What lovable tomfoolery!
Foul Play has that rare quality of being able to take clear inspirations from other games, have them all make sense together, and then have the player understand them all within a mere ten minutes of play. That's what I experienced several weeks ago at PAX Prime and the feeling hasn't subsided since then; in fact, the last few days have only served as a bold reminder. Where it lacks in complexity, it compensates with humorous charm, approachable gameplay, and a knack for panache. Despite its name, there's little foul at play here.
The hodgepodge of influences are noticeable immediately, with characters that look like they came from the storybook of Cloudberry Kingdom, a font and menu interface that seem straight out of Skullgirls, and a theatre spectators that might remind you of Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door. Then if that wasn't enough, smash them all into the familiar hack-'n'-slash of Castle Crashers, adorn them with the five-star ratings from Rock Band, and brew them in a cup of the most British of Earl Grey teas. It's a complicated mixture that might not seem to blend well together, but it's somehow delectable.
The plot revolves around one famous daemonologist, a thickly mustachioed Baron Dashforth replete with top hat, waistcoat, cane, and monocle, who recounts his triumphant tales against the foul demons of the world to a critical audience of a one-night-only showing in a British theatre. Why he chooses the stage to retell his adventures will be answered in due time and quickly so through the game's five plays, the first four of which are broken into five acts that last on average about 15-15 minutes each. Adding to the theatrical aesthetic, stagehands will carry away set pieces, orphan children in the audience will plead challenges, and actors will even forget their lines. Along with his trusty sidekick Scampwick Steerpike, who wears a driver's cap, wields a modified chimney sweeper, and runs like a ninja (cosplay idea, Nick?), Dashforth must be true to his name and dash forth into battle against an onslaught of devilish creatures played in costume by poorly paid extras.
As it is with the theatre, the object of Foul Play is to entertain the audience with Dashforth and Scampwick's heroics. There is no life bar or time limit (usually) to concern yourself with, but if either hero receives too many hits, the crowd's mood will drop and they will start booing your performance until the curtain closes in embarrassment. On the flipside, if you can manage a long combo string of flurries, aerial juggles, and parries, their mood will rise and grant you with high bonus multipliers for your score that are required to reach the coveted five-star rating for each act. Doing so will even allow you an encore performance for bonus points. In another shade of Rock Band, activating the Showstopper, which unlocks after receiving enough experience through fame, grants a temporary x2 bonus to combo hits. And if you and a co-op partner manage to activate Showstopper at the same time, the bonus becomes x4. Now that's star power.
Combat is fairly simple, grounded in a straightforward attack string, launcher attack, and parries that are signaled by lightning bolts above an enemy's head not unlike that from the Batman: Arkham series. Levelling up grants more techniques like a counter flurry, a grab throw, and a flip attack that helps keep the combo string alive. It's not difficult getting a high score just by using counter flurries repeatedly, unless you're facing a group of heavy men with high HP who aren't stunned easily and tend to surround you, sometimes making it hard to discern where you are and which attacks to parry sequentially.
There's also the problem of enemies being juggled close to the wall with just their feet dangling, obscuring where they are and making it difficult to maintain combos. This becomes more complicated during multiplayer, offline or online, where enemies are split between two players so you'll frequently have no one to continue the string. That said, it's nigh-impossible to get through the timed challenges without having another player at your side, and completing all three challenges in a single act grants you a charm that will give you a small perk. Collecting them is optional but adds a strong replay value for completionists.
Though Foul Play can become repetitive and the story would have been bettered by voice-acting, its stylized gameplay is entertaining, memorable, and conceptually well-designed for a 1200 MSP title. Its ability to juggle all of its concepts into a cohesive beat-'em-up that lasts at least full weekend is to the credit of the indie developer Mediatonic. I take my hat off, good sir.