Foul Play – Preview

Title   Foul Play
Developer  Mediatonic
Publisher  Devolver Digital
Platform  Windows PC, Xbox 360 (Previewed)
Genre  Side-Scrolling Beat-'Em'Up
Release Date  18th September 2013
Official Site

Toward the swan-song of his career, William Shakespeare famously mused that “all the world’s a stage”, with everybody involved naught but players. While my memory of Shakespeare is nothing more than a hazy blur from my university days and that time I took on the role of Malvolio in Twelfth Night in sixth form (yellow tights and all), it’s that quote that stuck, festered, and implanted itself in my mind when I first laid eyes on Foul Play, a side-scrolling beat-’em-up from Mediatonic that sees you playing as the enigmatic Baron Dashforth and his partner Scampwick as he decides to put on a one-night show of his life’s exploits.

Set in the Victorian era, Baron Dashforth is a world-renowned Daemonologist, who, in the latter days of his career, has finally deigned to tell his life story in the form of a play. The world may be a stage, but in Foul Play, the stage is the entire game, and it allows for one of the most inventive and hilarious narrative conceits ever seen. While players control Dashforth and Scampwick as they pummel a series of foes, the audience is ever-present at the bottom of the screen – much like the battle scenes in the Gamecube classic Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door – and this is immediately where Foul Play sets itself apart from anything else in the genre and begins taking on a life of its own.

Instead of a health-bar, your progress and status are dictated by a hype-meter, which is in turn dictated by what the audience thinks of the show you’re putting on for them. Reward them with flashy combos and they’ll throw their hats in the air and get up from their seats, but if you can’t string any hits together and take too many punches from the extras then the only reason they’ll be getting out of their seats is to leave and post nasty reviews about you in the Victorian equivalent of Twitter (a newspaper?). Rather than the pressure coming from avoiding death, it now comes from the threat of putting on a lacklustre performance, and when you’re aiming for that coveted five-star review is when Foul Play truly comes into its own.

While Foul Play could easily have used the guise of a play and left it at that, the dramatic arts flow through its very veins, and one area where this is most evident is through the myriad of challenges that pop up during every act; during pivotal moments a member of the audience will pipe up and make a request of our heroes, and these often force the player to go against what makes more sense as a game and focus on what makes more sense as a performance.

When confronted with a foe several sizes taller than his counterparts, the normal instinct is to concentrate on him and only take on the smaller enemies when they threaten to get in your way, but in Foul Play a Tiny Tim-alike will climb up and ask our heroes to save the behemoth for last to allow for a climatic David versus Goliath battle. It’s perfectly possible to ignore his requests, but why would you do it when fulfilling his requests bumps your review up by one star? It’s a simple twist that helps set the action apart from anything else in the genre, and it also has the side-effect of keeping the gameplay varied while poking some extra laughs at the concept into the bargain.

In fact, Foul Play is the only time I’ve found myself belly-laughing at a side-scrolling beat-’em-up, well, ever. Simply put, the adventures of Dashforth and Scampwick are frequently hilarious, and again it comes down to the fact that you’re re-enacting their most dangerous tales, not actually taking part in them; characters will freeze up and forget their lines, stage-hands won’t get back-stage in time, and I’m pretty sure I saw a “dead” extra slowly crawl off behind a curtain at one point. Much like the cult hit ‘Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace’, a lot of the humour comes from everything not going quite as planned, and it’s something I found myself especially appreciating after my years of studying Drama and spending three years at University earning a degree in it (well, joint honours with English). All of the jokes are accessible to the audience, but anyone with a history in Theatre Arts will find themselves enjoying everything just that little bit more; if anything, Foul Play is one of the greatest (and funniest) love letters to the arts I’ve ever known.

It’s not just the narrative trappings that so appeal, but the core gameplay itself, which eases you in and will see you stringing together incredible combos by the time you’ve finished the first act (one of the creators of Hotline Miami strung together an incredible 150x combo in his first attempt). In the early acts, failure feels like something you have to consciously achieve, as the challenge comes not from whether you surpass the odds but how flashy you look doing it. Your performance in each act is graded by a five-star review, and the only way to achieve these is to complete the audience challenges, build up ridiculous combos, and keep the crowds hyped.

Building up the combos is fairly simple thanks to the accessible controls, but maintaining them is the tricky part, and so those looking to rack up the numbers will be grateful to see that Mediatonic have taken a cue from the Batman Arkham franchise and given attacking foes a visible cue to allow the player the opportunity to counter. Where Foul Play surpasses this is that, when countering, Dashforth and his partner Scampwick will launch themselves into the air and throw their opponent across the screen, taking out any extras that happen to be in the way, allowing for some effective crowd control on top of the fact that it looks bloody awesome every time you do it. Those playing co-operatively can expand on this move even further, as Dashforth and Scampwick can then counter the thrown enemy, meaning that players can juggle the hapless foe between themselves, making for an amazing manoeuvre that can clear the stage and leave the crowds salivating for more.

While there are some amazing moves to be performed with a co-op partner, the action is still ridiculously enjoyable when playing by yourself, with the action proving accommodating whether you’re teaming up or going solo. As the story is about the adventures of Baron Dashforth and his lower-class partner Scampwick, the issue of what happens to Scampwick when you’re playing single-player crops up, and the answer is to have him move into and out of the Baron to deliver their lines and continue the story. It may be an inelegant solution and one Mediatonic could have expanded on more comically (I’m imagining Scampwick sitting backstage and having to dash on when he hears his cue a second time), but it works well enough and helps the pace flow as players take a brief pause between battles to allow the dialogue to play out.

Although the story had yet to truly develop after the levels I’d tried, what writing I did see was brilliant, sharp, and kept spurring me to read out the lines in accents I thought befitting of the present characters. While that behaviour might get me punched during extended sessions, it speaks volumes to the quality of the characterisation that a player could attach themselves to the protagonists so easily, and with plenty of twists and turns ready to play out through the course of the story, it’ll be one that players might be on the edge of their seats for by the time the curtains close.

After being drawn in by its cartoony exterior and unique premise, I found myself leaving Mediatonic’s latest with a massive smile on my face and an urge to play it to death. With a learning curve that subtly eases players in and has them performing combos like nobody’s business, to a routinely gut-busting script that isn’t afraid to poke fun at its dramatic trappings, there’s a wonderfully unique and hilarious adventure awaiting anyone who encounters Foul Play, and I sincerely hope it has us crying out for an encore come curtain call.


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One Comment

  1. Chris Toffer says:

    When I saw this a few weeks back, I thought of Paper Mario straight away. Been keeping an eye on this and can’t wait to give it a go.

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