Steam, Xbox Live Arcade
Review based on Xbox Live Arcade version
Release Date: September 18th, 2013
Set before and shortly after the nineteen hundreds in London, England, Foul Play is the portrayal of the life and times of a demonologist named Baron Dashworth, where he is cast as himself alongside his sidekick Scampwick, recounting tales of the past as they lead up to a modern day reveal. Each Play has its own little story about how he heard of mysterious goings on elsewhere, and how the two went and investigated to put a stop it, each time finding a clue to someone in the Baron’s past. From exploring the Middle East to battling in Atlantis, each situation involves some kind of higher daemon that must be slain by the end of the play before venturing straight into Hell.
The play itself, however, is handled rather tongue-in-cheek. The crowd at the sold out performance cheers you on, sometimes having a little boy chime in with praise as Dashworth and Scampwick, who once in a while will acknowledge him, drawing off his excitement to add a little improvisation to their lines to clearly show their appreciation. In the middle east, one of the zombies forgets its lines, and the stage hand runs out with the script to remind him. That stage hand also appears as the janitor, and is seen almost everywhere, intentionally or not. He’ll move some set pieces around, or be caught sweeping up too late, as well as just talking o one of the extras. It’s far from brilliant, but little amateur actor moments like the performances a lot more believable, even though some dialogue makes you realize that not every play went as well as the story is makes it out to be.
The audio here isn’t really anything amazing, often being modernized effects of you might find on an early home console from the eighties or nineties. Even the soundtrack’s keyboard performances sometimes comes off as though run through a midi synthesizer, setting the glorious or dismal tones well in a very familiar manner for long time gamers. This may sound odd, but it helps capture the spirit of a side-scrolling beat-’em-up title like this. However, a little more dialogue for a title like this would have been nice, other than random groans to represent speech, and a nasal “Kill!” being shouted by one of the extras from time to time. Many of these cat members are in full make-up or costumes to look like the creatures or daemons the Baron’s tale is about.
While the audio is often simple and effective, the graphics are stunning and capture the gritty early nineteen hundreds era perfectly. The set pieces are often quite beautiful in their simplicity, perfectly simulating the handy work of a stage crew, though sometimes in more of a modern era at times due to some of the background mechanisms you can see between changing pieces. But, the region in each play stands out with it’s own distinctive look, which often changes the deeper into it you get, such as from going from a bleak underwater battle to the golden and robotic world of Atlantis. The background to Hell at the last play is a bit too much, but in a simple theatrical stand point, it makes sense.
The visuals will remind players of the rich, colorful games The Behemoth put together. Even the way the gameplay is, as well as story, will make you wish that development group had done this with their recent Battleblock Teater, though a little less frustrating as this title can be. While the controls handle well, the many hordes do pose a problem. You can roll out of the way, but if an enemy is attacking you have the option to parry and pull off a special combo. But, if two or more are attacking at the same time, it won’t always block more than one, causing you to take a hit anyway. This makes the game even more difficult than it needs to be, especially when you just randomly seem to be hit, even if an enemy is not attacking. Throw in flying enemies you have a hard time making contact with, as well as larger enemies that are a pain to parry when slammed by smaller ones, and it becomes pure madness.
Foul Play also relies on the crowd’s reaction when it comes to determining the quality of the play and your score, but also your health. Instead of a life bar, you have a mood meter that is determined by how well you do and the higher combos you pull off, such as never dropping the meter for a “perfect scene,” earning you more points and an increase in the mood meter. When the crowd loses interest, you lose the act. This meter is also affected by completing the three challenges that each act of the play has, which lead to unlocking charms you can apply to add perks to your character, as well as a few that act as “double team” bonuses when Dashworth and Scampwick wear them in multiplayer co-op. With a simple level select screen, it’s easy to go back and complete challenges you missed, or go back and try to get that five-star performance you missed.
On top of all this, you can earn levels to unlock special combos or additional moves. This feature stops at level twelve, which leaves a good or two more plays where you’re already maxed out. But, some of these unlocks do come in handy, when battling flying enemies, so peaking too early is more of a perk here. Having the bar set to fifteen definitely would have helped to make the remaining plays a little more challenging and enjoyable instead of just leaving you to power through to the subtle twist at the end with no real chance for improvement. By the time you reach the final boss of the game, you’re guaranteed to be strong enough to take it out by yourself, but the question is whether the button mashing approach you’ll more than likely end up using most of the game will hold up with how insanely long that fight is. Most of the combos you can execute when parrying smaller enemies really don’t affect the bigger bosses at the end of the final act of each play, save for the end game boss, so there’s no real need to learn more than parry and spam light attack to get the most hits in with the least chance of being hit.
Given the basic format of the game, Foul Play can definitely become a bit tedious and boring. When battling a horde of enemies, chances are good you’ll be spamming away, which will hurt your hands and arms after a while. If this doesn’t start to make you loose a little interest after a while, then the general pacing of battle scene, brief narrative, repeat, over the normal course of a fifteen to twenty minute acts will become a bit dull. Thankfully, this leaves the title at a respectable five, six hours from start to finish, leaving you to clean-up previous acts, plays, and achievements.
So, what it all boils down to is essentially a basic game of rinse and repeat. You spam some enemies, you get a bit of story, you spam some more enemies, get a little more story, and repeat until you reach the end of the act where a possible boss fight will ensue. With nearly every act and play set up like this, things do become mundane after a while. The story and graphics, however, are actually really enjoyable, and the concept of the life bar depending completely on your performance is an ingenious twist. Control issues and minimal audio aside, Foul Play is a fun and rather unique take on modern side-scrolling gaming. If you have some spare money and time to kill this weekend, why not pick this one up and spend a night or two slaying some daemons in jolly ol’ London by yourself, or with a friend for extra enjoyment.
Digital review copy of this title provided by Mastertronic Group.