp and soft casual artwork that elevates it above similar games of it’s ilk.
The game opens with the main character of Horatio Dashworth, a quintessential Victorian gentleman, and renowned vanquisher of monsters, sitting by his elegant fireside ready to tell the captivated audience about his amazing demon hunting adventures. Drawn in a two-dimensional, style with thick outlines and solid colours, the art direction is charmingly simple throughout. As the opening acts unfold, and Dashworth embarks on his expeditions, stagehands change the scenery, actors don different costumes, becoming a variety of monsters and the effect is charming, creating a light-hearted and humorous tone that is maintained as the game progresses, with the tongue-in-cheek sustained all the way through Dashworth’s quest.
The game is split into 5 separate plays each with five acts. Further to this, each act has three challenges, ranging from such things as performing 4 piledrivers, to ensuring you leave a group leader until last, encouraged by members of the audience. These challenges add to a star rating at the end of each act, and despite a ‘challenge failed’ text prompt and an audience booing sound effect, given to really hammer your ineptitude home, it never feels punitive if you fail, rather emboldens you to mix up your play.
This in reinforced by the fact that Dashworth’s life bar is represented by the audience mood. String together lengthy combos and the watching crowd become thrilled by your exploits. Stick with simple hits, and low numbered combinations of blows on your foes, and the audience will get restless and boo, causing your meter to go down. Get hit when the meter is at it’s lowest, and it’s back to the previous checkpoint. It’s a great system, one that encourages variety in your play, and demands you quite literally show off you complete move set.
The action, shifting via prop and background changes as stagehands run around in the background, takes place in a variety of location, from the desert of Egypt to the Somerset countryside, all the way to the depths of Hell. As well as a variety of locations, enemies also come in a lot of variety, from quick and agile, to large and strong, aerial and area of effect. All are humorously the same actors wearing costumes, and its to the credit of the game’s frantic action, and that of the art direction, that once the fighting begins, you soon forget this and treat each enemy as a genuine monster, despite the fact you are facing people in costumes.
Many levels have boss battles, something with which I personally have a problem. The first time a boss morphed into a second form for Dashworth to contend, I groaned inside fearing that this most cliched and unwelcome of game mechanics was rearing its head. Although a little distasteful, the bosses don’t outstay their welcome, and are never punishingly difficult.
After most levels, you take part in an encore, where you have to bash as many enemies as possible. Gone are usual enemy behaviors, just a chance to practice your moves and boost your score. Moves are slowly doled out to the player as they progress. Initially, Dashworth has the standard x hit move, but this is soon augmented by parries, which become the key to survival. Similar to the Arkham games, enemies give a clear signal when they intend to attack and the player must learn to read these cues and counter not just with hits but throws, piledrivers and combo counters. It creates a real sense of flow and concentration in combat, even if the parry to combo move can be overly relied upon, as there appears to be no way to break your move once mid animation. Nevertheless, combat is always frantic and fun, if sometimes also a little exhausting, leaving your fingers a little overworked and crying out for a rest.
It is a game best played in short bursts. Some of the levels can go on a little too long, the action can get repetitive, but only really if experienced in long sessions. Occasionally a level would drag on a little too long and send another seemingly needless wave of enemies at you but these instances are few and far between.
Special mention must be made of the music. Rousing is the best word to describe it. An orchestral backbone punctuate by a variety of instruments such as screeching electric guitars as the level and the environment sees fit; the music compliments and drives the action well. It is also worth mentioning that the game is playable in couch co-op, and whilst the option is there, it doesn’t feel like it is necessary to progress, like other recent games of this ilk. It is perfectly playable in single player, and the option of another player is welcome.
Overall, Foul Play is a little gem of an XBLA game, worth downloading if this is a genre you have any interest in, and surprisingly better than it has any right to be. With very little fanfare, and minimal marketing, it is a shame this has seemingly come and gone with little attention, as it shows a developer becoming more ambitious and inventive as they grow. Their next project will be worth keeping an eye on.
MLG Rating: 8/10 Format: Xbox 360 / PC Release Date: 18/09/2013
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a copy of Foul Play for review purposes. The title was reviewed over the course of 7 days on a Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.