Foul Play – Review

Title   Foul Play
Developer  Mediatonic
Publisher  Mastertronic/Devolver Digital
Platform  PC, XBLA (reviewed)
Genre  Side-Scrolling Brawler/Score Attack
Release Date  September 18, 2013

London, 1911. You’re kicking back in your luxurious house, wondering what to do tonight. Beating an urchin has lost its flavour. Your butler is currently out getting more brandy for your alcoholic wife. You turn to the newspaper for entertainment. Then, an advertisement catches your eye. An exciting new play, one night only? The real-life tale of a demon hunter, as acted by himself and his assistant? How fascinating! You grab your coat and top hat and head down to the theatre, where a large crowd has already gathered. You bustle your way through, acting important, and quietly scoff at the price of admission before you enter and find your seat. The theatre fills up. The lights go down. The curtain rises. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls… welcome to Foul Play.

Following the life of famed daemonologist Baron Dashforth and his trusty, quick-witted sidekick Scampwick, Foul Play presents itself as a one-off performance in a crowded theatre, with the world condensed down into a complex collection of painted backdrops and the monsters replaced with blokes in costumes. Dashforth’s life is a fascinating one, taking him across the globe to fight numerous daemons, but there’s more going on backstage than he initially lets on. It’s a wonderfully intriguing tale, filled with questionable morals, which is surprising for a game that appears, on the outside, to be a simplistic, silly brawler.

The game is incredibly easy to pick up and play. You move around with the left stick, with quick attacks assigned to X and heavy attacks that launch enemies into the air performed by hitting Y. Lines flash up over an enemy’s head as they’re about to attack, and a quick press of B blocks the attack. That’s all you get at the start, where you’re asked to build up combos to keep your audience happy and earn yourself big points and Fame, which is used to level up. The audience here acts as your health bar; take too many hits, or stand around doing nothing for too long, and eventually you’ll be booed off stage. But by smacking enemies about, keeping your combo alive and performing “feats” – special moves such as throwing enemies into the scenery and hitting multiple foes with specific attacks – you’ll send your mood-o-meter through the roof, causing your score to sky-rocket and allowing you to take more hits before the crowd starts to get annoyed.

Keeping your combo high is initially a little tricky given your limited move set, but with a bit of effort you’ll start levelling up and unlocking new moves, the most useful of which relate to parrying. New skills allow you to carry your combo on after blocking, initially by throwing them into other enemies or bits of scenery, and later giving you the ability to piledrive them back into the ground for an area attack, or simply continue hitting them to drive your combo even higher. You’ll also unlock some harder-hitting moves that require charging, including one that leaves Dashforth’s cane spinning into the enemy for a short time, bumping that combo even higher. On top of that, you’ll unlock the Showstopper, a bar that fills up as you beat up bad guys and, when used, doubles the combo value of each hit. Using all of these skills effectively is the key to high scores, and once you get the hang of the controls and the patterns of the enemies, you’ll be racking up 100+ combos with ease.

It’s not all about keeping your combo up though, as each level comes with three challenges to complete which get progressively harder as you get further. These range from hitting a certain combo target during a certain section, completing scenes without dropping your combo at all, or performing a specific move several times. These can get pretty tricky as you move on, but completing every challenge in a level unlocks a Charm that beefs up your skills in some way, so you’ll want to make sure you complete them to make the game easier on you.

These Charms are also pretty varied in their boosts, making your character move faster, giving his attacks a wider radius, or increasing the combo value of parrying. You can equip two Charms at any one time, and finding out which suits your play-style best is the key to earning five stars on every level, as well as completing any other challenges that might be leaving you stumped. Some levels also include an encore performance, which pits you against the clock to take down as many enemies as possible who, thankfully, are dispatched with one punch. These sections are frantic and fun, and very useful if you haven’t quite hit the five star target, as a decent performance will give you some much-needed points to help tip you over the limit.

Enemies come in two sizes – small and big – with the major differences being that big ‘uns can’t have attacks chained on them after a parry, and take more hits to bring down. Thankfully, you can throw smaller enemies at bigger foes to stun them, allowing you to use your parry abilities on them, which makes fights against them slightly easier if you’ve got some smaller ones running around. There are some variations in the small enemies too: some can fly, while others are fast and good at dodging your attacks. And of course, there are plenty of boss battles to really test your mettle.

The bosses have their own individual movesets and can be a real hassle if you’re not watching out for their attacks, but they’re usually accompanied by plenty of basic enemies to keep your mood-o-meter alive after you take a few too many hits. The game is split into five plays, and the last act in each is reserved for a two-part battle against some seriously challenging bosses, made harder by the fact that there’s no checkpointing between parts, which can be slightly irritating if your attention slips and you suddenly find yourself being overpowered. Still, the challenge is a welcome one, and you’ll likely never find yourself too frustrated by these battles.

Foul Play is defined by Mediatonic as a side-scrolling brawler, and while it does have the usual trappings of the genre, with the fast-paced combat and focus on moving from left to right, it does deviate in some notable ways. The obvious one is the health bar; there are no pick-ups to improve your condition, as it’s tied to your score. Indeed, there are no pick-ups of any kind, and no new weapons to replace your trusty cane, so enemies never get any easier to beat. Instead, it’s just pure score attack – you can progress through the game easily enough, but to get the most out of it you’ll want to focus on getting five stars on every level, stringing together the highest combos possible and squeezing as many points out of an encounter as you can. It’s incredibly simple to get into but, if you’re going for the top score, it’s a fiendishly tricky game that challenges your awareness and reaction skills as much as your ability to mash X until everything dies.

The gameplay is fun and frantic enough to warrant your attention, but it’s the visuals and the design that is the true draw here. The developers have put a lot of thought into how best to use the setting of a play to create a unique and humorous environment for players to navigate through. Demonic enemies are just men in costumes, with my personal favourite being the werewolves, with the face of the extra wearing the costume visible through the mouth. The sets slide in and out as your progress, so while walking through the desert you’ll magically end up in a Pharaoh’s tomb, while the sun struggles to pick the right time of day, and the lighting adjusts as the stage-hands frantically match the backdrop.

It’s where the play falls apart that the design really shines. Working tirelessly through the entire play is a single stage-hand, who can be seen throughout the levels performing various tasks, and sometimes holding up proceedings as he finishes putting the set together, or has a bite from his sandwich. The actors are fallible too; a grunt has to be fed his only line, one of the werewolves takes his head off and chats with the stage-hand, and there’s a child actor who is so delightfully useless you can’t help but smile as he fumbles through each line. And of course, once defeated, the actors have to find a way off stage, either by crawling away when they think no-one’s looking or being dragged off by a cane from the side of the stage. The attention to detail here is wonderful, and it’s clear that there’s been a lot of time spent on making the game as much like a play as possible.

The enemy design is also wonderful, with the aforementioned costumed men replacing real demons coming in many different looks, with pirates and Arabian bandits being replaced by robots and tentacle daemon-possessed sailors as the game progresses. But the main attraction is the bosses, who are as big and deadly as they are beautifully-drawn and realised. For the most part they’re pretty standard fare – an enemy general, a leader of a cult. As the game goes on, however, things get weirder; the final-act boss encounters are home to some disturbing daemons that literally burst out of the bodies of their hosts, in a surprisingly grim turn for the otherwise quite cutesy game. It’s great to see these changes however, and perfectly suits the world of daemonology that is mostly only hinted at in Dashforth’s dialogue.

Dashforth and Scampwick are, fittingly, the real stars of the show here. Dashforth looks damn fine in his top hat and monocle, with an exceptional moustache to boot, but he’s more than just a dandy fellow. Progressing through the game unlocks pages from his diary, explaining how he came to meet Scampwick and providing tons of back-story that you wouldn’t expect from this game, and helps make Dashforth probably the most complex character ever to be found in a brawler. Scampwick, on the other hand, is fantastic because of his dry, British humour that takes apart religion and Coventry in equal measures. Some of his lines had me nearly crying with laughter, and perfectly supplemented Dashforth’s witty observations. The pair are a fantastic and interesting duo, and make the game a real pleasure to play.

The soundtrack is the only real downside of the whole experience. While appropriately tense and exciting at all times, there’s nothing really memorable here and, in fact, the theme tune can become a little annoying. This is very noticeable when reading the diary extracts, as the tune is really quite short and simply loops infinitely, so while it isn’t exactly a bad song, by the time you hit ten loops you’ll be reaching for the mute button. That said, the sound effects are wonderful, with plenty of satisfying smacks as you thrash enemies around, and the appropriate moans and groans as they fall to the floor. There’s no spoken dialogue, but the short mumbles that accompany the text help further develop the characters, and perfectly match the voices you’d imagine they’d have if they were speaking.

It’s an exceptionally fun and beautiful game, but it’s not without its problems. Enemies frequently get stuck behind scenery, which can screw up your combo if you don’t account for the fact that they’re too stupid to run around. Some scenery is in the foreground, and fades when your character is behind it, but it doesn’t fade for enemies, so you can’t see their attack warning if they’re obscured by the a pillar or similar object. One time I knocked an enemy off the map, leaving me unable to continue because they hadn’t died, and my only choice was to wait for the crowd to boo me off or restart the level.

The biggest problem, however, shouldn’t actually be a problem, but it mostly certainly is – the game launches a day after Grand Theft Auto V. Whoever decided on that needs to be shot, quite frankly. Foul Play is one of those titles that is unlikely to draw in a huge crowd, and to launch it in the shadow of a behemoth such as GTA is foolish, and will result in the game being largely ignored in those crucial first few weeks. And that’s a real shame, because so many people will be missing out on one of the best brawlers I’ve ever played. Its beautiful graphics and clever design go hand-in-hand with the frantic gameplay and good level of challenge.

The dialogue is fantastic, the world it inhabits is lovely, and there’s so much love and care put in to making this game exactly the way it should be that you can’t help but want it to succeed. A few minor problems prevent this from getting full marks, but it’s a truly outstanding game that deserves all the success in the world.

  • Clever design makes the most of the setting
  • Fun, fast-paced, and challenging gameplay
  • Beautiful 2D visuals
  • Genuinely very, very funny
  • Plenty of variety and things to unlock to keep you interested
  • Largely forgettable, sometimes annoying soundtrack
  • A couple of AI problems that can wreck your flow

When the curtain comes down and the actors take their bow, you'll be left awestruck by what you've witnessed. The frenetic score-attack pace and mindset leads to epic brawls across multiple continents, beautifully recreated as sets on a stage. The variety and detail on show is wonderful, and there's a charming British humour permeating through the entire game that will keep a smile on your face throughout. Even with a few small problems holding it back from perfection, Foul Play is one of those games you absolutely must try for yourself; no words or pictures can truly capture the fun and hilarity to be had when playing. Forget GTA, this is the game that should get your attention.

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  1. Ian Ian says:

    Looks like this has just been added to my ‘must buy’ list. Great review Ric!

  2. Edward Edward says:

    Ric, you did an amazing job with this one :)

    Already played and completed it, and it’s basically the XBLA/Indie game of the year for me.

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